Today I got to speak with Ms. Grace Helms Kotre, from Power to Be, who is a certified mindfulness instructor for schools and families.

          Please tell us a little about yourself, what drew you to mindful education, and the Power to Be mission.

It’s so nice to meet you, Adam. Thank you for the work you do. A little bit about me… My background is in child development, community organizing, and social justice advocacy. I bring my experience in these areas into my current work as a mindfulness instructor for youth and adults. My family and I live in Ann Arbor, MI and are grateful to have a loving, supportive community here. Outside of mindfulness, my passions are dance, yoga, being outside, and playing with my daughters.

About nine years ago, I had a transformative experience. I had begun practicing mindfulness meditation with a teacher to help myself through a traumatic experience and deep depression. A short time later, something significant shifted within me, my depression lifted, and I was able to begin healing. I’ve continued a daily meditation practice ever since, and I’ve felt the benefits of it in every area of my life. It has improved my relationships, balanced my mental, emotional, and physical health, and given me the courage to live authentically and wholeheartedly.

This experience inspired me to become a trained mindfulness instructor to share the transformative power of mindfulness with others. I decided to focus on children both because I love connecting with youth and because mindfulness can offer life-long benefits if learned at a young age. In 2016, I received my certification through Mindful Schools, an amazing non-profit organization bringing mindfulness to teachers and children in schools all over the world. That same year, I founded Power to Be, LLC with the mission of empowering youth through mindfulness. The use of the word “power” is intentional and very meaningful for me. Mindfulness helps us to discover our inner power to be kinder, braver, smarter, and happier… the power to be our best selves.

          I love the quote on your website: “This process of self-discovery leads to a deeper understanding of the shared human experience. We realize the interconnectedness of all things and our role in affecting the lives of others with our thoughts, words, and actions.” It seems so simple, so why isn’t everyone practicing some form of mindfulness with their kids? Maybe they don’t believe that these techniques can help their kids be healthier and change the world. How do we convince them?

Thank you for this question – it’s one that I’ve asked myself from time to time. In my experience of studying some of the neuroscience behind mindfulness, I’ve come to appreciate why we don’t do what may be healthiest for ourselves and others. Through our biology and experiences, we are deeply conditioned to behave in certain ways. In general, we tend to act from the primal part of the brain, seeking pleasure/safety and avoiding pain/stress. Even if we believe that something might be good for us (like eating an apple instead of French fries), we often find ourselves making the less healthy choice! Although mindfulness can help us to challenge these habitual behaviors and live our values to a greater extent, we first have to be ready and willing to learn something new. That timing is going to be different for everyone.

Beyond of the individual conditioning behind our choices are the social conditions of our lives. As helpful as mindfulness can be, there is a question of access. Who gets to be “well” in our society? It’s hard to imagine a person who is working two jobs to support their family also finding the time to teach their children mindfulness. This is why bringing mindfulness into public schools is so important. And there is also the question of how mindfulness is being taught: is it accessible to children of all backgrounds and identities? Systemic injustice (classism, racism, sexism, ableism, etc.) is present in all areas of our society. There are leaders in the mindfulness movement talking about these issues, and I believe they need to be brought up more.

          How can we get all the companies with similar missions to understand that we will make more positive change in this world for the next generation if we work together? What ideas do you have to scale up to get these programs in all schools in the country?

Yes, working together is important. In fact, I believe that if more adults in leadership positions practiced mindfulness, it would naturally improve collaboration! In this vein, I think that the many mindfulness conferences and summits happening these days (both in-person and online) are important. These community forums offer opportunities to learn from one another, ask questions of others in the field, and to develop best practices for bringing mindfulness into each of our areas of the world.

In terms of scaling mindfulness in education programs, I believe that implementation is most effective when it develops organically in a school or other institution. I love providing workshops and classes for parents, educators, and social service professionals. These adults can introduce mindfulness to children at home, in schools, in community organizations, and elsewhere. I’ve also observed children (who are really excited about mindfulness) take on leadership roles in sharing mindfulness with their communities! I think this is the most sustainable way to grow the movement.

          If you had to pick one mental exercise for parents and kids in early learning, middle school, and high school to learn, what would it be and why?

The activity I would choose for all age groups is mindful breathing. The breath is always present and accessible, and mindful breathing has a physiological calming effect on the nervous system.

We can practice mindful breathing by tuning into the sensation of breath anytime, cultivating the habit of mindfulness. Or we take a few mindful breaths during challenging moments to deactivate the stress reaction and make a thoughtful decision about how to respond. We can also practice mindful breathing formally in meditation, letting our attention rest on the sensation of breath at the nose, throat, or chest/belly. Each time our attention wanders, we gently return it to the sensation of breath. Young children can lie down and place a stuffed animal on their bellies. They can watch their “belly buddy” rise and fall. Bringing attention to breath in these ways is a great way to start practicing mindfulness!

          What advice do you have for teachers, administrators, healthcare practitioners, and especially parents as it relates to mindful learning?

My best advice is to start with ourselves. Mindfulness can only be learned from the inside out. We first develop our own mindfulness practice through formal meditation and/or bringing mindful awareness to our daily lived experiences. With a personal practice in place, we can authentically and skillfully support others in developing their own practice. I love using the analogy of the airplane safety instructions: “Put your own oxygen mask on before assisting others!” This is absolutely true for mindfulness.

Our personal practice can both directly and indirectly benefit the children in our lives: we can share skills and practice mindfulness together; and the increased emotional balance, attention, and compassion mindfulness brings to our lives can enhance the quality of our relationships.

Ultimately, mindfulness is about how we relate to all of life’s experiences. With mindfulness, we intentionally relate to ourselves and to others with an open-hearted awareness. This approach can, as I’ve seen in my own life, create both subtle and dramatic internal and external shifts. Mindfulness is a powerful tool that exists within each of us. All we have to do is learn how to use it.

Thank you Ms. Grace Helms Kotre, from Power to Be. Everyone check out her workshops and presentations. The future of the world may depend on it.

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