Mindfulness Can Empower Kids and Teens

Adam Avin on how he learned mindfulness as a child, his work to share it with other young people, and why he believes teaching mindfulness in schools will create a more peaceful world.

Photo by Gorodenkoff / Adobe Stock

Adam Avin, now 16, became passionate about teaching mindfulness and social-emotional learning skills when he was just nine years old. The Florida resident created a cartoon dog as a mascot, inventing songs, games, and other fun ways to teach these capabilities to more kids—and that was only the beginning. In this TED talk from 2019, Avin shares his work on getting mindfulness into schools, and his guiding principle that learning mindfulness can empower children and teenagers to own their power and make a big difference in the world.

Watch the video:

Abbreviated transcript:

Think Well to Be Well

When I was young, we would visit my great-grandparents once a week. I’d usually sit on the living room floor with toys, but sometimes I would just sit and talk with my great-grandpa Jack.

My great-grandpa was a very mindful person, a yogi at heart, even though he didn’t do any yoga. He taught me all of his positive mantras, like “Think well to be well.” He explained the mind can be a healer or a killer, that the mind can control the body. As a reminder to be kind to others, he’d say “Smile, and the world will smile with you,” and that kindness would come back to you.

He also talked a lot about gratitude and would encourage me to smile and say, “Thank you, Grandpa.” He believed that a positive attitude was one of the most important things in life. Once he wanted to help a woman find her lost car in a mall parking lot. She was super upset and crying, and had been walking in circles for an hour in the sun. He just wanted to cheer her up. So he said something funny, and they started laughing and then they couldn’t stop. Everyone around them started laughing too, but no one knew why. 

Grandpa knew what scientists have since proven: that smiles are catchy and healing, even if we don’t feel like it. If we smile, our bodies get the signal from our brains and it becomes true. If we have compassion for ourselves, we have compassion for others. It’s like a chain reaction. A smile is a road to peace, and something that can change the world. My great-grandpa passed away years ago, but his lesson stuck with me.

I honor him by teaching his mindset to other kids. I believe that the key to ending violence is teaching kids when they’re young to be mindful and deal with emotions and stress. By teaching coping tools to kids today, we may prevent another suicide or a school shooting in the future. That’s why I created the Wuf Shanti Children’s Wellness Foundation.

A Pup with a Purpose 

Wuf Shanti is a dog character that teaches mindfulness and social-emotional learning through fun and games, and promotes health, wellness, peace, and positivity. In fact, shanti means peace. We teach kids ages 3 to 10 years old relaxation and happiness techniques, including breathing exercises, mindful movements, positive thinking, and how to interact with others.

All of this is supported by science, which shows that mindfulness, social-emotional learning, yoga, and meditation can help reduce illness, increase focus, help kids do better both academically and athletically. And when you practice these things on a daily basis, they really do help with your mental and your physical health.

When I interviewed pediatrician Dr. Zhung Vo, he told me there’s a lot of science behind mindfulness. We can see how it affects our body, our physiology, our blood pressure, the way our brain functions. We can see how it affects our own breathing or muscle tension or heart rate. This sounds a lot like grandpa’s “think well to be well” mantra that became Wuf Shanti’s main message as well.

Teaching Mindfulness to Children

As Wuf Shanti, I traveled to schools and children’s hospitals to share our curriculum with kids. These hospital visits may have been the most emotional part for me. When Wuf would walk into the hospitals and see the kids with cancer, many of them were brought from treatment or hooked up to tubes. They’d all forget that for a few minutes, and would run up to us to hug them or dance or give a high five. 

But the parents’ reactions were different. They would cry with the joy of seeing their kids happy and smiling. I felt sad seeing them like this, but happy how my being there was helping their lives, even for just a few minutes. 

Wuf Grows Up

In the five years since we started Wuf Shanti, we’ve produced seven books, a free mobile app, signature games, like our gratitude and laughing games, and over a hundred videos, which run on local PBS stations, in schools and in children’s hospitals nationally. I also wrote the Wuf Shanti songs, working with my dad who also scored the music: 

“A smile is a gift that makes you happy and free and makes the world a nicer place to be.
And if you smile to brighten everyone’s day, a smile will come back to you the same way.”

Even my little sister and her friends haven’t guessed yet that the voice singing in the Wuf Shanti songs is me, before my voice changed! I can’t sing it, or fit into the costume, anymore—we have to get other people to do it now—but neither my sister or her friends have ever looked around the room and said, “Where’s Adam?” not realizing that Wuf and I are never in the same place at the same time.

We know that Wuf Shanti videos, books, and the mobile app work to get our message out to kids in a way they can understand, because I first tested them on my sister and her friends who had just turned four at the time, and they enjoyed playing with the app while still learning basic life skills. Once my sister was crying and I told her that she had a choice to make: that she could continue to cry about whatever it was that she wanted, or she could choose to be happy for what she does have. And about five minutes later, I overheard her calming herself down by repeating “Think well, be well,” and “Peace begins with me,” while tapping her fingers to her thumb, which is one of the exercises that Wuf teaches. You don’t realize how much of an impact you’ve made until you’ve witnessed a five-year-old control her own temper tantrum and bring positivity and gratitude back into her life to keep her emotions under control.

It’s so important to teach kids the tools to stay healthy physically and mentally, to help them deal with stress and emotions in productive ways. So they ca