With Bongo the stuffed monkey in hand, Trina Markusson told a group of students, “We’re going to sit and take a break.”
It was welcome news for at least one child, a “yesss” escaping his lips. But as the Grades 3 and 4 children got comfortable on blue mats in the Ecole Centennial School gym on Monday, they all seemed to benefit.
Being still for a couple of minutes — “not soldier-still, but relaxed-still” — they took in a soundtrack of peaceful music and ocean waves.
“I was like being on an ocean or something,” said one girl.
It was relaxing to let go of her stress, another girl said.
“See what just stopping and taking a break can do for us?” Markusson asked them.
Markusson, a Grade 2 teacher at Balgonie Elementary School, has been practising mindfulness for 16 years.
Mindfulness, she explained to the children, means thinking about what you’re doing right now, being in the moment. It’s a program for focus.
So, whether brushing your teeth or riding your bicycle, you’re being present and not worrying about anything else.
An unhappy mind translates to an unhappy body, said Markusson. “Our body reacts to every single thought we think.”
Stress can cause a heart to race, a stomach to ache, muscles to stiffen, faces to frown and eyebrows to furrow.
Markusson’s foray into mindfulness began as a way of coping with her own stress and anxiety. Then 11 years ago, she started teaching it, too.
In 2016, she published a children’s book on the subject, Good Morning, Sunshine!, which features her now-11-year-old son Zachary.
It was his idea to “tell the kids” about the tools for improved mental health.
One of those tools is gratitude, Markusson’s favourite, she tells the kids, because “you can’t be angry and grateful at the same time.”
“Gratitude is a very powerful tool, and it’s easy to be grateful,” said Markusson.
“We can be grateful for this breath that we take in right now; we can be grateful for the fact that I have food in my fridge. … Slowing down our heart rate, that can happen in just a couple of minutes of being grateful.”
Another tip is to settle the mind, which Markusson does with the help of a “mindfulness jar” — a big water-filled jar, which, when shaken, fills with golden glitter.
It looks pretty, but every flake of glitter represents past negative thoughts and future worries.
Markusson’s visit to the school, where she did mindfulness sessions with every grade on Monday, was thanks to the Centennial school community council (SCC).
“I just keep finding that there’s a lot of kids with anxiety,” said SCC chair Carmen Hove, who also works with children as a speech and language pathologist.
“As the SCC, we’re trying to support students not just with academics and playground structures to meet their physical needs, but also technology and the mental health aspects.”
The goal is to support “the whole child” and help families.
“We’re all parents and all facing similar issues with our kids,” said Hove.
Markusson was scheduled to spend Monday evening with parents and caregivers, in a 1.5-hour session beginning at 6:30 p.m.
As a parent and teacher, Markusson says she has better days if she spends 10 or 15 minutes in the morning on mindfulness.
She uses the airplane analogy of securing your own oxygen mask before helping someone else with theirs.
Markusson teaches elementary students, high school students and adults. For more information, visit her website at presentmomentliving.ca.