The Quiet Revolution

Mindfulness training in schools

By Judy Aldous

Mindfulness training, the practice of being present in this moment without judging how you feel, is a new revolution in education. It’s already mainstream in schools in Vancouver, San Francisco and London, but in Alberta it’s making its way into individual classrooms in a distinctly Albertan way. There’s no edict from school boards to incorporate it into curriculum, no encouragement from government. Instead, teachers in various parts of the province are bringing their passion for quiet into classrooms one by one.

Munira Wazir was on a two-week contract as an educational assistant when she first met 8-year-old G (who for privacy reasons cannot be named). They were in the library at Balwin School in Edmonton, in a glassed-in area where G could be monitored. He was known to jab other children with pencils, hit teachers with the stapler and throw chairs when angry. He was angry a lot. The school in northwest Edmonton was not taking chances with safety.

Wazir had no particular experience with high-risk children but she did know the power that mindfulness had in her life. She wove moments of quiet into every day.

“Whenever he got antsy and wanting to hurt someone, we would play statue. He would close his eyes. I would do the same. It was a contest and I always let him win. We would do that once, twice in a day. I did a lot of breathing exercises.” She never called it mindfulness. She knew intuitively that what the troubled boy needed was a way to quiet the rage he felt.

One morning, G confided to her that when his father had taken him back to Somalia for a family visit, he had witnessed a man being strapped to a chair and shot. He said he wanted to kill the shooter.

Wazir’s two-week contract was extended.

Three months after the first game of statue, G was slowly reintegrated into the classroom. Wazir stayed by his side at first. Whenever he felt the rage grow inside him, they would play statue. Wazir recalls, “He would say, ‘Let’s do the statue game, I think I’m going to hurt someone.’”

Other teachers marvelled at the change and asked for Wazir’s help. She went to several classrooms to play the “statue game,” careful to never call it mindfulness or meditation, for fear of intimidating children or upsetting parents. G tagged along like a shadow, showing other children how it was done. The teachers said that after Wazir had spent time in the classroom, the children would be calmer and they would finally be able to get some work done.

Wazir’s contract was extended another six months. That was five years ago. Now, every morning at Balwin School, all 330 children and 20 staff file into the gymnasium to start their day with a few minutes of quiet, led by Wazir. The assistant principal, Andy Connelly, says it has transformed his school. “Our suspensions are down 90 per cent. It’s not just the kids (who are) changing—the staff are too.” Connelly says the teachers are kinder and more patient with students now that they have incorporated mindfulness into their lives.

Psychiatrist Allan Donsky is another believer in the power of mindfulness. It means that he spends more time now sitting with children rather than medicating them. Like many South African ex-pat doctors, Donsky started in Canada with a family practice in rural western Canada. He moved to Calgary to study pediatrics, and that led him to psychiatry. He spent 17 years working as a child and adolescent psychiatrist.

Eight years ago he went to a meditation retreat led by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a guru in the field of “mindfulness-based stress reduction” (MBSR). Donsky says it gave him a “new lens” through which to see stress.

Three years ago, Donsky opted out of his psychiatry practice to work directly with students in so-called “mental health classes.” These are specialized classrooms set up at various schools around the province to help children with severe emotional and behavioural disabilities. When he is brought in by parents and teachers to help troubled children, mindfulness is one of his tools.

Donsky recalls a Grade 12 student he recently worked with: “(He) paces a lot and has a diagnosis of ADD. He walks around reading a book, multi-tasking and doing nothing properly. I had him sit in a chair and I guided him for five minutes—feet on floor, quick body scan, focus on breathing. Notice where your mind is. Notice the noise in the hallway. When his mind goes off, I tell him to bring it back. After five minutes these words always come up. ‘My limbs feel good, my thoughts are softer and less racy, calm.’”

If that seems too simple to be powerful, Donsky can also describe the opposite path: the spiral from anger to panic attack to suicidal funk.

The idea is to have students pay attention to the now. This awareness can lead them to understand they have a choice about their actions, that reacting is not their only option. Ultimately it leads to better outcomes.

Think of student G playing statue. One or two breaths in and out and he is no longer on autopilot where the rage takes over. He makes a choice to put down the scissors and his whole life changes.

Evidence for the effectiveness of mindfulness in schools is provided by several studies. The most comprehensive research to date was done in 2011–12 at the University of California, Davis with the organization Mindful Schools. Almost 1,000 children and 47 teachers were involved in a randomized-controlled study at three Oakland elementary schools. The research showed that with just four hours of mindfulness teaching, the children were better able to pay attention, participated more and showed more care for others on the playground.

A 2008 study conducted by University of British Columbia researcher Kimberly Schonert-Reichl found that Coquitlam children in Grades 4 and 5 became less stressed, more optimistic and better at math when learning from a mindfulness-based curriculum.

There has been no Alberta-based research on mindfulness in education but pediatrician Sunita Vohra from the University of Alberta is attempting to change that. Vohra is an expert in the field of integrating alternative therapies into care for children. She is gathering data from Edmonton schools that use mindfulness in their classrooms to see how it affects students’ social and emotional well-being.

Doug Allen: "Kids are bombarded with stimulus. Any break benefits them."

Doug Allen: “Kids are bombarded with stimulus. Any break benefits them.” (Judy Aldous)

What the studies have also shown is that all kinds of students can benefit from the practice of mindfulness, not just ones with emotional problems. In fact, sometimes it’s the kids with the best marks who need the most help finding inner peace.

Armaan Somani, who is starting Grade 9 this fall in an academically enriched program at Grandview Heights School in Edmonton, is one such successful student. The problem was that his high grades came at a cost. Exam times stressed him out. Last year he was taught about mindfulness and it helped.

“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? What are my parents going to think?’”

Doug Allen, the principal at Grandview Heights, explains the benefits of mindfulness to students this way: “These might be the only quiet moments these children have all day. They are bombarded with stimulus. (They) don’t have any still time. After school they are on their computers or cell phones. Any break from that will benefit them.”

After years of feeling the positive impact of meditation in his own life, Allen decided to share the peace with the teachers and students of his southwest Edmonton K–9 school. Starting last fall, Grandview Heights became the first school in Alberta to incorporate mindfulness into its curriculum.

Allen began sowing the seeds for the program four years ago. He aligned himself with California’s Mindful Schools, which offers online and in-person training for teachers. Allen and three other teachers went to the US for the training, while the remaining teachers in his school studied online.

The mindfulness they practise is quite simple. The morning begins with a message that is tailored to different age groups. Younger children might watch a short Sesame Street video about the importance of self-control. (The folks at Sesame Street long ago joined the mindfulness choir.) Older children might be guided through three minutes of mindful breathing, during which a young voice reminds them, “It’s okay if your mind wanders and fills with thoughts. Just return to your breathing.”

With just four hours of mindfulness teaching, children were better able to pay attention.

Throughout the day, teachers lead “mindful minutes,” often at the request of 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. They even practise mindful eating, which involves putting one raisin in your mouth and describing its taste before swallowing.

It seems to be working. “Before, I thought, why on earth would focusing on my breath help me?” says Grade 8 student Dania Al-Rimawi. After a year 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.”

The experiment at Grandview Heights has been so successful that Doug Allen has a steady stream of interest from teachers and university researchers during the school year. Many educators are intensely searching for a solution to the problem of anxious, distracted children. Allen’s concern is that, in their desire to find a solution, they will forget the basic tenet of mindfulness in education: you have to practise it to preach it.

“Teachers need to establish their own practice…. Mindfulness is learned experientially and therefore must be taught experientially…and this cannot be done by someone without a solid grounding and personal experience with mindfulness practice.”

In other words, a few YouTube videos and a Tibetan singing bowl bought online won’t do. Allan Donsky agrees with this. “You need to live it to embody it. You need to teach from the inside out.” He adds, “Unless you are living it, it comes across as flaky.”

Mindfulness has been so successful in so many schools, one wonders why it is not endorsed by entire school systems or adopted by provincial education authorities. The fact is, there is resistance, often pushback, from parents.

For example, at Balwin, G’s mother told Munira Wazir that she at first objected to the use of mindfulness with her son because she thought it ran counter to her Islamic faith. She relented when she saw the change in G. Other children are not allowed to meditate, though they do sit quietly in the gym during the morning session.

At Grandview Heights, principal Doug Allen says that even if some children aren’t interested in the mindfulness practice, they are respectful of it. “One hundred per cent are respectful enough they let it happen. I think I can say 90 to 95 per cent are on board with this, which is beyond my expectations.”

For the time being, mindfulness remains a movement led from the grassroots. In Allen’s opinion, that is the way it should be. He believes it’s more important to get it right than to rush to incorporate it into curriculum. “I don’t want us looking back at this as a fad that faded away because there were no clear benefits. My hope is that teaching mindfulness will become as natural and commonplace as teaching about nutrition, physical education and social studies.”

Allan Donsky’s dream is even grander. “The ideal scenario for me is to have a human curriculum. We’ve got a curriculum for everything else: math and writing and reading. How about a human curriculum: what it means to be human—to engage your heart and mind and spirit. That’s my big vision. How to navigate the emotional world.”

Judy Aldous is a Calgary freelance writer and sometime CBC producer.



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