'Mindfulness' part of the curriculum at Grandview Heights school

Along with reading, writing and math, students at Grandview Heights are the first in Alberta to get a lesson how to quiet their minds and manage their emotions.
Grade 8 student Armaan Somani says the technique helps him focus and reduce stress during final exams. (Judy Aldous)

Armaan Somani wiggles forward in his chair, places both feet on the ground and closes his eyes. The other Grade 8 kids around him do the same.

 "When your mind wanders, bring it back, " Doug Allen, Somani's school principal, tells the class of silent 13-year-olds as he chimes a Tibetan singing bowl. "Keeping bringing it back, but gently. It's not a bad thing that it wanders. That's what minds do."

This is the class's "mindful minute." It's a ritual that 320 students at the southwest Edmonton school practice every day. Grandview Heights is the first K-9 school in the province to incorporate mindfulness into its curriculum.

Mindfulness is a technique to quiet the mind, focus attention and manage emotions. The idea is simple: don't think meditation in the lotus position for an hour. Students are told to think of simple exercises like sitting still, focusing on their breath, or counting the sounds in the room.

Allen is the person responsible for this quiet revolution. 

"It improves their capacity to focus, reduces anxiety, makes them more empathetic, improves relationships. All of this has been studied and found to be true. I think in the long run it will also make them happier," he said.

Somani, a Grade 8 honours student, says the mindful minute works for him.

"For example for my final exams, it was obviously very stressful. So I used mindfulness to calm me down. And really pay attention to the question at hand and not think 'what am I going to get on this exam, or what is going to happen?'"

"So I thought that really helped me calm down and do better on my exam."

Allen started to sow the seeds for a school-wide mindfulness program three years ago. He aligned himself with a California-based organization called Mindful Schools, which offers online and in-person training for teachers. Allen and three other teachers went to California for the training, while the school's remaining teachers studied online.

This fall, Allen's mindfulness program began.

It starts with the morning messages, which might involve a Sesame Street video about the importance of self-control. Throughout the day, teachers can lead 'mindful minutes', often at the request of the children who are feeling overwhelmed by the pressure and noise of going to school. Children learn to do quick body scans, as a way to relax.

Principal Doug Allen says he was hesitant to introduce the program, but that the majority of parents have bought into the idea (Judy Aldous)

"Before I thought 'why on earth would focusing on my breath help me?'" said Grade 7 student Dania Al-Rimawi. After six weeks of daily mindfulness, she's a convert.

"I have a sibling at home as well, so sometimes I can get frustrated with him and I have to use mindfulness to acknowledge my temper and separate from everyone and calm down. And at school when I get a panic attack during a test, I take a few seconds and do some deep breathing and calm myself down."

Allen was at first hesitant to introduce the program because many people might think it's not a good use of school time. He says there are many misconceptions about the concept. 

"A lot of people think it's religious. It's not. They think it's flaky and hippy. It's not. It's modern psychology. It's mainstream now," he said. 

"It's being used by parliamentarians in London, by Google Corporation, it's being used by the military. It's used in health care, it's used in psychology. But people still have this funny idea about what mindfulness is."

Allen notes that although his is the first Alberta program, it's used elsewhere in the country. The Vancouver School District offers mindfulness training to all its teachers. 

Parents have so far been supportive. But they note that not all children respond to the practice.

Julia-Lin Ding has two children at Grandview Heights: Grade 3 student Olivia and another daughter in Grade 5. Olivia's sister never mentioned the new school focus, but the younger girl uses the techniques to go to sleep at night.

"I think some kids gravitate to it more. Maybe the timing is just right. I'm not sure why Olivia has grabbed onto it, but I have seen a really big difference in Olivia," Ding said. 

Principal Allen admits it's not for everyone.

"I'm not going to say 100 per cent are on board. One hundred per cent are respectful enough they let it happen. I think I can 90 to 95 per cent are on board with this, which is beyond my expectations."

Allen says within a few weeks he hopes a few inspired students will start leading the morning mindfulness practice. And ultimately, he hopes to see Alberta Education incorporate this into its province-wide curriculum.