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Kindergarten students Ivan Wong, Ali Hooda close their eyes during a mindful breathing exercise at Renfrew Elementary in Vancouver, BC.

Laura Leyshon for the Globe and Mail/laura leyshon The Globe and Mail

The kindergarten students at Renfrew Elementary School in Vancouver often begin the school day with a few minutes of mindful breathing. The exercise, meant to teach them how to calm themselves in moments of stress, is followed up with specific education about their brains, such as the role the amygdala plays in anxiety.

"We use the scientific words," principal Andy Powell-Williams says. "They draw their brains. They are learning that they can be in control."

As the students progress through the grades, they receive age-specific lessons about optimism and empathy, and how to listen to their own emotions. They might participate in a composting program guided by a team of local high-school students, or work as mediators on the playground.

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It's all part of MindUP, one of the social-emotional learning programs becoming increasingly common in schools across British Columbia as studies show that they improve academics and the school experience in general.

"As a country, we have to do a better job of saying this is integral to a child's learning," says Lynn Miller, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia who studies school-based interventions. "You have to teach these skills, otherwise it's useless to teach them all the other stuff."

While test scores may evaluate reading comprehension and mastery of long division, research has demonstrated a strong link between academic performance and emotional development. That's a big reason why report cards now assess learning skills, such as collaboration and initiative, and why many schools are teaching character alongside spelling and arithmetic.

Programs are optional in most school districts and depend on teachers to champion them, but as the research builds about mental-health issues in childhood and the importance of early intervention for depression and anxiety, experts say emotional and social development belongs in the curriculum. After all, if we're going to assess kids on their self-motivation and co-operation, shouldn't we also teach them how to build those skills?

Teaching little kids deep breathing may sound New Agey, but most of the programs are science-based, meaning that they learn specifically how their brain functions. Often, the lessons are incorporated into the curriculum: On nature hikes, for instance, children are instructed to pay close attention to the sounds, smells and sights in their environment, and once they return to school they discuss what they saw in science class, or write a poem in English class.

Another program called FRIENDS (an acronym for "feeling worried, relax, inner thought, explore ways to help, nice job, reward yourself, don't forget to practise, stay calm") brings students together to create solutions for their fears, brainstorming how to confront stage fright or being scared of the dark. They learn how to use positive self-talk, saying, "I can do well on this test," instead of worrying about failing.

In Roots of Empathy - an early Canadian program that has gone international - a key aspect involves bringing babies into classrooms.

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Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, a psychologist at UBC who studies the efficacy of empathy-based programs, says: "If you ask parents what they want for their kids, I don't hear, 'Good grades in math.' They want their kids to be happy, to develop their talents, to have good relationships."

A 2008 U.S. analysis of roughly 300 studies involving more than 300,000 students in elementary and middle school found that students who received social and emotional courses scored 11 to 17 percentage points higher on achievement tests than peers who didn't. The study found that behavioural issues decreased, attendance went up and students enjoyed school more.

A new study conducted by the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board in Southern Ontario found that Grade 7 students who participated in a 20-week depression-prevention course showed significant improvement on the learning-skills portion of their report cards, according to Michelle Bates, a social worker with the board who worked on the report.

Schools can be an ideal place to teach positive mental-health strategies since programs can be delivered cheaply to a large group, children benefit from peer discussions and support, and teachers can identify troubled students who require more help.

But Dr. Miller points to a troubling gap: No teacher education programs in North America require a course in social-emotional development (one of the few optional courses is offered at UBC only to graduate students in the education faculty), even though studies have found that new teachers identify it as a key area where they wanted more instruction.

The best programs are long-term and integrated into the larger school environment. "We're not talking about an inoculation," says Maurice Elias, a psychology professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "We're talking about something that has to be continuous, like reading and math."

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But Dr. Elias also points out that more research is needed to determine which programs work better for certain ages; he is currently looking at how the different learning skills evaluated on report cards, such as collaboration, independent work and initiative, affect academic performance at certain ages. He hopes to learn the ideal age to concentrate on each skill.

Principal Powell-Williams says that on the playground every day she sees the impact of the programs at Renfrew Elementary School that teach her students to be mindful of their environments and even see the other side of an argument.

For example, she has watched young students, fighting over a soccer ball, walk away from the fight to calm themselves down, and then try to resolve their feelings. "They develop a great sense of themselves, and self-esteem and confidence," she says. "It's amazing the kind of culture it can create."

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