Mindful: In your TED talk you say that your grandfather introduced you to a mindful and positive approach to life. I’m curious, did he call that approach “mindfulness” or was that a word that you learned later?
Adam: No, he didn’t actually use the word mindfulness specifically, but we like to say he was a yogi at heart. He had a yogi mindset, and he had his positive mantras: “Think well to be well,” “Smile and the world will smile with you,” “Smile and say thank you.” So I kind of had those messages in my head from a very young age. My mom also had a yoga teacher, Erika, who was a big part of our lives for a long time. She did yoga and meditation with my mom, so when I was little, I would pop into the sessions when I was home, for some reason.
“Think well to be well,” “Smile and the world will smile with you,” “Smile and say thank you.”
And so all these things were kind of around the house, but it wasn’t until I got older that I learned the vocabulary—that it was actually mindfulness. My grandpa never actually said it, but it was kind of implied. And still to this day, you know, I don’t practice traditional meditation every day, but my practice consists of the breathing techniques, and learning, coping, coming to my emotions the right way. I’m a golfer—I’ll put in some headphones, let’s just listen to some music on the golf course. That’s my relaxation for the day. So we all practice mindfulness in different ways, but these ideas have definitely been in my head from a really young age.
An Opportunity To Do More
M: Often, we kind of see mindfulness as a personal, individual practice, not really something that you would share with other people. What inspired you to take it further and share it with other children and teenagers?
A: As I grew up, so did our organization. Basically, as I was entering high school, I saw how a lot of my friends or just the people around me honestly were overwhelmed, with all the homework and extracurriculars and social life, whatever. I saw the stress and the anxiety, in myself too.
That’s when we really took the opportunity to create the Mindful Kids Peace Summit. It’s a digital online video library, mostly for teens, where we [Helen Maffini of MindBe-Education, and I] interview over 80 experts who—some give demonstrations or presentations—but it’s mostly interviews and we discuss topics like diversity, inclusion, communication, kindness, anti-bullying, mindfulness as a tool to deal with stress, positive psychology, social-emotional learning, self-awareness, self-compassion, empathy, so much more, and it’s a great tool for teens to use in the classroom. So as I got older, we definitely took the opportunity to expand and say, “Hey, I’m seeing this on a daily basis, we need to create a curriculum for other kids.”
What also inspired me was that we live very close to Parkland, where the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas happened. So that really brought the whole community together. We were like, with these things happening, and to high school students, the violence in the world, we really need to teach teens that might be dealing with stress or anxiety on a daily basis.
We used to say things like yoga and meditation, and now, it’s definitely grown into mindfulness, which yoga and meditation are a part of. And it’s also social-emotional learning and empathy. All we really want to do is to help teens become less depressed and anxious, and just live healthier and happier lives altogether. So that’s what furthered my interest in mindfulness.
M: That’s powerful. And before that, you had already started teaching mindfulness tools to younger kids?
A: Yeah. When I was about nine years old, we created the Wuf Shanti Children’s Wellness Foundation, which is now a nonprofit organization. We teach mindfulness and social-emotional learning. So we have Wuf, which is a dog character, which kids love, and it’s through fun and games and music and videos—we try to teach it in a way that they don’t actually know that they’re learning, in a fun way. We don’t specifically go by the definition.
What is Social-Emotional Learning?
M: Could you give me one or two examples of how you would explain to younger kids what social-emotional learning is?
A: For younger kids, like I said, no definitions. [Instead] we play self-awareness games, like Feeling Charades or gratitude games, like our Happy Ball game. We use affirmations like “Think well, be well,” or “Peace begins with me,” or a laughing game, which kind of puts that into practice for them. We also use a lot of music and videos, like Kidding Around Yoga, which I’m also certified in. We took one of those songs, “Every little cell in my body is happy,” and we made a music video with the dog character and kids like to dance around and play games with Wuf Shanti. They don’t actually know the meanings behind all the words, but they’re starting to learn it from a really young age.
For older kids, it’s a lot more serious. It’s more interactive, there’s a lot more detail. And we do use the meanings and definitions and descriptions of every topic that we go through. A lot of the students that watch [the Mindful Kids Peace Summit videos] are teenagers. I think they enjoy that I’m the one interacting with them. Obviously all the experts are adults, but I’m the one that’s interacting with them. They’re learning from a peer. One of the practices we do is the [Stressed Teens’] self-care water bottle exercise, where kids post stickers on their water bottles, things that make them happy, things that they enjoy. We tell kids to think of things that make you happy, things that are positive, that you can go back to and make you feel better, be mindful. It’s like you go to the gym for physical exercise or you brush your teeth for oral health. You go back to your water bottle for your mental health, all the things that make you happy.
Bringing Mindfulness to Schools
M: What do you think are the most effective ways to make our schools more mindful?
A: First, you have to educate the educators. We’ve got to get into schools. Because if kids are learning these practices and going into school, trying to be more positive, and the teachers are just as stressed, if not more stressed, it’s not going to help the kids [feel] any better.
We also have to get it into schools because if we can get it into a kid’s daily life, then they’re going to be equipped with the tools every single day, and they’ll be able to carry it with them outside of school as well. I also think a lot of teachers and schools, when we would say things like “yoga and meditation,” they don’t think that these tools are really secular. But they are secular, which means it’s for everybody. It’s not just about sitting with your legs crossed and your eyes closed and your fingers like this (demonstrating). Mindfulness is about being in the present moment, focusing on the now, not worrying about yesterday or tomorrow, just being present.
There are so many benefits of how it can help people, students too—like with your academics; athletically; it can make you just happier and healthier. It can also help with specific issues like ADHD, asthma, eczema. And I’m not saying that you have to be happy every single minute of every day, because we’re all humans and that’s just impossible. You have to deal with whatever comes up in life. But the best thing about mindfulness is that you’re able to come back to the present moment and be positive and be happier.
M: You’ve already said a little about this, but I wonder if you want to say anything else about what you’ve found is the difference between promoting mindfulness with kids and promoting it with teenagers?
A: Yeah, I mean, everything is the same, just said differently. To younger kids, it’s fun and games and music and videos, but to the older kids, it’s a lot more serious without the dog character. It also depends on the kid, it depends on the school, and what they want to learn about.
With the Mindful Kids Peace Summit, it can range from ages 11 to 17 or 18, or anyone older if they want to look at it. But what a 13-year-old might be interested in might be different from what a 17-year-old is interested in, or what they want to specifically learn about. So on the Summit, we divided the curriculum into sixth grade, seventh grade, eighth grade, and so on, so there are different opportunities for everyone to learn.
M: I can tell from how you talk about all this that you clearly care so much about other folks your age and helping them—how has this helped you?
A: It has such a huge impact on me, and on how I deal with things on a daily basis. I think the biggest impact that it’s had on me is just the ability to use my voice. I’ve wanted to do that this whole time, but as a teenager and I’m seeing things, I’m seeing how kids act, and now I get up in front of adults and I speak to them about how, what, why they should incorporate [mindfulness] into their curriculums, to guidance counselors, directors, principals, teachers. It’s just so important and I want to use my voice and I want to help people and really just make a difference.
I’m seeing how kids act, and now I get up in front of adults and I speak to them about how, what, why they should incorporate [mindfulness] into their curriculums, to guidance counselors, directors, principals, teachers. It’s just so important and I want to use my voice and I want to help people and really just make a difference.
At my TED talk, I went on right before intermission, so after my talk I walked out into the lobby and this mom right away brought her daughter up, at least seven or eight years old, and she asked if the daughter could give me a hug. I was like, of course, sure. And the mom was telling me that her husband and the daughter’s dad was in the army and was dealing with a lot of PTSD and some suicidal thoughts. Being able to hear me speak about it and about Wuf Shanti and why this is so important, really helped to put into perspective for this little girl some of the problems that her dad is dealing with and why [mindfulness] can help her and why these are so important.
It’s just really given me the confidence to help others and explain why it’s so important to get these mental health programs into schools. If kids can learn on a daily basis, they can go and teach others. We’re also trying to start KAME [Kids Association for Mindfulness in Education] clubs, which I’m actually just starting in my school as well, so that kids can learn to use their voice and go on to teach other kids these mindful tools or mental health tools as well. So it’s just helped me want to help people. And I think that’s the most important thing.
Cultivating Your Own Mindfulness Practice
M: A lot of young people are looking at their world right now, and no matter where they’re from they may be kind of wondering what they can do to make a positive difference—and maybe not everyone can start an organization to do it. But if other young people really want to share a mindful approach to life with their peers, and with their communities, what are a few ideas for them to get started?
A: I think the first one is you’ve got to start practicing yourself. It took me a long time to practice daily, or at least get in the mentality of understanding why it’s so important in someone’s daily life.
I try to tell people, we have over 50,000 random thoughts a day. That is so many, the most important thing about mindfulness and what it does for you is that you can, without judgment, look, notice those thoughts, and then just release them. It really just helps you to respond instead of react. If you practice these things for five minutes every day, it can really help your life, and the science proves it. No one even has to know you’re doing it.
For me, like I said, I like to listen to music. I like to go golfing. That’s my peace for the day, that’s my mindfulness practice. Just taking that time to yourself to kind of reflect and notice those random thoughts and release them is super important. One of the practices that we have is we tell people to listen to a song, to find one of your favorite songs and try to notice one part of the song, like the drum beat, for example, and try to notice the drum beat.
Before COVID, when I was going around and speaking in front of people, I would say I was a big advocate for: Put the phone down, look up, communicate with people. And obviously we’re in a tough situation right now, at least I am, and I can’t be a hypocrite about it because I’ve gotten back on my phone. I was off social media for eight months, before the country shut down. And when you’re in a time like this, you need your phone to stay in touch with people. And honestly, I’m kind of thankful for social media, because it allowed me to just stay in touch with my friends. But that being said, why mindfulness is so important is that it really helps you be self-aware, it helps you try and find other things to connect with the world around us, to get off the phone once in a while.
M: I love that you brought up getting off social media. Being off social media for eight months is almost as impressive as starting a foundation!
A: Yeah, at first it was tough, but, you know, I was entering 10th grade at the time and I wasn’t in the best place actually. And I needed to just get off my phone and it really helped me connect and be more mindful of what was going on. I was able to focus on school more. My grades improved. I was happier because I wasn’t dealing with the stresses of—I don’t think people really realize it, but the stresses of just kind of scrolling and scrolling and scrolling and you get caught up in it. So it was just good to get off of it.
If you look up and you look at the world around you and you pay attention to different things, and you find yourself with mindfulness or whatever you choose, you can find something that you’re passionate about, and you can talk about it, write about it, teach about it. I’m in the Future Coalition, and everyone in the coalition talks about something different. One person is an advocate for climate change, one is for gender equality; me, I’m mental health education in schools.
So find your passion, find what you want to talk about, and what you want to tell people about why it’s so important. I think the first step to doing that is practicing [mindfulness] yourself.
Find out more about Adam’s work in mindfulness:
I just published a book called Altered Traits, which is a look at all of the research on meditation and mindfulness. And what it shows, I think, has deep lessons for leadership in school. It shows that there’s a dose-response relationship. That the more hours in your life you put… Read More