Goldie Hawn, Actress Turned 'Happiness Expert,' Says 'Brain Breaks' Help Kids Learn

Actress turned "happiness expert" says kids need more optimism in the classroom.

September 26, 2011, 9:28 PM

Sept. 27, 2011— -- Goldie Hawn, the sunny, comedic actress turned influential "happiness expert," has been working to revolutionize the classroom environment by incorporating mediation and "brain breaks" to make kids better students.

"It's not anything magical. It's all biological and neurological," Hawn told "Nightline" anchor Cynthia McFadden. "So let's just take a breath and take a break. Teachers need it. Kids need it."

Hawn has spent the past 10 years studying cognitive function and how the brain works. Founder of the Hawn Foundation, the 65-year-old star worked with neurologists and psychologists to create the MindUp program, a plan to help a generation of stressed-out kids manage their mental energy. Her book, "10 Mindful Minutes," outlines the elements of the program as sort of a guidebook for parents and teachers to use with kids.

"I wanted to write something that was sort of instructive, in a way," she said.

A regular mediator herself, Hawn's MindUp program suggests that children should have two-minute moments of self-reflection and meditation three times daily, with the idea that it will calm kids and allow them to focus better.

"You go inward for a while. It's important to do that ... it helps relax your brain and strengthen your brain," she said. "It gives great context into behavior, emotions, ways of forgiving themselves by understanding their brain, reactivity, stress, how to reduce our stress, how to recognize it."

PHOTOS: Goldie Hawn Through the Years

While meditation is part of the program, Hawn said, the idea is less spiritual than physiological.

"This is brain fitness," she said. "This is something that we have not done for our children. We know way too much about the brain to keep them in the dark."

Children are stressed, Hawn says, because they are under pressure to perform well in school and they are over-worked and over-scheduled. In short, it's vital to find time to just breathe.

"An optimistic mind, an optimistic environment, actually opens the mind and helps children learn," she said. "When they're learning in a stressful environment, fearful environment, it shuts down their ability of their executive function."

The program is now being used in hundreds of schools in the United Kingdom and United States.

Hawn's fascination with how the mind works began with her own personal reflections. Growing up in a suburb of Washington, D.C., Hawn said she originally wanted to be a professional dancer. She started her career performing ballet and then later moved into doing television and film. Hawn won her first Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in the 1969 film, "Cactus Flower," but while she played happy-go-lucky characters on-screen, she was struggling to cope with being famous off-screen.

"I went through periods of, you know, real happy and then other times, I sort of lost my smile," Hawn said. "I just wasn't doing what I thought I was going to do in life. … I really became, I think, destabilized, really, because it wasn't my expectation to be in front of the camera that way. I mean, I was a dancer. I thought that's what I was going to do.

"I was having anxiety attacks, basically, and panic attacks," she continued. "That's when I really started delving into what was really going on with me. ... I really delved into self-discovery, various and sunny things that actually brought me peace, understanding and even cognitive understanding of what was going on about my life."

Goldie Hawn's Advice to Parents: Be Happy, 'Children Mirror Who You Are'

Despite her successful career as an actor and comedian, Hawn said she began researching brain function after the 9/11 terror attacks.

"I really thought that at that point the world would never be the same again, that our children were going to be inheriting a lot of issues, a lot of problems," she said. "I thought 'what can I do? What can one person do to change the way things are?'"

Hawn said when she saw statistics on increasing depression, suicide and dropout rates among students, she decided to create a foundation to help "bring optimism back into the classroom."

Working with children has been a natural fit for this mother of four, whose children include fellow movie star Kate Hudson.

"I'm very proud of Katie. She really, really is comfortable in her own skin. She likes being who she is. ... I think all our children like who they are," Hawn said, "We're a big, laughing family."

Hawn's advice to other parents was to encourage them to find those "10 minutes for yourself," because the secret to raising happy children is to be happy.

"Children mirror who you are," she said. "If you're happy, if you show them smiles, if you show them good attitude, if you show them kindness, understanding, fun. … They just replicate it."

Even though her last movie was "The Banger Sisters" in 2002, it's not hard to remember that Hawn's glowing personality is what made her a movie star. She is working on an upcoming film.

"There is something right now for [Diane Keaton, Bette Midler] and I to do together," she said. "We have not seen it yet. It's not 'First Wives Club 2.' I think it's too late for that, but it is some other funny idea for a movie, so we will see what happens."

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