Toronto’s Kaela Bree is on a mission to increase mindfulness, and she’s starting with today’s youth. She’s helping kids learn life skills and delivering important lessons by way of movement; in one program she teaches conflict resolution through martial arts. The Australian-bred entrepreneur is the woman behind X Movement, an elementary school-aged program that gets kids physically out from behind their desks while mentally tackling heavy subjects. Her program embraces technology and uses game-based play to complement the live component in a formula that’s taken off in Ontario and is spreading throughout Canada and the United States. Launching and growing a company is never easy, but Kaela – who has definitely learned a thing or two along the way – laughs at challenges, knowing she can’t be broken. Always rewriting her story, she lives in the moment and basks in the beauty of life instead of harping on defeats. As her high performing team continues to deliver X Movement to schools across North America, Kaela plays with a variety of new projects – from engagement opportunities with corporate partners to an urban mindfulness and movement studio – as she continues to develop her philosophy and programs in an effort to take things next level – and to ultimately change the world.
I did my 500 hr yoga teachers certification
Life is really what you choose it to be
I read a lot.
Meditation has cultivated a deep and profound connection to myself
Everything I do in business is driven by a big vision and mission to leave a positive impact on the world
I make my own essential oils infused with intentions.
My Nana is a strong role model
Whether its painting or poetry
Music can heal the world
Don't Break the Chain - Calendar X system
Dreamtime sessions are brainstorming sessions where you use post-it's to come up with ideas
A special concoction I make to energize myself in the morning
I understand you have many projects on the go and identify as an entrepreneur. Is there a specific lens or focus you view all your work through?
My focus and mission on this planet is to help raise consciousness and contribute to global enlightenment. What that means is to help people connect with themselves. I want people to wake up and reflect inwards in order to become better humans, so we can have more people on the planet working on some of the global problems that humanity will inevitably be facing in the future. The big big issues are here and will keep coming, whether it’s environmental problems, poverty or something else.
And how does this mission connect to your entrepreneurial endeavors?
Every business or project I choose to create lines up with helping raise consciousness within people. For example, my in-school program X Movement uses live experiences as well as technology to help kids connect to themselves, build greater awareness of their relationships with others, and inspire better empathy and understanding of the world around them.
Tell us more about the X Movement program.
X Movement as an organization is the most successful company I’ve got at this stage. We’ve been into 3,000 schools in Canada. Foundationally, we go into schools to do the live portion of the program – dance, yoga, or martial arts – but it’s all about teaching kids life education and skills; some life skills aren’t necessarily taught in school but probably should be. We also have a digital platform that’s game-based – teachers use it in the classroom to deliver daily physical activities and help students practice mindfulness. We focus on building healthy habits while using the school as a community hub. All the activities are obviously designed for the students, but we also have a variety of products and services that are geared toward the community; we get parents and families into the school to participate in the program as well, and our technology product extends into family homes so kids can share the experiences they’re having in the classroom.
And how does X Movement work logistically?
It’s a year-round program; a school will opt for one of our physical experiences. We’ll go into the school with our coaches – called energizers – and they’ll deliver the movement and mindfulness experiences to the school. For example, our dance program teaches diversity, our yoga program teaches self regulation, and our martial arts program teaches conflict resolution. The school can choose one or all of the experiences and is provided with our live program as well as our technology platform as a sustainability tool – so they can extend the program beyond the live experience. Students get to do short bursts of daily activity inside the classroom and teachers use the program and technology to extend the lesson for six weeks afterwards. Schools that do all three of the programs are basically participating for the entire year.
Could you tell me more about the game component of the program?
That’s built into our technology platform, X Movement online – it’s a game-based platform in which classes earn points as a team, so the more students participate in both the physical activity and mindfulness activity, the more points they earn for their class. They can earn rewards as well, and the reward scoreboard tallies points within the schools so classes can challenge other classes or schools can challenge other schools; eventually we’re going to have states challenging other states and countries challenging other countries.
Wow, that sounds really exciting; where are you delivering it now, and where do you hope to focus your energy in the coming years?
My vision is to be in every school in the world! For the last three years I’ve focused on getting the model right in Ontario, and next year and the year after we’re finally ready to expand to Alberta and B.C. I’m also launching U.S. operations and opening an office in San Francisco, California. We’re in talks now with a number of larger organizations too, such as the UN, the Mindup (Goldie Hawn’s mindfulness foundation) and a number of organizations in Canada, like Corus Entertainment, et cetera. We’re going to start doing partnerships and integrating some of the curriculums and mandates of these larger organizations into our programming; then we’ll execute in collaboration and help them get into schools.
Going back to the beginning for a moment - where did the concept for X Movement come from?
I was an actress back in Australia for a number of years, and whilst I was acting I did a number of different in-school programs. I did an anti-bullying show that toured Australia for a year teaching hundreds of thousands kids. I managed to go on to establish a relatively successful film and TV career and was doing quite well for the first one-to-two years, but I got to the point where the industry wasn’t serving my soul and I wasn’t so sure I wanted to take that very long road towards trying to become a famous actress. I had to decide what I wanted to do with my life long-term and when I asked myself what really made me happy, the answer was very easy. I’m happiest when I’m working with kids, whether it be working in schools with the anti-bullying program or doing a touring show for Australian children’s hospitals; I even performed as Scooby-Doo and Cinderella at kids’ birthday parties. In that moment I decided I was going to pivot my career and focus on transforming the lives of kids through entertainment and performance.
So how did you decide to focus specifically on programming that teaches skills while empowering kids to get active?
Around that same time I met my business partner; he was a PhysEd teacher who was very passionate about Australian sports and he’d been offered a job running the Australian football league in Canada. I was already contemplating where my life was going next, and it just made sense for me to go to Canada with him – so we both moved to Toronto. I’d always run my own companies to supplement my acting and support myself – I started my first business when I was 11 – and so I suggested we start a business together. About five years prior to that he’d been teaching Aussie football in Canadian schools while on a student exchange, and we decided to integrate entertainment and life education into the Australian sport concept. For five years we ran our company, Aussie X, and it did incredibly well – we even got a deal on Dragon’s Den!
I like to say that Aussie X was my MBA; it taught me the lessons of entrepreneurship the hard way and there was a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. I thought that I knew how to be an entrepreneur and I’d run a company before but the reality is suddenly very different when you have staff, and then trouble with a business partner. We got to the point where Aussie X was doing really well externally – as far as the public was concerned – but on the inside we were near bankrupt and having all kinds of issues. I had to take a step back, look at what we were doing and what we were trying to do, and decide if it was a sustainable model.
What gave you the push to take your concept back to the drawing board and reinvent your company?
This is a long story so I won’t go into the full details, but around the same time I happened to have an out-of-body experience. I was in Iceland and I had a very clear vision of looking at myself and what I’d created in the world; I saw a pathway to this game that I’d create that would help raise consciousness and get us to the point of global enlightenment. The first step was to go back to Toronto and take what we’d done with Aussie X and create X Movement; I needed to position myself to become the expert in providing transformational experiences for the wellbeing of school communities, where the diginatives – the next generation – were coming up. I got the message that it’s a new world we’re playing in, and so I needed to make sure the programming was designed for the kids and by the kids, integrating technology, entertainment, game-based learning, and life education, all wrapped around high-level pedagogy in character education and 21st century learning.
And so how did you make it a reality?
At the time we didn’t have a whole lot of money to make it happen; I ended up finding an angel investor who came on board and sort of helped us restructure and relaunch and rebrand. Over the next three years we launched the three programs – dance, martial arts and yoga – and built our technology platform. We focused on getting that model right, and now that we’ve got our systems right, we’re at the stage where we’re close to the largest organization of our kind in North America. Now we’re talking to corporate partners and the government and figuring out how we can get our programs subsidized for schools. One thing my sales guys say to me is ‘KB, schools never say no to our programs, they only say no due to budget restrictions.’ We currently sell school to school, but that’s not really a scalable model if we really want to reach every school in the world.
Why do you consider this program valuable for your target demographic?
Between the ages of six to twelve it’s a foundational time; children are defining their characters, who they are, their belief systems and how they relate to the world. They’re building characteristics and systems that they’ll take with them into their adolescence. Some studies have shown that by the time a person hits adolescence they’ve already defined the neurological pathways around their identity. To define character in elementary school is very important; in fact, it’s known across the education sector in North America, but the issue is that there are competing priorities.
Can you give me an example of a competing priority?
One issue is North America’s numeracy and literacy rates are really quite low on the global scale, and when teachers are measured right now they’re measured on the numeracy and literacy of their students rather than their students’ character attributes. When they’re presented with a choice as to what they’re going to teach in the classroom, most teachers are going to go with what they know, what’s in the curriculum, and what’s being measured.
To follow up, some people believe the education system doesn’t cater to a variety of learning types. What’s your take on that?
I think that anybody claiming to have an opinion of the education system as whole has to be very careful. In North America, there are certain states, private schools, charter schools, and model schools that are doing some really innovative, forward-thinking restructuring. In general I’d say yes, the education model doesn’t cater to all of the different learning styles. However, in saying that, the education system across the board knows that this is the case. Most districts and boards are doing all they can to integrate pedagogy, alternate learning styles, and methods into model schools – test schools – in order to figure out what works and how to revolutionize the way we’re teaching. One great example of something many schools are testing is enquiry-based learning, where an instructor presents a topic and the students ask questions around that topic to make the learning more experiential. I think that’s closer to the future of education – experiential models cater to many more learning styles. There’s also another sort of focus for educational reform: student-led learning, in which a student expands a profile and customizes their education in accordance with who they are and how they learn. While the majority of schools aren’t there yet, I would say that as a whole there’s a lot of hope; most districts, provinces, and states are really making progress in testing different methodologies.
Do you feel that attaching physical activity to a curriculum helps children learn?
One hundred per cent. I don’t need to convince anybody that physical activity or mindfulness is good for a student’s learning outcome; that’s been proven again and again. Research has shown that kids that are active and integrate moments of calm and mindfulness, and kids that have critical life skills such as communication and relationship skills, empathy, compassion and kindness, are more foundationally equipped and more likely to have better learning outcomes. The question then becomes what the next step is – how do we actually get this to be part of the fabric of education? One of the things that I’ve witnessed over the years is that there are a lot of incredible policies and academic resources in education that get created at the board or government level, but it’s a top-down system. What I hear from the teachers on the ground is more along the lines of ‘oh surprise, surprise! There’s another program being introduced this year!’ There always seems to be a brand new way of doing things that comes with a giant booklet, and it gets put on the shelf because the method of communicating the material is not designed for the limited time teachers have available. There’s an interesting gap between these incredible resources and the practicality of the classroom; these tools need to be in the hands of teachers who believe in them and are empowered and enabled to actually use them.
So how does your program differ?
That’s one of the things that I’m working on solving! We want to help the teachers and take it out of their hands so it’s not adding more onto their workload. We’re looking at simple plug and play solutions, delivered in a way designed for both digital natives and time-limited teachers.
I know you must’ve spent considerable time on market research - what are teachers telling you?
Most teachers want to have an impact on their kids; they generally want to see that their kids are healthy, happy, and learning what they need to learn. A lot of teachers have said there’s a problem though; they say, ‘Kaela, I feel more like a counsellor, or therapist, or life coach, or nanny than I do a teacher because our kids are faced with all these behavior problems. Anxiety rates are increasing, there’s depression, everything.’ This is elementary school age kids we’re talking about here.
What do you attribute these behavioural and mental health issues to?
This one is less validated in research – it’s purely from my personal experience in working with youth in the last 15 years – but I think it’s pretty obvious it’s technology. Most kids now have some kind of technological device in their hands from toddler age, and as a result they have this consistent input of media and information day in and day out – it’s nonstop. In addition, there’s also this inherent stress and pressure around them to achieve. A lot of kids say their schedules are jam-packed in school and then they have extracurricular activities and then they’re straight onto the computer. One thing that’s been eye opening for me is this really interesting Instagram account we have; kids will post their live feeds and I see eight, nine and ten-year-olds posting live streams from their bedrooms at 12 a.m. or talking to their friends at 11 p.m – there’ll be six kids on a late night live stream and then they wake up in the morning at 7 a.m. and there’s another group of them talking. It’s a different world we’re living in now where kids are not turning off; they’re not going home and shutting off their devices to spend time with their families. With connection to their friends available 24-7 there are both pros and cons of course; kids are building different and deeper social relationships with one another because they’ve got different methods of communicating than what we’ve seen in the past.
Knowing that technology plays such a large role in kids’ lives, how have you aligned your approach to suit the next generation?
We know that technology isn’t going anywhere. It’s here to stay, so my approach is not to fight technology but find a way to work with it. We want to help educate kids and build their knowledge and awareness so they can make better choices both online and offline. For one part of our program we have the kids stand face-to-face and look eye-to-eye and we have them ask one another questions. We customize the questions according to age and this generates real conversations and lets them experience what it feels like to really connect with someone offline. The energy in a gym is mind blowing when we have 60 kids all looking at and speaking with each other about real things that mean something to them; often the principals and teachers are blown away too.
It sounds like X Movement has really come into its own and the future sounds exciting. How has the process been? Were there some struggles along the way and how did you persevere?
What a great question . . . make sure you include my laugh, ha! If you speak to any successful entrepreneur who says they’ve not had hardships then they’re lying. You cannot build a successful company without hardships – and ‘hardships’ is an understatement. I believe entrepreneurship is one of the greatest self-discovery and self-transformational experiences that anyone can ever embark on because your business is often a representation of who you are and where you are in life at a given time. For sure there’ve been hardships, especially working in education where there are so many financial and budget constraints. I’ve had to be really creative financially and build the company literally bit by bit, block by block; that, in addition to managing a team of 40 people, is a huge challenge. It’s also my job to find ways to inspire my team and motivate them to go out there and be role models for the kids, which can be occasionally difficult. That said, I wouldn’t have it any other way because I have grown beyond what I ever thought possible through the experience of falling down and getting back up again. There is nothing that will ever stop me from doing this work because of what I’ve been through – I actually sometimes love when things don’t go right. I’ll be like ‘is that all you’ve got universe, is that all you’ve got?’ Because I really believe at the core there’s always a way; I’ll always find one, no matter how bad it looks – there’s a way through if I really want it enough.
Have you ever felt a sense of fear? If so, how do you confront that feeling?
One of my favourite quotes was ‘feel the fear and do it anyway,’ which I often used a long time ago. These days I don’t waste a second with even letting my mind go there. Whenever I feel fear I know that I’m not grounded in my true essence, which is, as cliché as it sounds, love. If I go to that place of love and faith that all is playing out the way it is meant to play out, and everything is meant to be this way, then there isn’t any fear. I consciously choose a different story; I choose not to get caught up in a story of fear. I choose to believe in a bigger vision and bigger plan, and as long as I stay in a place of truth and authenticity I think it will all work out in the way it’s meant to.
How do you practice this belief or mindfulness?
I believe mindfulness can be integrated into each and every moment you are experiencing in life. If you’re sitting on a park bench and you take a couple of moments to concentrate on being present to experience the wind blowing over your face, or the colours of the trees and the flowers, or the sounds of the birds and the people laughing playing a ball game close by, you’re being mindful. I love practicing being present and clicking into gear in a coffee shop; I just close my eyes and listen to the sounds around me with the goal of opening up to all sensations in that one moment. I do that in combination with traditional sitting meditation practice. Generally, I do 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes at night and then I do my mindfulness activities in my day to day. I also force my team, my company, to do it as well. I make it part of our culture so it means that I’m committed to it.
You have a couple other projects on the go, including Simplify. I understand it’s set to open this September in Toronto - can you tell me about it?
Simplify is an urban studio for mindfulness and movement. I like to create and get involved in businesses that help me live a better life, but one thing that I’ve found is that there isn’t a place I can go to experience and learn meditation and mindfulness in an entertaining and engaging way. It’s kind of like what we do in schools, so why isn’t there something like this for adults? Then I asked myself why I didn’t just create it myself!?I have some epic facilitators that do mindfulness and mediation activities integrated into experience. I have a guy that does it with art, I have someone else who does it with acoustic guitar and music, and another person who integrates mindfulness with food. I have a couple other people who do things like sound healing and yoga too. It’s just a really cool, funky space where a community of people can come together to help each other become better people. The whole concept of Simplify is simplify your mind, simplify your life; you come to Simplify as a way to connect to your mind and hopefully you take that back into your day-to-day life. We’re all busy, we’re all stressed, and we all have limited time, so hopefully this can be an escape from the urban environment for people in Toronto.
Speaking of limited time - how do you find the time to work on all these amazing projects?
I’m really lucky that I’ve managed to set up my company X Movement with a really good management and leadership team; they essentially run the show now, which has given me the space to work on these other projects. I work with amazing people and team members and I love to bring people together and empower them to lead.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
To anyone out there reading this who is considering starting a new initiative or a company, don’t wait! Just do something and get out there; be bold and be courageous. I think entrepreneurs or people who want to be entrepreneurs get really scared that they’re going to put their idea out into the world and somebody else is going to take it, and that means they’ll lose out or miss the opportunity. My philosophy is the more you give to the world, the more you get and that’s true especially with ideas – if you have an idea, put it out there in the world. You’re going to make mistakes no matter what, so you might as well make them sooner rather than later. If you go in with that mentality and just take one step at a time, you’ll realize all big things are made up of small things. Just chunk it down and things are always possible – or ‘if you dream it then you achieve it,’ as my mentor told me.