Study Finds Ethnically Diverse, At-Risk Adolescents Highly Receptive to Mindfulness Classes

Editor’s Note: The following is a Q&A with Karen Bluth, PhD, a mindfulness teacher, researcher, and one of the lead authors of a paper published this January in the journal Mindfulness, which examined the efficacy of Learning to BREATHE or L2B, a mindfulness curriculum for adolescents in an alternative school for ethnically diverse, at-risk teens.

This month you and your colleagues published a paper in Mindfulness called “A School-Based Mindfulness Pilot Study for Ethnically Diverse At-Risk Adolescents.” Can you summarize the study and highlight the most significant findings?

We conducted this study in an alternative school for teens who were at risk for academic failure. We randomly assigned them to a mindfulness or substance abuse intervention class. Most significant findings: L2B is feasible in this type of school setting, and with modifications that were suggested in the article, can be acceptable to at-risk high school students. We also found significant decrease in depression relative to the control group. A particularly important finding is that you can intervene at this critical juncture in development and potentially prevent maladaptive trajectories.

There is an existing body of research that supports mindfulness interventions for at-risk youth, so what makes this study unique?

The research on mindfulness interventions for at-risk youth is in its infancy, especially studies for ethnically diverse adolescents that actually take place in the school setting. There is growing interest in having these programs; however, the research has not yet caught up with the amount of interest. This is one of the few that were conducted in a school setting with ethnically diverse at-risk youth, particularly Hispanics.

What are some of the factors that may make at-risk youth more receptive to mindfulness-based interventions?

It is critical to establish a safe and trusting environment. Several factors that facilitate this include having the class be in a “safe space,” developing a trusting student/instructor relationship, inviting students to participate while not judging them for not participating.

As mindfulness teacher with 35 years of experience as a practitioner, in your opinion is it possible to teach mindfulness without having one’s own established personal practice?

It is extremely difficult for me to understand how it would be possible to teach mindfulness without having an established personal practice. Unlike most subjects in school, it is not content-driven, but experiential. To truly understand what mindfulness entails, you have to do the practice and in fact, embody that which the practice presents and teaches. It would be like teaching someone how to drive without ever having been behind a wheel.

In your experience teaching the L2B curriculum across various community and school settings, how adaptable is this program in terms of use in various environments, with culturally diverse teens, and others?

I think L2B is very adaptable because it is flexible to the unique needs of a student population. For example, our students seemed to really respond positively to the body scan. After consulting with Patricia Broderick, the program creator, we were comfortable making the decision to continue using the body scan as the core meditation practice.

Certainly these days there are a lot of different ways to teaching mindfulness in classrooms. What makes the L2B curriculum unique? What makes it so effective?

Every mindfulness program has its strengths. I appreciate that is based on scientific theory about adolescent development. For example, activities are hands-on, meditations are more brief than in the adult MBSR class, and so on.

During this particular study the students really responded when their mindfulness class was moved from the classroom to the gym. Can you draw any conclusions from that that may be useful to others who are trying to implement mindfulness lessons in schools?

I think one of the student’s comments was really telling here: The student said something like “The classroom is where we have not been successful. Here in the gym is where we have fun.” What the student is clearly implying is that these classes need to take place where students are comfortable. In order to practice mindfulness, one needs to be able to be aware of what is happening in the moment both externally and internally. To do so, one is necessarily in touch with difficult emotions at times. This cannot be accomplished when one is on the defensive, on guard, or on the lookout for that which might make her uncomfortable. This would be the case in the classroom, which is interpreted as a place of “danger,” but not in the gym, which was a safe place for these students.

Again touching on the factor of ethnic diversity in this study: Are ethnic minorities underrepresented in psychological research studies and if so, what are the consequences of the lack of information in this area?  

We certainly could do a better job of representing ethnic diversity in research. Consequences for this might be that we would assume that intervention programs would be fitting for all students; however, this may not necessarily be true.

Are you able to give any specific examples from this experience for the purpose of illustrating how race and culture factor in to the intervention process, and why competency across race and culture is so important for mental health professionals?

Working with ethnically diverse groups is a new area for me, and so probably other researchers could better answer this question. However, as with any instructor and group of students, one tries to find places where what you’re teaching resonates with their experience. For example, with this group which was largely male and interested in sports, I brought in how professional sports teams use mindfulness to help them focus.

What is it about adolescents that makes them a particularly important target group for mindfulness interventions?

Several reasons: First, adolescents struggle daily with issues related to emotional well-being (i.e., stress, anxiety, depression), so mindfulness skills can be helpful with that. Second, mindfulness skills learned early in life can serve as a stress management tool and be useful throughout life.

In your opinion, what do you believe are some of the barriers that stand in the way of implementing more mindfulness programs in schools?

Time and buy-in from school personnel. School staff are overwhelmed with curriculum requirements and have little time to add anything else to the school day. Additionally, school staff really need to understand what mindfulness is and support the program in order for it to be successful in their school.

What’s next? Based on the findings of this study, where is more information needed; where should researchers in this area put their focus?

Certainly, these findings need to be replicated in other schools that serve at-risk teens. Additionally, follow-up assessments need to be conducted to determine lasting effects of the intervention. Finally, it would be interesting to explore whether the mindfulness or compassion components, or both, of L2B are the salient factors producing the outcomes.

For more information on the curriculum Bluth and colleagues used in their study, check out Learning to BREATHE: A Mindfulness Curriculum for Adolescents to Cultivate Emotion Regulation, Attention, and Performance.

Karen Bluth, PhD, is a researcher whose focus is on the role that mindfulness and self-compassion play in promoting well-being in specific child and adolescent populations.

As the recipient of a Francisco J. Varela award funded by the Mind and Life Foundation, Bluth investigated the physiological stress response to a lab social stressor before and after teaching Learning to BREATHE, a 6-week mindfulness program for adolescents. In collaboration with colleagues at the University of California at San Diego and University of Texas at Austin, Dr. Bluth has developed Making Friends With Yourself, a mindfulness and self-compassion program for adolescents, adapted from Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer’s Mindful Self-Compassion program for adults. Initial pilot studies testing Making Friends With Yourself are currently underway.

Bluth completed her doctorate in Child and Family Studies at the University of Tennessee and is in the third year of an NIH-funded postdoctoral position in the Program on Integrative Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She began her mindfulness practice when she was an adolescent.

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