The latest class on the Indian curriculum: Happiness
"Happiness," spell the large letters on the chalkboard in a classroom in the Government Boys' Senior Secondary School in the southwest of India's capital, Delhi.
Fifty-five seventh-grade students attend the new class, which is meant to enhance their mental and emotional well-being.
Breaking away from more traditional math, science and language classes, the new happiness curriculum aims to impart emotional intelligence through meditation, storytelling and activities in which the focus is on students' emotional and mental needs. These skills are intended to reduce stress and anxiety and manage any depression.
Their teacher guides them as they close their eyes and listen carefully to sounds around them. They are asked to note the sounds they can hear and then to isolate one. Eventually, they pay attention to the sound of their own breathing.
Suraj Sharma, 12, is in seventh grade of the boys' school in Ghittorni, one of the over 1,000 schools in Delhi that began teaching this daily 30- to 45-minute lesson on Monday.
Suraj's first impression is promising. "If I do everything with mindfulness, my knowledge will increase," he learned on day one, he said. Mindfulness includes meditation and breathing exercises that help relax the mind. Being mindful -- or conscious and aware -- he feels, will allow him to pay closer attention to things he's learning at school.
The program groups children into three age categories: kindergarten to grade two, grades three to five, and six to eight, according to Rajesh Kumar, head of the state committee formed to design the curriculum.
To avoid further burdening students, the class carries no grade and will have no textbooks, tests or homework.
A course in happiness
The class has long appealed to state education officials, Kumar said. Delhi's education minister, Manish Sisodia, had envisioned this project and announced the launch of the program in February.
Sisodia highlighted the concerns facing schoolchildren in the city this month. "It will address the ever-growing concern - levels of happiness & wellbeing are decreasing, while stress, anxiety & depression are increasing," he tweeted.
According to the World Health Organization, one in four Indian children age 13 to 15 struggles with depression.
Happy kids are more able to learn, as they tend to sleep better and may have healthier immune systems, Sisodia said in a tweet July 1. Happy kids learn faster, think more creatively and tend to be more resilient in the face of failures, with stronger relationships.
Training others to be happy
Training sessions were held with an estimated 21,000 teachers, school principals and administrators at a large stadium in Delhi last week, with course leaders and instructors taking turns explaining what "happiness" is and is not, and how it can be imparted to students.
Children learn from their teacher's behavior and outlook, especially in a course like this, Kumar said.
"You must enter with a smile. How can a teacher who knows no Hindi teach Hindi?" he asked, illustrating that it takes happiness to spread happiness.
Teachers were taken through the curriculum's many components, such as mindfulness, value-based activities and self-expression.
Mindfulness will enable children to spend time in the moment, making them less 1distracted. Stories and activities are supposed to help in developing values, making them more centered, and self-expression will help self-esteem and confidence, giving students a voice.
Monica Kashiwal, who teaches fourth grade at a school for girls in south Delhi, said that she has tried to teach mental well-being in her class but that a lack of curriculum made the process difficult.
"We can benefit from this institutional framework," she said.
Another primary-school teacher, Apra, who goes by her first name, feels that the program will benefit students, especially those from economically weaker families that may face additional troubles at home. "The class will give them some time to be happy," she said.
According to Puroitree Majumdar, a clinical psychologist at Children First, a Delhi-based provider of mental health services, children face a lot of stress in terms of academics. Now, "we are looking at a value-based education, where the focus is on values in general, focusing more on the process of things rather than the end result," she said.
According to WHO, 11% of India's adolescents (13-15 years) are distracted and have a hard time staying focused on their homework and usual work most of the time. Moreover, estimated suicide rates amongst 15--29 year olds in 2012 stood at 35.5 per 100,000 --- a measure of suicidal behavior in the past 12 months. This was the highest rate in the WHO South East-Asia region, above neighboring Nepal at 25.8 and Bangladesh at 8.1 per 100,000.
In doing something like the new class, Majumdar feels, teachers will start looking at different areas of a child's development, not just academic success.
Taking it to the classroom -- and life
The challenge for the teachers will now be translating what they have learned for their students.
The Delhi state government has established a happiness committee, with 200 mentors to keep an eye on day-to-day functioning of the courses in the schools.
"They will guide and facilitate, making sure that teachers are sensitive toward students," Kumar said.
The Government Boys' Senior Secondary School students are already feeling the impact. After mindfulness on Monday, they were told stories with discussions on Tuesday and Wednesday and will participate in activities on Thursday and Friday. Saturday is a day of self-expression, when they will speak their mind.
One student, Piyush Sharma, hopes the classes will benefit him. "If the mind stays cool, we can concentrate on our studies," he said.
Majumdar said that depression and other mental illnesses among children are on the rise. "Something like this is going to help alleviate children's mental health concerns in general."
Underprivileged children are most vulnerable, she said, since they face additional troubles. "Someone talking about their emotional needs will be a healthy change," Majumdar added.