MBA Project’s Mindfulness Training for Incarcerated Youth Yields Effective ResultsMar 25th, 2012
Khyentse Foundation’s grant to the Mind Body Awareness Project (MBA) supported ground-breaking pilot programs that treat stress, anxiety, and insomnia with mindfulness-based practices. The programs also measure the effectiveness of the intervention for high-risk youth in California.
Chris McKenna, MBA’s executive director, writes, “It’s impossible to overstate the significance of the KF grant. We know of no other project in the world right now where a research hospital, a juvenile justice system, and a community-based nonprofit are teaming up to deliver contemplative practice programming to at-risk, gang-involved, and incarcerated adolescents.”
Children’s Hospital and Research Center Oakland (CHRCO) referred more than 150 adolescents in Alameda County’s juvenile hall and long-term detention camp to MBA’s meditation program. MBA evaluated 92 teenagers for their study.
After completing the program, participants demonstrated statistically significant reductions in perceived stress, anxiety, and sleep difficulties, and a corresponding increase in healthy self-regulation. They reported feeling more able to relax, to feel good about themselves, and to sleep. Participants also said that they were more in control of their emotions, thinking, and behavior, and they had a greater awareness of themselves and the present moment.
Juvenile Justice Center staff described improvements in behavior. “Anything that allows the kids to work on their concentration and focus.… I would have to say it’s a good thing.” They saw participants trying to use the tools, “to catch themselves before they get into trouble.… They’re able to say, ‘Can I go to my room? You know I’m not feeling this so [can I go to my room] before I get in trouble?’ We’re seeing a lot more of that.”
MBA describes why what they do works:
We teach mindfulness as the heart of rehabilitation — cultivating the ability to be consistently “in the moment” where we have choices as an antidote to being stuck in automatic reactive behavior. Youth who grow up in an unpredictable, violent, and abusive context may understandably have a much more difficult time staying “in” their experience. Our intervention therefore directly addresses this very capacity. Through practice of mindfulness of breathing, body scanning techniques, loving-kindness meditation, and practice of forgiveness, combined with guided discussion and counseling sessions, youth learn to make contact, through the development of increased internal awareness, with the unrecognized “invisible” states of awareness that are driving their behavior. Through this practice comes a naturally deepening self-understanding that is, in our view, the most direct avenue to helping young people change their behavior and transform their lives.
Vinny Ferraro, teacher-training director of the MBA program, says, “If you’re coming in there to teach them something, then forget it. But if you’re coming in there to be with them, to sit in the space with them and be with them in an authentic way, where you’re actually modeling what you’re asking them to do, then the sky’s the limit.”
MBA is working to bring mindfulness beyond the prison system to more at-risk youth. This year, it will offer programs in the CHRCO clinic of East Oakland’s low-income Castlemont High School, where a large number of students have been or currently are in California’s probation system. The clinic will prescribe mindfulness practice, and students will receive credit for attending the MBA program during the school day.
Two peer-reviewed journals, The International Journal of Probation Policy and The Journal of Child & Adolescent Mental Health, will publish research from the MBA programs supported by KF over the past two years. These are the first articles of their kind, offering encouragement and incentive to expand the reach of mindfulness programs to vulnerable youth, wherever they are.
Founded in 2000, MBA is gathering experiential and quantitative evidence that mindfulness works to change stress-based habits into awareness-based choices that lead to healthier behaviors during and after incarceration.