In the spirit of prevention, some very innovative and interesting pilot programs have been tried showing promising measures of success with at-risk youngsters from high-schools with a large population of Latino students. One such program was undertaken by Dr. Karen Bluth and her team of researchers from the University of North Carolina, School of Medicine in Chapel Hill. They designed a randomized controlled trial to measure the effects of mindfulness stress reduction training on a school-based program targeting at- risk youth. In it, in an alternative school for students failing regular high-school, 27 ethnically diverse adolescents, the majority, 47% of them, Hispanic, were assigned to either a mindfulness training program called Learning to BREATHE, or a substance abuse educational class. The classes met once a week for 50 minutes over the course of an entire semester. The youngsters in the mindfulness class showed a greater reduction of depression symptoms and lower levels of stress than those in the control class.
A thought-provoking finding came out of the researchers measuring which class was favored by the students. At the beginning of the semester, the students favored the substance abuse class, however, by the end of the semester, the students showed preference for the mindfulness training course. Thus, the students actually accepted the mindfulness class more by the end of the study in spite of their initial resistance to this rather unfamiliar kind of intervention strategy. Furthermore, they expressed their desire to continue in the program, which the researchers speculate happened because they were experiencing the beneficial effects of this kind of training in reducing stress and depression. This research study was published in the scientific journal Mindfulness (Jan. 2015) This would be a wonderful project to attempt to replicate with identified recent immigrant Latino high-school students in an adapted Spanish version, introducing it as simply learning some new ways to handle unpleasant feelings such as “nervios” (stress). The curriculum used with the adolescents is currently published in book form as: Learning to Breath: A Mindfulness Curriculum to Cultivate Emotion Regulation, Attention and Performance by Dr. Patricia C. Broderick, Ph. D. et al. New Harbinger Publications.2013
Many people are not familiar with the concept of mindfulness, though it is a practice increasingly used and researched in fields like medicine and health, education and psychotherapy to name a few, mainly for stress reduction, but also to increase focusing and processing of information, emotional regulation through changing impulsive responses into thoughtful ones and for increased empathy and self-awareness . It was introduced in the 1970’s by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor at the school of Medicine in the University of Massachusetts. In his words: “Mindfulness means to pay attention to the present moment, with intention, in a non-judgmental way. It is a practice of awareness and observation.” It can be taught at all age levels starting with simple to follow exercises.
Locally, Minds, www.mindsincorporated.org, a non-profit organization that works with schools in the Washington DC, Northern Virginia and Maryland area provides training in mindfulness to students of all levels: Kindergarten to High School, with mindfulness based skills that build emotional resilience, empathy and compassion, increase concentration and awareness of self and creativity, as well as offering workshops and classes for teachers, parents and staff, through training at the school site. Their curriculum is based on evidence based mindfulness meditation education, yoga, cognitive neuroscience, social emotional learning, mental health and psychology.
An important word of caution, however. Whenever a youngster might be someone who was exposed to trauma, (as some immigrant children have), great care has to be taken to allow for them to have control over the practice or intervention used, by being able to stop if uncomfortable, so as to avoid them being overwhelmed by negative feelings and memories in the course of the exercise. Mindfulness exercises may put them at greater risk of being flooded by these negative images and feelings and consequently re-traumatized. The same is true for a trauma victim of any age, as recommended by specialists involved in the treatment of trauma. According to them, the most important thing is to provide a feeling of safety first. Thus, to start any training by teaching skills that provide a quick return to safety when faced with uncomfortable emotions and memories. These may involve breathing techniques,body posturing and redirecting attention to the present.