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Take a Brain Break with Goldie Hawn

This article was originally published The ASHA Leader. Read the original article HERE.

By Jillian Kornak

The ASHA Leader, October 2017, Vol. 22, 56-58. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR3.22102017.56

Goldie Hawn wants children to use their brains. More than that, she wants children to learn what the parts of the brain do and use this knowledge to improve their learning and life skills.

By integrating research-based social-emotional learning tactics into classrooms, Hawn believes we can create generations of engaged learners equipped to excel in the real world.’

“In my estimation, there’s the holistic teaching of a child that isn’t just about reading, writing and math,” she says. “It’s really about how we help them learn.” The actress, known for her comedic roles in films like “Private Benjamin,” “Overboard” and “The First Wives Club,” is passionate about early education.

“Kids today need to know how to live in the world,” Hawn says. “They need to know how to negotiate. They need to have a deeper understanding of how to navigate through the new world we’re living in. And kids that do well socially and emotionally, they actually do better in life!”

At the ASHA Convention, Nov. 9-11 in Los Angeles, attendees will hear from Hawn herself in her keynote address about the importance of teaching children about the brain.

Hawn’s interest in the brain and coping skills took off alongside her Hollywood career in the early 1970s, when she began practicing mindfulness (the process of being completely present in the moment and calmly acknowledging your thoughts or feelings). She was a regular cast member on the sketch-comedy show “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” and had won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in “Cactus Flower.”

“My career was flying, I had lots of things going on in my life—lots of changes. And so it was important to find a way to keep some order and practice stress reduction,” she says.

Reconnecting with her deeper self, she adds, was a tremendously joyful and illuminating experience. This personal mindfulness journey led her to read up on how the brain works and to learn the science behind achieving happiness.

She began researching neuroscience and psychology to gain a better understanding of her brain as a muscle. And when her own three children, Kate, Wyatt and Oliver, reached elementary school, she started to see how this new way of thinking might apply to early education. Hawn recalls seeing her children try to learn lesson material or complete homework, but often they were just using rote memorization instead of really engaging with the material.

“That was the first clue that I had that education was something that mattered to me, whether it was for my children or others,” she says. Hawn then expanded her research into social and emotional learning (the process by which people learn to manage emotions, set positive goals and maintain positive relationships) and positive psychology (the study of the science of happiness) to learn how the principles of recognizing and managing one’s emotions could boost children’s retention of lesson material and ability to focus.

“As time went on, along with my own practice I started studying the brain,” Hawn explains. “I started understanding things about the mind, understanding things about psychology, and was focused now on raising children and realizing that our kids really go through their own brain growth and their own assimilation to try and find out who they are. Which is a very tough time for kids!”

The 9/11 attacks were a catalyst for Hawn to put her personal research into practice. “I took action because I could see that children were really going into what they call ‘silent distress.’ They don’t know how to assimilate it, they don’t know what to do with it because they’re not developed enough, but they feel it. And it does have an effect, neurologically, on them. Because they are in uncertainty, they’re on alert … and it mitigates their ability to learn,” she says.

She founded the nonprofit Hawn Foundation in 2002 with the MindUP™ curriculum as its signature program. The MindUP curriculum is based on four strategic pillars: neuroscience, mindful awareness, positive psychology and social-emotional learning. There are 15 lessons within the curriculum, which is tailored to children from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade (available for a cost). MindUP can be used by individual teachers for just their classroom, be adopted district-wide for multiple schools and grade levels, or be used by parents at home.

The MindUP framework was developed by a team of neuroscientists, psychologists and experts in early education research. The organization’s Scientific Research Advisory Board is chaired by Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, an applied developmental psychologist and a professor in the Human Development, Learning, and Culture area at the University of British Columbia’s Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology and Special Education.

For Hawn, it’s all about giving children the tools they need to be better learners, and ultimately, better people.

“It’s really about how we help them learn,” she says. “How we help them understand not only themselves, but themselves in relation to learning, and opening up their minds and working their prefrontal cortex in a way that really gives them the opportunity to remember. They learn all these little parts of the brain that will help them through their life.”

One of the key strategies, according to Hawn, is introducing the practice of “brain breaks.” Three times per day, for three minutes, the classroom becomes quiet as the teacher leads the children through mindful breathing exercises. The goal of this exercise is to stabilize emotional thinking to help them refocus and, as Hawn says, “to get their brain working appropriately rather than sort of hijacking higher and better thinking, which ultimately is better for themselves and for others around them.”

Hawn notes that many children today come into the classroom with a host of issues that may stem from their home and personal lives and hamper their ability to learn. This is where brain breaks can help mitigate emotional reactions while creating an optimistic classroom environment.

“They do it every day, it becomes about aspects of being mindful, aspects of being kind, aspects of saying ‘OK, let’s quiet down our amygdala. We’re going to do a brain break right now,'” she says. As children get a better handle on their stress levels, says Hawn, their ability to focus on lessons and retain information becomes stronger.

Brain science is a key pillar of the framework, notes Hawn: “When children learn [about] their brain … they really begin to have context about how they can stay in control. It creates an ability for a child to say ‘I have potential, my brain is my own. I understand when I’m anxious or fearful or angry what’s really going on and if it’s not in my best interest, what can I do about it?'”

In addition to the neuroscience component, MindUP also integrates exercises already familiar to many ASHA members working with people with autism spectrum disorder: empathy-building and perspective-taking activities. For now, the MindUP framework extends to eighth grade. Hawn says she would eventually like to expand the program into high school, but notes that since the children acquire this brain-based knowledge early on, they are able to access these stress-management skills as they grow into adulthood. “It’s like riding a bike, you don’t forget it,” says Hawn.

Due to the modular nature of the curriculum, MindUP has even been used in two schools for the deaf and several youth detention centers. “We are working with children who have disabilities and are able to translate some of the things that we’re doing in a different way,” says Hawn, noting that the use of visual aids and images was particularly effective with students who are deaf.

And what about teachers who may already feel burned out by the daily demands of their classroom? “This is not just a child program. This is an extremely fundamental program on how you are able to manage not only your life or your reactivity, but also calm your classroom down,” says Hawn.

By Hawn’s estimation, the MindUP program has reached more than several million children in nine countries. “We’re beginning to give them tools for navigation into the world and I think ultimately it could create a more beautiful, healthier world. That’s a big dream, but you know I think we can do it within our own community.”

For more on MindUP, including how to implement the program, visit And don’t miss Goldie Hawn’s keynote session at the ASHA Convention in Los Angeles on Thursday, Nov. 9!