Being Mindful in a Modern World: The Challenge of Working With Young People

Isn’t Mindfulness for Adults?

Amongst adults there is strong evidence of the positive impacts mindfulness can have on a wide range of mental and physical health conditions, social and emotional skills, well-being and cognition (all the mental abilities and processes related to knowledge e.g. memory). This is supported by evidence from neuroscience that mindfulness meditation profoundly alters brain structure and function to improve the quality of thought and feeling. Essentially this means that you can train the brain to work better.

Although research with children and young people is not as extensive it is rapidly growing. The results show that mindfulness based approaches to working with young people illicit the same responses seen in adults. This poses the dilemma of being mindful in a modern world and the challenge of working with young people.

What Does The Science Say?

In summary evidence for the effectiveness of mindfulness for adults incorporates the following areas:

Mental health; addressing areas such as stress, anxiety, substance abuse, recurrent depression and improving sleep.

Underlying and social skills; ability to make meaningful relationships, feel in control manage difficult feelings and to be calm, resilient, compassionate and empathetic.

Cognition; impacts have been shown in intellect, sustained attention and concentration.

These impacts are becoming increasingly supported by evidence from neuroscience (scientific study of the nervous system; including the brain) and are not considered as solely in the imagination of the mediator. They show how the structure and function of the brain actually changes to improve the quality of thought and feeling:

Greater blood flow and a thickening of the area of the brain associated with attention and emotional integration (the cerebral cortex) was observed.

Increased density of grey-matter in the area of the brain important for learning and memory (the hippocampus) and structures associated with self-awareness, introspection and compassion; resulting in reductions in stress and anxiety.

However learning and development opportunities need to be adapted for use with young people. From our work with young people we recognise the importance of activities that are age appropriate, interactive, experiential and enjoyable. In our programmes this takes the form of nature-based activities, the arts, movement-related disciplines, guided imagery and different forms of sitting meditation. Alongside this are opportunities to work with other young people and an adult who is able to support personal growth and the exploration of ethics.

Why Can Mindful Based Approaches To Working With Young People Useful? 

In recent years there has been a growing concern that young people are experiencing less than optimal physical and mental health and that this affects a wide range of outcomes, including academic performance, likelihood of substance misuse, violence and obesity. Too many young people are becoming depressed and are turning to distractions such as drugs and alcohol, consumerism, anti-social behaviour and sexual precocity.

According to Young Minds, in 2013 850,000 children and young people in the UK had a mental health problem – and those are just the ones who had been diagnosed. As a result there is a need for new approaches to improve health and well-being, encourage more positive habits and build resilience.  We strongly believe that mindfulness approaches have a role in combating these problems across a range of settings (education, clinical and community) and ages.

This view is supported by a statement made by the Young Foundation (whose work spans the public and private sectors and civil society; with the aim of creating a more equal and just culture, where each individual can be fulfilled in their own terms.) in 2012:

Young people are living, learning and negotiating transitions to adulthood and independence in an increasingly complex world in which they face greater levels of choice and opportunity but also unprecedented uncertainty and risk. This calls for empowered, resilient young people who play an active role in navigating these paths.

These ideas are well established principles considered by those professionals who work with and support young people. Sadly, not all young people are able to access the support they need to manage the transition to adulthood and there is a need to support young people’s personal and social development – developing the skills and qualities needed for life, learning and work.

How Can Mindfulness Based Approaches Benefit Young People?

Well conducted, professionally accredited mindfulness based interventions have been shown to be capable of addressing the issues of the young people who participate improving their sleep, well-being, self-esteem, reducing their distress anxiety, reactivity, bad behaviour and generating greater calmness, self-regulation, awareness and the ability to relax.

Those who are naturally or trained in a mindful approach, tend to experience greater well-being; mindfulness has a positive correlation with popularity, the extensiveness of friendship and positive emotion whilst demonstrating a negative correlation with anxiety and negative emotion.

Mindful based approaches have contributed directly to the development of cognitive skills amongst people. Pupils who are taught to become more ‘present’ and less anxious often find they can pay attention better; improving the quality of performance academically, on the sports field and in the arts. This is a direct result of increased focus, approaching situations from a different perspective and employing existing knowledge more effectively.

How Can Mindfulness Based Approaches Improve My Work With Young People?

Positive relationships between young people and adults do not just happen and it takes time and skill to build trust, mutual respect and understanding. These traits are essential if you are to help them face and explore the difficulties they are experiencing.

Mindfulness has a role to play in working with young people by developing self-awareness; it is the ability of our minds to pay attention to what is happening moment to moment without getting carried away by our thoughts or emotions. By incorporating a mindful approach to working with young people you can provide learning and development opportunities that are:

Holistic and integrated; linking the elements of young people’s lives and bringing into greater awareness the impact these have on their physical and mental health.

Connected; relating the different aspects of young people’s lives and exploring the relationships they have with others, allowing empathy and compassion to develop.

Embodied; providing opportunities for young people to put into practice what they have learned and helping them to live in ways that are congruent with their values and beliefs.

Transformative; offering opportunities for personal growth.

Participatory; working in an open and free manner in order to co-create knowledge and skills.

In conclusion mindfulness based approaches can offer promising results. If the strong support from the substantial work with adults and on social and emotional learning more generally is considered, mindfulness is likely to have beneficial results on the emotional wellbeing, mental health, ability to learn and even the physical health of young people.

Whether this is a school, community or mentoring environment building resilience and empowering young people, thus allowing them to make sense of the changes and challenges they face can drastically improve positive outcomes. With the relative cheapness of such interventions, their flexibility and impacts being observed fairly quickly mindfulness can offer an enjoyable, civilising approach that is preventative and restorative, offers significant returns on investment and represents best value.Swoosh