The following is a transcript from an interview with Dr. Chris Willard, Harvard Medical School Mental Health & Mindfulness Expert.
Welcome everybody. Dr. Chris Willard here is joining me today for a fireside style chat. He's a leading expert in the field of mindfulness and psychology with extensive experience working with children, adolescents, and adults in a variety of settings. He's a faculty member at the Harvard Medical School and serves as the president of the Mindfulness and Education Network.
Dr. Willard is the author of several books, including Growing Up Mindful and Raising Resilience. And has been featured in numerous media outlets such as The New York times, and npr. He's also got a couple of TEDx talks as well for those of you that haven't seen them already his innovative work has helped to integrate mindfulness practices into schools, hospitals, and community centers around the world.
So welcome Chris.
Thank you so much for having me. Yeah. This is, this is fun. And it's great to meet, meet new folks from around the world.
Hopefully can understand my accent as we go.
It's tricky, but I think I got it. Yeah, and I do, I know I do a lot of work in education and psychotherapy and mental health.
A lot of work consulting in international schools and in different parts of the world, of which I, which I absolutely love. So I've got this, this like longstanding interest in mindfulness and particularly mindfulness with kids. And I know, and, and teenagers too. And I know usually when I say that, people are like, yeah, please.
You know, what, what, what does that really look like? And I, I wanna start by sharing a bit of my own experience, which is, I never heard the word mindfulness growing up. Of course now it's very, very trendy. So many places. But, but I think back to experiences I had when I was a kid. And we're gonna this camp, and the counselors would, would have us they'd say like, we're gonna go, we're gonna walk as silently as you can in the woods.
Like, can you walk? So, and this, you know, then many years later I took a, a mindfulness based stress reduction course and went on some mindfulness retreats, and we did mindful walking. And I, I thought back to that experience of, you know, if you've ever tried to walk as silently as you can, especially in the woods, it's, you know, you're not thinking about the past or the future.
You're just thinking about like, what does, what is each footstep doing? What's the texture of the forest floors? There a leaf here, is there a root? Right? And so totally immersed in the moment. Yeah. Just when you make it. Playful like that, or Yeah, let's put us all the sounds in the forest and you hear the trees whispering the brook babbling in the distance, right.
This kind of thing. But then years later I was like, oh, this is like a mindful listening practice, so totally. Yeah, so, so again, like a lot of us might feel like we can't do this mindfulness thing, or this is something new when in fact we probably have some experiences when we were young that were something like mindfulness that also can then show us how to, in a more playful way, in a more kid-friendly way, share some of these practices.
Maybe even, we call them mindfulness. Maybe we don't, maybe we just call it walking like a ninja in the woods, or listening like a deer to see what we're aware of. But this, this teaches basically that same lesson of focus and attention and awareness, and it's still activating our prefrontal cortex and quieting down our limb system and doing all of these things that, that we really wanted to do.
Mm-hmm. So these are the ways I think of as starting to get, get the teaching going. And then years later, I was at, at a college or university as a uni, I'm sure you'd say. Right. Having some of my own challenges around focus and and, and, and attention and anxiety and depression. And ended up getting more formally interested in mindfulness.
Took that MBSR course, went on a retreat with Uht Nut Han, and found this really transformative. So at, at that point I thought I didn't know what I wanted to do, but I, I worked as a teacher for a few years as a special education teacher. Yeah. And trying to bring some of this mindfulness in, having some challenges with.
Some successes, but kind of muddling, muddling through and then went back to school to become a clinical psychologist, which is kind of my day job now. And and from there doing my, my dissertation research on how do we teach this stuff, kids, how do we adapt it? And then that kind of grew over these past years to doing a lot of consulting in schools.
You know, how do we create a more mindful school environment? How do we get the kids to buy in, the adults to buy in? What are the benefits? So doing a lot of writing on that, speaking and, and training on that. Yeah. And I'm doing that trying to, trying to keep up my own practice too in my own life. So that's sort of the story of how I got got started with this.
awesome. And how, how is, you know, you mentioned that those earlier childhood memories of those kind of Experiences. But then you, you went on to study psychology and things. How has it now, and you mentioned that you, you know, had attention, you know, maybe attention issues would you call it, or deficit or what have you.
How has it now impacted your life personally? IM implementing mindfulness and yeah, meditation, I suppose. Yeah,
I mean, I think. One thing I saw was my anxiety went way down. My, my depression got a lot better. Hmm. You know, I stopped some other bad behaviors that I was, I was engaging in kind of more, more addictive substance behaviors, things like that.
And, and then start to feel just a lot more creative flow with mm-hmm. Just feeling like life felt a lot more meaningful for me. Yeah. At the personal level, like, oh, I was enjoying these things. I was suddenly having new insights new creative ideas, you know, which have clearly paid off. I've done a lot of writing, I've done a lot of creative, I love, you know, being creative.
So it feels like definitely paying off. And for years, I, I spent a lot of time in my twenties. Taking mindfulness courses, sitting on the meditation cushion every day, going on retreats whenever I could, mm-hmm. Things like that. And, and you know, to be perfectly honest, you know, I had kids eight or nine years ago, you know, wife got busy.
It's like some of that, you know, going on retreats is much harder than it used to be. Sure, yeah. But finding ways to then practice with my own children bring this in when I do have time in my life has just been incredibly helpful for, Again, my anxiety, my focus, my stress. And I think for me personally, what I really love is the, the kind of creative payoff here.
Getting new perspectives on things feeling inspired with, with new ideas. All of this kind of thing has been really, really important to me. As well as feeling like I've got the attention span that I didn't used to have, where now, I, I, I work a lot. I, I can need to have a very scattered attention span because maybe, you know, it's like, oh, I'm teaching and I'm working and I'm writing, and I'm being a therapist and I'm being a dad.
Right? So maybe it's, I've found something that fits for me, but a little column, my little column B in terms of you know, how I've, how I've managed to help this fit into my life, and also how it's helped me be my best Yeah. And, and, and do many different things. And I, I like to think I do them. Pretty well.
So you know, I feel like it's, it's been really important for me and for the for, for the people around me also that I've practiced meditation and started in on this path
for sure. I mean, I read one of your. The resilience book and it mentioned about how you it was kind of a donation to your parents or, well, yeah.
But you know, you mentioned about attention deficit. It's a big one. Just kind of I'll, I'll get on with the rest of our conversation, but Attention deficit is a big one in our schools. Particularly, you know, we, we work, we, we've got clients all over the world, but particularly in Australia and New Zealand, I, there's a general kind of sentiment that the attention deficit disorder is prob, is kind of what do you call it, diagnosed or, or, or kind of labeled a lot more frequently these days.
And how do you, you know, I suppose students and families alike, like when something can be cured or at least managed with a pill. How does something like mindfulness and things you know, maybe you could speak to that a little bit and how, how you can maybe open people's mind or eyes a little bit to how mindfulness can be used as a substitute or even as a Additional concept.
Yeah. Yeah. And I think, you know, it's interesting that I think that the states, the us yeah, us, obviously Australia, New Zealand, a few other parts of the world have, I think a higher diagnosis rate. In terms of adhd, it's actually just talking about this with somebody. But there's, there's some theory that also like the folks who maybe be.
Decided to come and move halfway across the world to, you know, again, that's true. Be a little impulsive to do that. True. Or both, you know, Australia, New Zealand and the us You know, there was a lot of penal colonies, maybe people that you know, were a little impulsive in some ways. So, you know, there's some, you know, maybe there's some genetic thing going on.
You know, about the, about the so, so-called New World as well. Which can be either, you know, amazing, you know, a d h ADHD can be like, you know, amazing super power. Yeah. Can be the superpower. And also in some jobs, in some school settings can be just so hard. Yeah. Our attention is, is fragmented in so many directions.
What's been amazing is seeing some of the research on A D H D where, where. Where mindfulness activates in the brain is right behind the forehead, which is, which is called prefrontal cortex. Yes. And that's where ADHD lives, or that's where attention doesn't live basically, would be another way of putting it.
So we really are working out that muscle and, and our brains, they, we have what we call neuroplasticity in our brains, which is like our, our brains really are like a muscle. Yep. Right? We, if I do this right, the, the muscle gets activated. The biceps and triceps get bigger. If I do this enough, The same is true in our brains.
Okay, so can we activate these parts of the brains again and again With focusing practices, attention practices, mindfulness practices, we actually build the part of the brain that actually has a greater attention capacity, a greater capacity to suppress impulses, suppress distractions. Have what we call sustained attention and selective attention.
I sort to delineate those as like, Sustained attention is, can I keep focusing on the teacher for 45 minutes? Selective as attention is, can I focus on the teacher and not on like, you know, the spitball going past my head or the, the note that gets past me or the text that is buzzing in my pocket. And, and both of those we know change.
The other thing that's really interesting about ADHD is with, with kids in particular. This woman Susan Bergs in, in, in Amsterdam, she's in a lot of the research on ADHD and mindfulness, especially on kids, and she finds one of the best ways to have an impact on kids is not just when kids practice mindfulness, but the adults around them practice mindfulness.
Mm-hmm. Yes. Best predictor actually for kids with ADHD is whether the dad starts practicing mindfulness. Wow. Which is kinda amazing. So, you know, any, any dads out there listening? You know, it's bad news for us. It's good news for us, but but, but again, you know, having that environment that's a little bit subtle genetically, but I know we're talking more about schools here.
But again even just short practices and we often say like, you know, kids are, you know, running around all over the place or especially ADHD. How do we adapt? And I do think like, play movement. Yeah. You know, chatting about sports, you know, before we got started, right? The movement oriented practices are helpful, making it playful.
This, this study, I really love Lev Vigotsky, who some of us might know. Child development guy. Zone, proximal development, scaffolding, that kind of thing. Okay. He, he was trying to get eight year olds to stand still. Yeah. An eight year old at home. You know, I, I didn't have to read the study to know how it ends, right?
So he, he says, you know, get together, stand still. And of course, you know, they're running around all over the place, you know, five, five minutes later and he calls the back in. He says, I want you to stand still as long as you can. But this time, can you imagine that you're like a night guarding a castle?
And like just by getting playful now the kids actually stand still for like 10 or 15 minutes. Yeah. It's these little ways, like how do we make it playful? How do we make it fun? How do we make it not do mindful walking? Cuz kids roll their eyes, you know, you want me to walk like a zombie? Right. It's like a ninja as silently as you can, right?
Yeah. These kinds of just ways of making it fun, right? That that's actually how we. Kids who are struggling, or another thing I do with kids who struggle with attention. A again, kind of back to that, you know, listening to sounds when I was a kid, but like, actually we can do this together if you want, Paul, but like, yeah, just take a moment.
We'll like listen to the sound of the bell
and then again, like you've got superhero listening abilities, like what's the farthest sound you can hear right. Can you hear the birds outside? Can you hear the cars going by? And then noticing those and then coming in a bit closer into the building. Can you hear footsteps? Can you hear voices in the hallway or elsewhere in the house?
And then coming a bit closer into the room, can you hear the air conditioning or the computer creaking of the chair? Noticing your own breath, sounds of your own breath,
and then seeing any sounds from your inside, your body, your heartbeat, or even sound of your thoughts, and then just bring your attention back out. I'll ring the bell again
and just listening until the bell sound fades again.
And, and for me, you know, what was this, A minute maybe? Yeah, right. Giving a kid with attention issues, like a lot of guidance. We're not saying, oh, just listen to sounds. Cuz they'll be, you know, their brain will be all bouncing around, all over the place. They'll be bored, they'll jump outta their seat. But we're saying start with, start with something far away.
And for a kid with attention deficit, like they're already focusing on the car. Yeah. And the motorcycle. What colors the motorcycle? Where's it going? Is it going north or is it going south? Is it purple motorcycle? Like are you supposed to a helmet? Like what's helmet on the phone? Motorcycle. I want a motorcycle when I grow up.
Right there. Yeah. And then a little closer And, and now what we're doing is we're truly training their attention. Like now we're in the room with now focused on the teacher. Or notice your thoughts. Right. That this kind of practice, it's meeting kids with their distracted minds. It's like, and then again, you call it ninja training, or Jedi mind tricks, or you know, whatever it is.
And then it gets a little bit more fun. They're focused. Yeah. Right. And they can use that before the test or while they're out on the soccer pitch. Yeah. You know about whatever and need to get their head in the game. Right. That these are the ways that they can use this to, in a fun way. Regulate their attention.
Pay their attention. Right. These kinds of things that we're telling them to do. Yeah. Right. And now teaching them how to do it. And that's so important for their learning and for their self-regulation. Now they've learned how to go from, you know, being, moving and still back to be, you know, mo moving around or whatever, and squirming, but how to be still in a different way.
Hmm. There's, there's many ways to do this, but I think mindfulness is, is a good one for teaching kids how to, how to self-regulate this way, how to regulate their attention in this way that can be really powerful and be fun at the same time. Totally.
How does it translate over into academic performance? Is it because of the ability to focus and things like that increases and therefore, you know, better retention of knowledge or, yeah. Where, where, how does it generally, when, from your experience, where do you see the most improvements in the classroom, I suppose?
Yeah. So we see different improvements at, at different kinds of levels. I wanna sort of start at the top, which is with, with teachers. So when teachers. Practice mindfulness. Actually, what we see is that the kids are performing better uhhuh, the kids are paying better attention. The kids show up to school more just when the teacher is practicing mindfulness.
Right? Or when the teachers and educators do things like practice. Some compassion or even empathy building practices, like, and then I'll get into the kids in a moment, but what we see, for example, the study I read about the school, there's a lot of disciplinary referral issues. Just the edu actually, this is a special education school, this first study.
Mm-hmm. Kids were very dysregulated. And they're having to restrain the kids physically. Like this is like a, you know, mental health facility. What they did was they, they, they gave the, the adults in the community and, and it's like, you know, residential school, basically mindfulness practice, the number of restraints went down, right?
Because the staff now was common enough to think, how else can I de dis deescalate this situation? Besides just, we're gonna have to restrain you, boom, right? They could think, why don't I change my tone of voice? Why don't I respond in this way? Why don't. Remember that training because when we're calm, then we can remember what's the deescalation training I had Yep.
Five years ago when I got this job. And not just, you know, reescalating the situation because of their own anxiety. So that's one. The other one I think that, that I find really interesting is that they ask teachers in this other school some disciplinary and behavior issues before you send the kids off.
What we do in the states, we send them off to the principal's office or the vice principal's office, and I know this works differently in parts of the world. Before you send them off to suspended or to the principal's office, right. You, you gotta think of three reasons why the kid asked this, where you fill out a piece of paper, then you can send them to the principal's office, right?
What happened was they would start to then think, why is this kid acting this way? It can't just be because they're a pain in my yeah butt or whatever. I dunno what language we can use here, but it has to be like, okay, maybe they're hungry, maybe they have adhd, maybe they didn't sleep last night. Maybe they got both plus influences.
When we do that exactly, then we can come up with a better solution for how do we deal with this kid's misbehavior with. Here's a granola bar, or why don't you put your head down? Why don't you go to the nurse's office, take a nap. Mm. If you need to chat with someone for a minute right before you're then regulated again, and, and they, they, they somehow, you know, because I was first like, well, of course the no one wants to fill out that paperwork, so of course they're gonna, you know, not send them off.
But it actually really, they counted for that variable. Somehow the number of disciplinary referrals really did go down. Oh, awesome. And then we do teach this stuff to the kids themselves. What we see. They are able to focus for longer. They are able to perform better academically. Test scores go up. And actually for who?
Like the kids. That makes the biggest impact on this one study by Lisa Fluke, who works with Richie Davidson at University of Wisconsin. Like the kids that were lagging behind on executive functions, which is kind of the a. Those kids actually made the most improvement to be closer to the middle of the pack.
Huh. The kids that were fine, they made some improvements, but the kids that were the furthest behind actually made the most improvements Wow. Of attention and self-regulation. So it was like really, really cool to see this. And then another friend of mine did some brain scans of kids where they saw the the more reactive part of the brain, the amygdala, like the big emotions part of the brain, that that part of the brain actually got less active in middle school.
Things after a few weeks. So not just kids being like, I like mindfulness, or teachers being like, I like mindfulness, but we see this really objective changes. Yeah. In kids and in test scores too. And I think performance anxiety is such a big one for kids who, if they can self-regulate before a test, before You know, public speaking, the book report, right.
At any age. Mm. Then we actually see the scores go up because, because recall goes up and critical thinking goes up and all the brain is active. Right. In terms of the, the whole brain being active when they have to sit down for that high stakes exam or the, yeah. Ts or the ibs or, you know, whatever part of the world folks are listening from.
Yeah. Levels A levels or, you know, whatever it might be. Yeah.
Yeah. So, yeah, I mean, is that just a side note, is it a concern that we're quite quietening the, the amygdala isn't that, you know, a source of its own power as well?
It's, so I, yeah. I mean, so the image, like what, what I like about this study is that tell us that the amygdala gets quieter, is, it doesn't, the metaphor I often uses, it's.
When I was in my twenties, I had like, you know, super cheap gross apartment with my friends and we have one of the same alarms that went off. Like, it's like you burn the to and the smoke alarm goes off. So we're 25. We're like, you know, let's just like rip the batteries out of the smoke detector. Like that'll fix the problem.
Right? What we're not doing with mindful, we're not ripping the batteries out of the smoke detector. When we change the amygdala. We're recalibrating the smoke detector so it goes
off when use its
power and. Right, exactly. Like when a bus cuts us off, not when we walk into the cafeteria and we don't know anybody, it goes off.
Not when the teacher writes pop quiz on the board, but when you know something dangerous is actually happening. And so that's what we really want. And we don't want kids to be so relaxed either that they're like falling asleep at exam time. We want that like. You know, the, the, the metaphor, I think it's John Katzin says something like, mindfulness is falling awake, not falling asleep.
Hmm. We want to be awake. We wanna have the brain activated. The nervous system needs to be active to stay, motivated to perform, but not so active sort of. We're actually wanna B as like a six or eight out of 10. Yeah. Above eight. The brain shuts down, we choke. Right. It's kinda how we talk about it in sports here in the States.
Right. But that's kind of what's happening. We've had that experience. All of us, we sit down for a test or a job interview, or first day we're teaching, not just the first day of class for the kids. And we're like, oh my gosh, what was I gonna say? I had all these plans, I can't remember. Right? That's what happens when the brain is overwhelmed.
And so we gotta help kids regulate themselves down. Mm. Through breathing, maybe through mindfulness, and again, finding these ways to regulate the breath. Yep. Where in turn regulating the body and the brain in the nervous system to, to focus better too. So those things I think are really helpful.
Awesome. Too. And quickly helpful.
Yeah. Yeah. And so one of the big things that our our clients and, and schools all alike wonder about with this, like, I don't think there's any. Projection of the concept, I'd say these days, but how, how can schools and families implement mindfulness? Like what are some strategies to try and get it into the classroom?
I think it, it depends on the, on the level and age of the kids. Yeah. And so with, with really little kids my, my friend Daniel Reaff and I, we, we did a book a few years ago called Alpha Breaths, so it's an alphabet book of breathing. So it's like a, is the, the alligator breath you can breathe in. That's cool.
Yeah. And, and breathe out. We have B is the, the butterfly breath, which my, I have a five-year-old daughter. She calls it the rainbow unicorn, princess mermaid, butterfly breath. But breathing in, I'm breathing back out, just flapping your wings. And then what we're doing is we're slowing our breath down to about five or six breaths in a minute.
Mm. We're deepening our breath. We're actually, we, we, we, when the oxygen hits the nerve endings in the bottom of our lungs, it sends a signal to calm down. It sends a signal that you're safe enough to focus on the long term. Yeah. And so that's again, kind of regulating the breath in these, in these different kinds of ways that, again, for little kids is, is fun.
Or like the hot chocolate, like breathing, smelling, blowout, going off. So for little kids, they can learn a breath practice or they do some ninja walking or something like that around the classroom. Circle time, right? This or that As kids get older, right? Maybe it's, maybe it's counting breaths like breathing for seven, breathe out for 11 teenagers with breathing.
I, I, a friend of mine taught me this. If you just lean back in your chair with your hands behind your head, you might notice it's very hard to not breathe deeply and slowly. Hmm. And so known us to know that you're regulating your body and your breath and your nervous system. Just every few questions on a test lean back.
Mm-hmm. And for educators, I was actually working with a, it was wonderful. When I go into a school, I like to work with everybody. I work with the teachers, with the parents, with the, the student leaders in particular. Yeah. And then they were saying like, what if the teachers like just, you know, put signs around.
That said, you know, like our signs are in the classrooms, in the hallways that said, you know, like, lean back or let out a nice long silent sigh. Or if they said, you know, every three or four questions on a test. You know, just like remember to do a seven-eleven breath. Remember to feel your feet on the ground.
Remember to notice three. Sounds like that would keep us. Calm throughout. Yeah. I was like, I love it. And then bringing it into, you know, it's reinforced by the, the soccer coach or the, the, the footy football coach or footy coach, or the cricket coach. I'm looking at, you know, Asia, these are other parts of the world, right?
But these, you know, the, the, the athletic coaches and it's reinforced by, you know, whoever's teaching debate and public speaking, and it's reinforced by the counselors doing mental health and it's music teacher is, You know, like, listen to this, you know, listen to this song, whether it's a rock and roll song or a hip hop song, or an orchestra, and for the whole 10 minutes, five minutes of the song just focus on one instrument.
Hmm. You mind off just bring it back to that one instrument. That's a really amazing. Mindful focusing practice That, that I do myself. Yeah. Because I find really boring. Like so, you know, like if I'm feeling like procrastinating or I can't get my head settled, it's like I'm gonna put on my favorite song and just listen to that, that, that like piano sample through that song.
And I'm a bit more focused by the end of that four or five minutes of that song. So it's finding these ways to bring it into whatever it is that we're teaching the kids and, and, and make it fun and. You know, again, everyone can bring this in somehow, whether it's the health teacher, whether it's the coach, whether it's the music teacher, whether it's the English teacher saying, let's write our own visualization exercises, or write a poem, whether it's the history teacher talking about, you know, social studies and you know, meditation in different parts of the world, whether it's the science teacher giving a little brain lesson or the psychology teacher at a kid.
Who is taking psych, like a ap, which is sort of like ib. Yeah, yeah. Psychology. And I, and I gave him that little brain lesson about different parts of the brain activated with mindfulness. And we'd done mindfulness for a year together. And when I gave him the little brain science lesson, he goes, oh, Dr.
Wilder, I always liked mindfulness, but now I know it's real. And I was like, dude, like, what do you mean now? You know, it's real. Like this is, and, and that, but that was like hearing the brain science, which was helpful for him, for his, you know, psych exam he was taking. But he was then, he then started practicing every day.
Yeah. And. In our sessions. He wasn't just humoring me, he was like, oh, this is, download some apps and do this. Yeah.
On that note, Chris, when you are coming to schools, it sounds like it takes, you know, buy-in and kind of a commitment from the, the, you know, the leadership down, I suppose, for lack of a better word, word to say it.
What are the kind of the. Misconceptions around mindfulness and eastern philosophies in the schools that you come across, like cause they're, even if your leadership's board and then they've gotta try to convince the rest of the team or the other way around. So where do you kind of see those misconceptions and, and maybe talk to those a little bit?
Yeah, yeah. I mean, I, I think there's You know, a few different ways. I think, you know, again, thinking about how do we get the adults to buy and how do we get the kids to buy in, that those are separate with the adults. You know, one thing I do when I go and I work in a school is I often, you know, soon as I bring a slideshow with me, but showing those.
Th those pictures of the brains that have grown new gray matter and connections when we practice mindfulness is really, really powerful. Hmm. And hearing about those studies, those benefits, that this improves concentration capacity, it improves critical thinking, right?
When the adults start hearing that they, they focus in in a different way. It doesn't just feel like this is a waste of time. What's the return on investment? The students are supposed to be stressed out. This is a high pressure, high achieving, high performance school, but it's like, no. If you invest a minute of your day in mindfulness, the kids will do better.
You know, in, in, in the long run. So that, that, I think that kind of message is important, that it doesn't have to take a lot of time. That, you know, when they, when, when you give folks an experience, too of mindfulness, they see, oh, when we took, took that minute to listen to sounds or do a breath practice, I felt calmer, more awake, more focused, more open to learning.
Isn't that how you want your students to feel? Right? Yes. That's how I want them to be in my class. That's how I want them to be when they sit down for the exam. Because again, we know what it's like to be so jammed up, so overwhelmed that, that the brain really does our bandwidth shuts down.
When we're overwhelmed like that. So I think those are the buy-ins for the school. And then with kids, it really is thinking through like. You know, as we were talking about, you were mentioning Phil Jackson's book, who, who taught the you know, who coach the, like his Lakers. Right? I, I've been excited, you know, the, the World Cup just happened.
I did a lot of work in Argentina actually, and they were telling me last time I was down, they're like, Leo Messi got so bored in the pandemic, he got into mindfulness. I was like, okay, I'm taking this everywhere in the world. Right? Simone Biles, who's, you know, the Olympic gold medalist you know, athlete, gymnast, right?
I heard her on the radio talking about mindfulness. There's a lot of pop stars. You know, people in popular culture you know, high powered people in the business world, there are a lot of people Yeah. In the sports world who are using mindfulness. So it's like, it can help with your game.
It's not gonna make you the most popular kid in school. That's an over promise, but like, you know, do you wanna feel more confident in social situations? Or. Have you ever been around those people where you just feel really good, whether they're an adult or another kid? It's like, well, that's charisma and, and that comes from being present.
Like you feel good in their presence. Like you can cultivate that through mindfulness. Or do you wanna be a good friend? You can help your friend out with, you know, if your friend's having a panic attack, teach them this "seven-eleven" practice or this "feeling your feet on the ground" practice that'll help them, but let's maybe practice it together to make sure you got it down right.
Yeah. But that kind of thing. I think can help the students to buy in or this will help activate your brain for long-term focus for the test or for studying or help you through writer's block. Right? And again, not every kid is academic. So where does it help socially? Where does it help athletically?
Where does it help creatively? You know, and, and, and everyone's got something that they wish they felt a little bit less anxious about. Oh, you can identify that you can help the kid to, to buy in.
And do you see that you mentioned before, you know, high powered school, et cetera. Do you see the differences across different schools and socioeconomic bands?
I suppose because we work with schools all the way along the spectrum, but yeah. Do you see different difficulties in the different types of schools, I suppose?
Absolutely. And I, I do a lot of consulting, you know, from. Super elite private schools to really underfunded, challenged public schools, both in the states and in different parts of the world.
I always try to bring different groups of people together, especially when I travel to invite other schools in. And I think what we do see is, you know, fundamentally. All these kids and all the adults in the schools are stressed out, are burned out, are worried about, you know, a, a, a lot of different things, but worry affects us all in the same way.
Right? Whether it's in the states, you know, kids in even elite schools worried about things like school shootings or worried about college admissions, right. Or worried about climate change or, or other things like that. Or whether it's in other neighborhoods where. You know, kids are worried about where their next meal is coming from, or they're facing poverty or facing, you know, massive amounts of, of trauma from their families or neighborhood violence or things like this or political violence and upheaval, which we see, of course all over the world, right?
But all of our nervous systems are deeply impacted by that in ways that make it very difficult to learn, very difficult to sit. Right. We know that that trauma, large and small trauma disrupts the nervous system, disrupts the ability to focus, disrupts impulse control comes out as different kinds of behaviors that we, you know, we, we can think of as really trying to seek safety and stability in some ways.
But they come out as, Disruptive behaviors, and it looks like this kid's trying to ruin my lesson plan or screw up my class. That's why our own empathy is important and our own practice of mindfulness to remain steady and stable in the face of a kid's meltdown is really important. And then I think just like it's the language that we use, right?
Is it, you know, some kids are like, I'm never gonna college being a good student doesn't matter to me, but, okay, well maybe the buy-in then is around. You know, do you want to feel more, you know, a little bit more calm and safe in social situations, or hold your ground and feel like you've got internal safety, even if you don't have external safety when you're walking through your neighborhood on the way home or on the bus ride home, right?
Like that, that kind of thing. Or do you want, you know, if you're gonna just, you know, I don't wanna say just like if you're, this is a kid this way, be gonna, you know, maybe join the military or go straight to trade school. But this could help them, you know, stay focused, stay calm in the face. Another really stressful situation, like being on top of a building, doing construction, or being in a, in a war zone in training.
This could be really important in terms of resilience, you know, compared to a kid who's maybe gonna be in a different stressful situation in medical school or in law school, or in, you know, high stakes, you know, testing environment as they go to. You know, morally college is an academic, so I, I think it's just a matter of like why we're doing these practices, but I think we, all, our bodies get stressed out in the same ways, even if it's for slightly different reasons.
And so I think changing the metaphors, pointing to different role models to get that buy-in I think can be, can be important. But what's amazing is the diversity of people who are practicing this stuff, like looking at. You know, like, you know everyone, you know again, from like hip hop stars to athletes, to CEOs to The, the, the United States Supreme Court Justice who just retired last year was a, was a mindfulness guy.
Right. It's just sort of interesting to look at these different folks that are, that are talking about this and practicing this that might be who our kids are looking up to. And then of course, the epidemic of mental health. One thing I've seen in my travels around the world is that I, I actually do, mental health has gotten worse.
One thing that's happened is that stigma, I think has gotten better, is that I travel in parts of the world and kids talk openly about mental health issues in a way that they didn't even five years ago. But they also have a lot of bad information about mental health like, like I saw on TikTok that like.
It's okay to have social anxiety, but I saw that to like manage my social anxiety, I should do this. It's like, no, that's not right, but let's, here's some ways you can maybe, you know, learn how to manage your, your social anxiety or, you know, depression or whatever it might be. And so really empowering kids.
Then that mindfulness can be helpful with depression, with anxiety, with stress, with trauma with helping them be stronger and more resilient. In regards to these challenges that they face, so that they don't have to then feel like you know, my anxiety means I have to stay home. No, it doesn't. It means that if you practice mindfulness or you do these other self-regulation strategies, you can have anxiety and you can still go to that party and you can still take that test and you can still get out.
You just might want to think about how you use the skills that you've hopefully learned or can learn so that you can do that. It's not gonna. The world an easier place, but it'll make you stronger to deal with a really challenging world. And I think that's a really empowering message for kids. This is not gonna change the world, but it's gonna make you able to be stronger to deal with the, the, the ways that the world is challenging.
Makes sense. And so it's, it's really what you've, well one of the things that took away from that was being able to relate mindfulness to how it'll benefit each in, in a specific child. So, like you said, someone might want to be a builder, someone might want to be in the army, a lawyer, a surgeon, and how that'll relate to their specific kind of, Goals and trajectory, I suppose is that, would, would you say that's right?
Absolutely. Be a mindfulness influencer online. Every kid now wants to be an influencer, right? Be a mindfulness influencer. No, I don't know. But,
and, and in terms of ways to, I guess, What we run into, I suppose, is schools where the teachers are like, you know, we are in, you know but how do we get the students who are so used to quick dopamine hits these days for reward as a reward system to realize the benefits of the 10 breaths they just took or slowing down a little bit in the classroom.
Like, is there a way that we can kind of communicate to the students in a, in a quicker way or give them some sort of a quicker payoff to stimulate the behavior.
Yeah. I I, I, I do think that mindfulness, to me, I think the good analogy for these practices is that they're mental exercise, like working out as physical exercise.
And even down to that neuroplasticity, you know, the brain is like a muscle thing, but it really is like the more you practice, the more you're gonna get, you know? And, and that means, you know, if you only work out for two minutes a day, It is better than nothing, but if you work out for an hour a day, you're gonna get stronger.
But we feel better if we take the stairs instead of taking the elevator. And so how can we find shorter practices knowing that our kids not just are distracted by screens and all these other great dopamine hits, but also that they, they often don't have the time they are studying for their international baccalaureate
you know, exams, they are busy with sports three or four seasons a year. They have other obligations. It is hard to fit in and so well, in many ways, I'd like to say everyone should sit still on a cushion for 20 minutes a day. Right I think even if we just introduced to kids, Here's a one minute way to settle your mind and regulate your nervous system and get yourself focused.
Here's a one minute way to bring your anxiety level down so that you can focus on what the teacher is saying here is you know, a one minute way or a four minute way to listen to music more mindfully. That can help you settle in so that you can start to then learn. And it's sort of like a healthy procrastination or it's a better break for your brain and body than checking out with video games for five minutes that are then hard to get back to your homework afterwards.
Right. So I, I think when we, when we introduce it in a way that's, you know, and in some ways I talk about like, it's just like, you know, in, in, in school, like kindergartners don't learn calculus, right? Like they learn one plus. Right, and in some ways, not every kid needs to grow up to develop a half an hour practice and going on retreats, as I love to do, as these practices have been important for you, Paul, but it's like even if they get the one plus one version of, here's a minute of breathing, I can tolerate a minute of silence by noticing sounds or feeling my feet on the ground.
That and just like not every a kid needs calculus. Right? Like that, that actually, and you can still have a healthy life barely passing calculus as I did. Right. We can think about teaching some of these skills in ways that are developmentally appropriate. That also can be like maybe still by 10th grader when they're 15.
They can look back and think, you know, three breaths just really helps my head back into the game. Noticing three sounds really gets me where I can sit in my seat through the class for longer without jumping up and running around and shooting this spitball or passing the note or grabbing my phone, or even that.
I know that my phone is a distraction, but maybe I pick up my phone a hundred times a day. Maybe that's a hundred times I can. Take three breaths and feel my feet and then check my phone, right? Like even that is something that's better than nothing. And I think that in that way, you know, for some kids, again, not every kid has to be a calculus kid and go on to learn, you know, advanced math.
But it's like some kids will go on. We'll start. Butterfly breaths and they'll go on to, you know, teach mindfulness and be a monk who knows what, that'd be great. Other kids will learn a butterfly breath and they'll, you know, just use that for the rest of their life. And that's fine. Right. I think when we, when we change our expectations around it too, that every kid just needs to learn enough to be helpful for them, that I think that that's the way that we teach it to to our kids as well, because we are gonna be fighting for their attention.
Not just from video games in TikTok, but also from the very real and important distractions of relationships that they have to have homework that they have to have, the chores they have at home. All these other things that are, that are really time consuming. We know our teenagers are. Really overscheduled.
We know that they're overbooked. We know the most stressed out age demographic is actually teenagers in the us. I think that's true around the world too, right? It's real like, so it is maybe just finding a minute or two here, a minute or two there that maybe they build on later in life, or maybe they don't, but they have a positive experience.
And that's, that's mostly what's important. Yeah.
And, and for those that are watching or you know, if If you're a teacher with a classroom I suppose one of the things with physical health, might have taken the priority is that we can quite clearly see, and this is a, you know, generalization here, but if you know, if we're outta shape or we haven't been exercising, you know, physically our bodies change from a mental health standpoint.
Well, sorry, going back to physical health, everyone should be doing some sort of maintenance on a day-to-day basis or a few times a week, et cetera. But on a mental health note, how would someone know, like if you're a teacher with a classroom or if you're noticing your, your students, like what are some signs that, hey, maybe the student does need, we need to take more of a focused action on this particular student or on myself?
Yeah, I think, the things that we wanna look for most, and this is other work I do a lot consulting around mental health is, is larger changes over time and more sudden changes. So everyone has their bad days, everyone gets anxious before if you didn't get stressed or anxious before a test, right? You're a sociopath or you're like the best student in the world or you don't care at all, right?
We we're supposed to feel some. Right. We're supposed to feel sad when sad things happen. We're supposed to feel disappointed when there's a breakup or we get rejected from the school of our choice or you know, we have to move. You know, parents get, you know, whatever. But it, but it's when this settles in for a long time that we want that, we start to worry.
So it's like, you know, depression, for example. You know, it's really, it's a set of symptoms like, you know, difficulty sleeping too much, too little sleeping, under sleeping, over, undereating, lack of interest in things that usually people enjoyed, right? And that's happening for more than a few weeks. But what's hard about teenagers is like, you know, their sleep schedule is, is always kind of off.
Their you know, their, their appetite changes a lot when they go through puberty. They're always eating more than they did when they were kids. You know, a lot of parents are like, is my child depressed? They're not interested. This is the most classic one I get. You know, my kid used to love karate. He doesn't do karate anymore.
Like, is he depressed? It's like, no, he's 14, and it's kind of just the nerds that still do karate. Like it's, it's okay. Like it's, you know, it's not, he's depressed, he's developmentally appropriate. He, he's supposed to be hanging out with his friends now. Like, that's, that's not a bad thing. Right? Interests change.
Anxiety. Right? Is it, you know, is it the, is it, is the anxiety keeping the kid home from school, keeping them, you know, from taking the test Right. Making their brains that they really can't study? Right. Or, or is it just, you know, more normal, right. Every kid thinks they're socially anxious. It's like, yeah, socializing is awkward.
Being a teenager is, being an adult is awkward. Right? But is it, is the social anxiety keeping you from going. Right. Is it keeping you from making any friends? Right? That's when we start to worry, right? So it's really like how much is it disrupting the child's life? And then we have this covid generation where kids haven't learned to socialize, haven't learned, so like, haven't learned to be around people.
So what's the best treatment for anxiety? It's exposure therapy. What have they not been exposed? Other people, school, challenging situations. So every kid I, I kind of think is a couple years behind where they should be socially, couple years behind where they should be emotionally. That bubble is starting to even out a little bit where kids are getting a little bit back to where they were, but still, socially kids are behind just as they're behind with their math and they've got weird gaps.
It's like this kid's division is where it should be in fifth grade, but their multiplication. What happened? It's like, well, it's because they got the division that week in school and then it got canceled the next. So think about that developmentally too, it's like some of their social skills are great, but their frustration tolerance is, you know, really not there.
Or you know, their empathy is not there, but their, you know, Manners are there, right? So it's, it's gonna take a while to sort some of this out too, in terms of what do they just not learn in the pandemic? And I think that's something to look for. And I know, you know, I know you have a lot of, you know, Asia-Pacific folks listening in, and that's a place where there were longer lockdowns and more zoom school for longer than we had in the States in Europe.
And so that might be more of a concern in those places too. No,
yeah, absolutely. I think us speaking to. An educator the other day, and one of the other, I suppose, lagging effects is that during that period of lockdowns, especially the longer lockdowns, like you mentioned a lot of the students became reliant on kind of everything being done for them.
So their lesson plans were there in front of them. They just were told very clearly what they needed to do. Unfortunately cheating a lot more. Because they could, they could. And so now that we are back at school and no longer have those resources at our fingertips, there's like a real sense of entitlement among the younger gener, well that, that kind of high school generation at the moment.
So yeah, that's, that's definitely an impact. And so if, if we were Strugglings that are really sorry, students that are really struggling. How do we get them to see the benefit in putting in the work necessary to develop the coping skills and feel better and more confident because of that?
Y y yeah. Yeah. I mean, I, I think. It TURs developmentally, kids' brains just can't see the future, can't see the impact very well. So it's like
trying to help them see that's that prefrontal context, right? That's that exactly right. It's not there till we're 30 guys. Is it? Something like that?
Exactly. Like 25, 28 actually in young men, which
I think mine just kicked in,
but like most of us.
But but, but I do think like helping kids. I think in some ways talking like I, I think something like cheating, for example. You know, like when we confront kids head on, like, you cheated. That's, but even just being like, we know that a lot of you maybe took some shortcuts and just validating that like, you know, everyone's done it.
We're not mad at you. What we want to know now is like where the gaps are because like, we're not able to tell because a lot of you cheated or because I think some of you like, I think even just sort of normalizing. You know, in some ways sounds really bizarre to do, but actually it helps kids then feel safe enough to say, I really don't know this.
And also so normalizing like that there are gaps you know, helping kids catch, catch back up in you know, where, where they have. You know, not just the academic gaps, but the social and emotional gaps. That, you know, we were all not learning how to get along with people very well. We probably all did a little bit more anonymous bullying online, you know, with strangers and friends than we used to.
I think in some ways talking about that impact and we felt that also that people were not so nice online sometimes, or, you know, it was easier to be away from people. Or it was easier to take a look at my notes when I wasn't really supposed to, or take a little bit longer when I wasn't really supposed to, or things like that.
So I think kind of validating that that happened is, is important to do. And then it can become just problem solving around, you know, well here's, here's some of what you're missing and here's where we need to, to remediate in some ways. But it's, it's hard lessons to teach. It's hard lessons to. For kids in terms of encouraging them to catch up because they feel so much like, well, I should be at this level, I should be at this.
And so I think just trying to keep normalizing just how much everyone and that everyone didn't learn something. And what. You didn't learn was spelling or what you didn't learn was your multiplication tables. And what you didn't learn was, was this. I think that can sometimes be, be a helpful, important reminder to help everyone kind of get back to the same page.
And I think a policy that might be helpful for schools to adopt if everyone's got their individual catch up time, as well as you know, their, their, their schoolwide catch up time.
Makes sense. And for our audience that's watching, what would be some practical steps that you'd recommend now for educators and parents to take away that so they can implement mindfulness if they had to walk away from your talk today and go, yeah.
These are the three things I'd like to kind of bring into my practice.
Yeah, I mean, I, I think, you know, I, I really do feel like a few things. One is starting with yourself for adults and educators to be practicing themselves. You know, if you want stressed out, miserable kids, you just surround them with stressed out, miserable adults.
If you want more mindful, present, compassionate kids, surround 'em with more mindful, present, compassionate adults. Like that's, that's really important. Our self-regulation leads to co-regulation with the kids, which leads to their self-regulation in turn. So I think for our ability to manage our stress through mindfulness or whatever it is, so that we can show up and be present as possible empathic as possible to the kids' needs, and as responsive, not reactive.
To what's happening in the school environment. So starting with ourselves before we then jump to teaching the kids. I think also the other thing I think that's really important is that we not see this as a classroom management, as a behavior management, as a disciplinary technique. You know, everyone's being, you know, too loud, like, listen to the meditation belt, right?
Like that, that's not, you know, the, the way to go with it. But what are the moments when everyone's feeling. And that's when you maybe then bring in a practice or a logical moment of transition. We're gonna ninja walk on the stairs as silently as possible. Right. Probably those camp counselors are trying to just get me to shut up.
Right? But, but again, like, you know, like how can we do it in a playful way with young kids? And then really making it practical for them. And it doesn't have to take that much time. And I think it can be a part of, you know, when we're cramming their heads for. Test prep for the university interview process for these other high stakes things like here's also how to regulate your stress and your anxiety.
Like before you go into the, the test, I want you to get a little exercise that morning. Cause actually exercise boost cognitive performance. So there's some, you know, like run up and down the stairs for five minutes and then go into the SATs or the ibs, right? And then also every three questions on the test.
Lean back, take a few breaths, press your feet into the ground. You know, look around the room, see if. Something you haven't noticed before. Notice one of each color of the rainbow, or how many things do you notice the color of the green. These activate our prefrontal cortex again, get it back online, get us self-regulated so we make it really practical and not time consuming in ways that kids can then carry forward or.
On the soccer sidelines or in the changing room or backstage, you know, before you, you go out on, you know, sing your solo for the school play or have your auditions or the debate like, so making it as practical as possible for kids, I think is the other part of it. And then practices that I think don't have to be big ones that anyone else knows that they're doing it.
You go like this, no one knows that you're actually self-regulating. You take a few breaths, you notice three sounds. No one else knows that you're doing that except for you. And I think for teenagers who are so self-conscious, I think that's, that's particularly important. So yeah, those are a few ways to, to bring this in.
Yeah, thanks. Thanks for sharing all of that. And if our audience watching would like to stay connected with your work and learn more, how can they do that?
Absolutely. You can find me at drchristopherwillard.com.
You can find me on, on social media, which I preach the evils of all the time. You can find me there on Instagram and Facebook @drchriswillard or on LinkedIn @DrChrisWillard on all the usual social
Awesome. And there'll be a winner for the book pack that we announced.
Awesome. So that'll be coming up as well. So yeah, for, for those of you watching if you go onto Amazon and search Dr. Chris Willard, you'll see the list of books that Chris has written and, and they're all very good. So thanks so much for your time today. Chris has been great to, great to connect with you and I've loved learning more about it.
So yeah. Can't wait to kind of keep in touch with your work and, and stay connected.
Thank you so much. Take care. Have a wonderful afternoon, evening, morning, whatever. It's good morning.
Yeah, you have a good, you have a good evening, Chris. Thank you very much. Bye.