Mindfulness and Youth: A cause for optimism

A report from the International Conference on Mindfulness with Youth, by Hannah Marsh.

In attending the inaugural International Conference on Mindfulness with Youth, I obviously expected to hear experts discuss the benefits of implementing mindfulness with youth. What I didn’t anticipate was that I would be so captivated by this discussion, and that by the end of the conference, mindfulness practice would seem not merely beneficial for today’s youth, but essential. 

In a room overlooking the Canadian Rocky Mountains, 200 teachers, administrators, physicians, mental health professionals, social workers, and parents gathered together from across the globe. They had travelled from throughout Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, France, Israel, and Turkey to be in Banff, Alberta on July 15-17 for the first international event to address mindfulness and youth. I was there as a local organizer with an interest in mindfulness, but no background in education or healthcare. Over the course of the weekend we would hear from 20 speakers and panelists from the US, Canada, and Israel.

Nearly a year ago, Gina Biegel and Catherine Phillips began co-organizing the International Conference on Mindfulness with Youth: Helping Children (K-12) Develop Mindful Awareness Inside the Classroom and Out. Gina is a psychotherapist from San Francisco, California, and the founder of StressedTeens.com and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for Teens (MBSR-T). Catherine is a psychiatrist from Edmonton, Alberta, a clinical lecturer at the University of Alberta, and the founder of The Mindfulness Institute.ca. 

Both Biegel and Phillips wanted to bring together people who were interested and active in implementing mindfulness with youth, and to create the opportunity for these individuals to meet, form community, and generate momentum in this burgeoning field. They invited a group of well-known speakers including renowned interpersonal neurobiologist Dan Siegel, Laurie Grossman (Mindful Schools), Nimrod Sheinman (The Mindful Language "Sfat Hakeshev" Project), Wynne Kinder (Wellness Works in Schools), Jennifer Cohen Harper (Little Flower Yoga), Amy Saltzman (The Still Quiet Place), Chris McKenna and Sam Himelstein (Mind Body Awareness Project), and Randye Semple (Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Children).

During his keynote address on Friday night, Dan Siegel established how mindfulness can shape our brains and minds. Mindfulness practice rewires the brain, particularly prefrontal regions that control functions like bodily regulation, emotional balance, empathy, and morality. This change can affect behavior in very real ways. The following morning, Laurie Grossman gave the example of a second grader in the Mindful Schools program who noted that “it used to be that when somebody stole the ball from me at recess I’d get really mad, but I don’t anymore, so I know my brain changed.”

The speakers on Saturday and Sunday had years of experience running mindfulness-based programs with youth, and explained many of the benefits they’d observed in children and teens. Youth today are often stressed, which can lead to acting out and hurting themselves and others. They’re increasingly diagnosed with anxiety and depression, and large percentages are not graduating from high school. Youth desperately need coping skills, but unfortunately, they’re rarely taught them. Research demonstrates that mindfulness is linked to increased attention, emotional and behavioral regulation, compassion for self and others, self-awareness, interpersonal skills, and academic performance, as well as reduced stress, anxiety, and violence.

Yet more impressive than the research was the passion of the speakers and the stories they related about the youth in their programs. Siegel stated that mindfulness directly teaches what reading, writing, and arithmetic do not: how to train the mind itself. Nimrod Sheinman, who has implemented mindfulness in schools in Israel for over a decade, called it teaching students a lesson “for the rest of their life;” he then shared an elementary student’s thoughts about the program, “I was a very angry person without the power to stop myself…Now, I know I’m in charge.” Grossman referred to mindfulness as the “foundation for all education.” She discussed how kids from the poorest neighborhoods with the highest crime rates are often most interested in mindfulness and most likely to share the practices with their families. One student wrote, “I was at a party…my friend pulls out his gun. I started doing a body scan, I took a deep breath, I took my friend’s gun, and I left the party.”

It isn’t surprising that Grossman’s dream is to have mindfulness in every classroom or that Siegel suggests a community-wide strategy to convince boards of education that “the education of the past is not training kids for the future.” Yet these and other speakers also acknowledged challenges that must be addressed before that happens. While there has been a considerable volume of research on mindfulness with adults, the evidence supporting mindfulness with youth is in its early stages. Without well-established research (particularly to show a correlation with higher grades) it’s harder to find schools and funding to implement these programs. Another problem is program replication; these programs rely heavily on facilitators – being authentic, caring about the kids, and having a mindfulness practice of their own. Facilitators like Jennifer Cohen Harper whose principles of teaching include, “kids will remember how you make them feel.” Or Amy Saltzman who explained that practice isn’t enough; facilitators need to affect positive change and teach kids to apply mindfulness “to the difficult situations in their life.”

While challenges do lie ahead, there is a growing community who remain hopeful and committed to the wellbeing of youth. On Sunday, Phillips asked conference attendees to share what mindfulness with youth meant to them. They called out “authenticity,” “resilience,” “connection,” and my favorite – “a cause for optimism.”


Hannah Marsh became involved in the conference while working for Catherine Phillips as a writer and website editor. 

The Mindfulness Institute.ca will be holding the second annual International Conference on Mindfulness with Youth in Banff on July 26-29, 2012.

For more about the 2011 conference, visit www.mindfulnessinstitute.ca. CDs will soon be available for purchase.