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The mindfulness coach changing Kiwi kids' lives by teaching them how to meditate

Giving children the skills to deal with stress and negative emotions is vital for their mental health, says mindfulness coach Kristina Cavit.

Do you remember what would happen to the "difficult" kids at school?
How, after a class interruption or one too many cheeky comments, they'd be sent out of the classroom to the principal's office, where whatever knot of anger that was inside them would just grow and grow?
Well, there's an alternative. What if, instead of being told off, the student was sent to a quiet, calm room where a staff member would discuss their feelings with them and lead them in some breathing exercises or meditation before sending them back to class?
Your reaction to this is likely to depend on where you fall on the touchy-feely scale. But for The Kindness Institute founder Kristina Cavit and her loyal students, the results of regular meditation are tough to argue with.
For the past four years, Kristina has been going into schools and communities around Auckland to teach yoga and meditation to marginalised youth.
The outcome has been a reduction in worrying behaviour – behaviour that can range from self-harm through to criminal activity.
The problem, in a nutshell, is that many young people are not being taught how to handle stress or negative emotions. And, for some, that snowballs into bigger problems both at school and at home.
With no outlet, they run the risk of being labelled "difficult" or "bad". Once that label is attached to a kid, it often sticks – with the children themselves believing it too.
"The amount of kids who have the reputation in school that they're naughty, or who get kicked out of school, who have not had the support they deserve – for whatever reason – is huge," Kristina says.
"There are too many teenagers who have fallen through the system."
According to one government statistic, New Zealand has 81,000 young people not in employment, education or training.
"We need to be reaching them at a young age, rather than being an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff."

Kristina's change of direction

Kristina with Governor General Dame Patsy Reddy in 2018 after receiving her MNZM honour.
In 2018 Kristina was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the Queen's Birthday Honours for services to youth and community, but none of this was in her initial life plan, she says.
She had wanted to be an actress when she was younger, and did a drama degree at university. It was on a post-study trip to South America to learn Spanish that her life path took a swift turn.
"I saw some horrific things that opened my eyes," she recalls.
"Young children being forced into prostitution and addiction, 11-year-old kids in Bolivia living a life I don't think any child – or anyone – should be living. That's when I decided to get more involved in supporting marginalised youth."
Kristina started working with NPH International, a charitable organisation that sets up homes for orphaned or abandoned children in nine different countries.
"I was supposed to be there a month but I ended up staying for two years," she says.
She worked in both the Dominican Republic NPH home and also the Haiti one, in the aftermath of the devastating 2010 earthquake.
The work was hard but rewarding – Kristina speaks fondly of her time there helping with earthquake relief programmes and education projects. But it started to become overwhelming: the number of children needing a home, needing love, was steadily growing.
Kristina could feel herself starting to burn out but was desperate to keep working, so she dusted off a skill she'd learned in her childhood, when her mum used to take her along to yoga classes.
Each morning, Kristina started practising yoga and meditation to stay calm
"I think it saved me," she says.
When she realised how much it was helping her, she decided to incorporate it into the drama classes she was teaching the NPH kids.
"They responded really well," she says. "Caribbean culture is very passionate, loud and extroverted, so the classroom would often be quite chaotic. It went from that chaos to a real sense of peace. They just loved it, they wanted more and more."
It would be easy to read all this and assume that Kristina was, well, a do-gooder. The 31-year-old has the sweet, peaceful voice of someone who teaches meditation for a living, but there's nothing holier than thou about her.
"The other day, someone who knows me really well said, 'You've got such a sarcastic, wicked sense of humour, and you're actually kind of an a**hole, but you spend all your time doing this great stuff – why is that?' and I said, 'Because of what I saw in South America. When you see that kind of thing, you can't turn your back on it.'"
Working with children overseas inspired Kristina's work here.
The ironic part is that for a long time Kristina wasn't all that fussed on yoga.
Her mother and grandmother are great fans – at 91, her grandmother still does a weekly chair yoga class at her rest home.
"I've always had a lot of energy and I'm someone who enjoys being quite busy – so being still is quite excruciating for me," Kristina laughs. "And I had a real hatred for exercise. I was never good at sports."
Kristina moved back to New Zealand in 2011 to fundraise for NPH, which now houses more than 4000 orphaned children in South America.
While setting up a not-for-profit NPH branch here she also wanted to continue her work with yoga and meditation.
"When I saw how something so simple could have such a profound impact, it seemed stupid not to do it here," she says.

Studying in America

In 2015, she went to the USA to learn more.
She studied through Jon Kabat-Zinn's Centre for Mindfulness, becoming a mindfulness coach and learning why yoga and meditation have such a positive effect on the brain.
Then she headed to California to learn under Byron Katie, a teacher who has been hugely influential to the likes of Oprah and Elizabeth Gilbert.
"She teaches a process of questioning our stressful thoughts and gaining freedom from them, which I found life-changing."
But it was her third place of study that proved the most important: The Holistic Life Foundation in Baltimore, one of the 10 most dangerous cities in America.
Children in its high-crime communities were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder because they all knew someone who had been shot or killed or was currently in prison.
The foundation, which was set up in 2001, teaches meditation in schools throughout Baltimore. The results – suspension rates have dropped from 85 per cent to two per cent – are so outstanding that both Harvard and John Hopkins Medical School in the US are supporting the programme.
This made Kristina determined to bring that type of teaching to New Zealand.
She began The Kindness Institute in 2015 to help Kiwi youth create better tools for dealing with stress and emotion.
"The young people I work with are marginalised youth, some suffering from stress. They're those that have low self-efficacy but loads of potential – youth who need support managing their minds and emotions."
The Kindness Institute has already reached more than 800 young people, and the demand for the programme has increased 500 per cent in the past year alone. It's now being taught in various high schools and primary schools around Auckland, as well as community centres and teenagers from youth justice.
Part of the success is that Kristina designed the course with lots of invaluable input from the very people she was hoping to reach.
"We have to listen to our young people and what they need. You ask any 15-year-old what stresses them out and you'll get anything from peer pressure, to pressure from parents, pressure from schools to achieve, body image issues, the pressure to keep up with everyone – I think social media has a lot to answer for with our young people," she says.
The students she interviewed also said she would have her work cut out for her to get everyone on board.
"It was interesting hearing their opinions on how it was going to go, with boys and girls mixed in together, doing something out of their comfort zone where they have to be physical, plus yoga."
The stakes are high, Kristina says.
"New Zealand is appalling in terms of mental health. Out of everywhere I've been in the world, we have the most toxic approach to it: 'toughen up,' 'she'll be right'. We need to change the conversation around mental health and teach our young people that their mental health is more important than their success."
A report from the government released in June 2018 backs this up.
Dr Ian Lambie, the Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor, has said that mental health plays a massive role in cycles of trauma, offending and imprisonment and the study found that 50 to 75 per cent of young offenders meet the diagnostic criteria for a mental illness or substance addiction.
According to a 2017 UNICEF report, we have the highest youth suicide rate in the developed world – twice as high as the US and almost five times the UK rate.
Maori and Pacific Island men have even higher rates of suicide than their European counterparts – and we also have one of the world's worst records for bullying.
In the 2012/13 New Zealand Health Survey, mental disorder rates were 1.6 times higher in the most deprived areas than for those living in the least deprived areas, and rates of psychological distress 2.5 times higher.
"We need to share these tools of emotional intelligence and how to build positive mental health with our young people in all schools throughout the country," Kristina says, "rather than figuring it out 30 years down the track, or for some of us 70, 80 years down the track. Some of us never figure out our minds, because we've never been taught."

One of the most powerful tools when it comes to dealing with anyone who suffers from mental health issues is making them realise a) they're not crazy and b) they're not the only one who feels that way.
"When our kids learn that they're not alone, that every stressful thought they've had someone else has also had, you see that switch flick. And understanding both mental health illness and neuroscience is a total relief because you learn that nothing is wrong with you, that this is something everyone goes through at different stages, at different levels and it's a chemical reaction, so you need support to overcome that."
In a dream world, Kristina says, there would be weekly classes in every school where – as she does with The Kindness Institute – young people are taught about their emotional selves.
"How to handle stress, conflict, how to have difficult conversations. How to forgive yourself, how to forgive others… a mindfulness stress-management programme in every school," Kristina says.
"Meditation in every school twice a day, counselling and therapy for everyone who needs it. I think that would be a good start."

Fundraising

As for most not-for-profit organisations, sourcing funds is an ongoing challenge.
Kristina estimates that about 70 per cent of her time is spent on fundraising, which she says is frustrating as it slows down the process of getting the work into the places it needs to be.
She sells "Aroha mai, aroha atu" T-shirts ("Love and compassion received, love and compassion given") online through thekindnessinstitute.com website, with all proceeds going to their work.
Last year, she raised $20,000 via PledgeMe.
As well as working in schools, Kristina also runs a mindfulness coaching business, with the proceeds from that supporting the not-for-profit work.The greatest advocates for the work of The Kindness Institute are the young people themselves, who have not only learned the skills but taken them back into their homes and communities.
"It has this ripple effect where we have parents now learning – I had a mum come up to me in tears, thanking me for teaching her son meditation because he's now teaching her and it's changed her life.
"The kids' testimonials are proof that we're doing the right thing. It's not rocket science – it's just providing some really basic tools that you're not taught in school. And no matter what behaviours our young people might show, we will always love them, we will always show up for them, we will always be there. So we're providing stability and a whole lot of love to kids who might not always get it."

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