Mindfulness helps children in Rio’s favelas cope with life.
What do actress Goldie Hawn, Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan, and Google employees have in common with children in disadvantaged, low-income communities? They are all benefiting from practicing mindfulness, that is, maintaining a nonjudgmental moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.
There are many ways to practice mindfulness. There are meditation-like activities during which you concentrate on your breathing, heartbeat, or other body rhythms to settle down and focus your mind. Mindfulness can also mean being aware of your movements, the world around you, and your interactions with other people – basically, taking notice of what you are thinking, feeling, and experiencing as you go about your daily life.
We know that poor children fall behind their higher-income peers in many ways – they do worse in school, are less likely to go to college and get a high-wage job. They are also more likely to be in poor health, and have worse working memory as adults. They’re also much more likely to be exposed to early adversity and trauma, like violence and parental substance abuse, what we often call “adverse childhood experiences,” which have been linked to serious negative health outcomes in adulthood.
At the same time, we are learning at an incredible pace how poverty affects the brain and how interrupted brain development may be the reason why poor children fall so far behind their wealthier peers. We now know that emotional trauma and stress – not just a physical blow to the head – can disrupt brain development, and that life experiences not only affect which structures are developed best in the brain, but how well the brain functions. Many children growing up in poverty are exposed to levels of stress that can be toxic to the brain, especially to the parts of the brain that control emotions and learning.
Neuroscience now indicates that the brain has considerable capacity to recover. But, even better would be for children to develop the capacity to cope with stress – a prevention approach. So, what if we could equip low-income youth with a tool to help them deal with the stressors of their daily lives? In other words, what if we could somehow insulate the brains of at-risk children from the negative effects of poverty and trauma?
Enter mindfulness. Many studies have looked at the effects of mindfulness among adults, and have linked mindfulness to improvements in physical and mental health. These studies, including rigorous evaluation studies published in peer reviewed journals, indicate that mindfulness practice can actually change the structure of our brains, particularly the areas that affect emotion regulation and perspective taking! There is also a growing body of evidence of the power of mindfulness among children and youth. Two recent reviews of both random assignment and quasi-experimental evaluations indicate that mindfulness interventions are associated with reductions in behavior problems and psychological symptoms such as anxiety and depression in youth. (You can read more about the emerging evidence on mindfulness here, here, and here.)
People all over the world are recognizing the potential of using this approach with the most at-risk children. In Brazil, our communications vice president, Frank Walter, met Rogerio Barros, a Brazilian actor, who volunteers time weekly to lead meditation classes for about 30 children in one of Rio de Janeiro’s poorest neighborhoods, the Vila Canoas favela. Barros reports that the children, and often their parents, note how these classes help the children learn to better control their anger and fear from living so close to frequent violence and crime.
In Baltimore, two of my high school classmates founded the Holistic Life Foundation, which delivers yoga and mindfulness programs to underserved communities in the city. A small randomized control trial evaluation of one their programs showed promise in reducing participants’ problematic responses to stress.
While more research is needed to confirm the initial promise of mindfulness interventions for youth, it’s no wonder this exciting emerging approach is being been adopted widely, from celebrities like actress Goldie Hawn, whose MindUP Foundation has developed a school-based mindfulness program for young children, to politicians like Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan, who wrote a book on the topic, to the tech industry, which flocks to the Wisdom 2.0 conference every year. (Google even employs a head of mindfulness.)
Vanessa Sacks, Research Scientist