Is Teaching Mindfulness to Homeless Students Helpful?

Meditation Pose at Ashram

Teaching Mindfulness to Middle School Students and Homeless Youth in School Classrooms” (abstract). David P. Viafora, Sally G. Mathiesen, and Sara J. Unsworth. Journal of Child and Family Studies, Vol. 24, No. 5 (May 2015).

What it’s about: Viafora, Mathiesen, and Unsworth evaluated whether an eight-week mindfulness course delivered in a classroom would improve coping abilities among middle-school youth who attend either a traditional charter school or a charter school for homeless or formerly homeless youth.

A mindfulness instructor delivered the course in 45-minute weekly sessions to 63 students, ages 11 to 13, from two middle schools. Students in the traditional school were assigned to one treatment group, while students at the school for homeless or formerly homeless youth were assigned to another. Students who were put on a waitlist to get the mindfulness training were assigned to the control, or comparison, group. Research staff surveyed youth on mindfulness qualities (e.g., self-compassion) before and after the intervention, and youth in the treatment groups completed a separate personal evaluation questionnaire.

Why read it: There are numerous studies on the benefits of mindfulness practice in adults, but there is little research on how mindfulness practice benefits youth, the authors write. Furthermore, few studies have looked at mindfulness exclusively in middle school-age youth, the authors claim. In addition, studies consistently show that youth experiencing homelessness suffer from a range of issues, such as low self-esteem, aggressive behavior, and trouble sleeping. The authors cite previous research suggesting mindfulness techniques may help decrease test anxiety, buffer negative effects of tiredness, improve attention span, and increase feelings of self-acceptance. This study adds to the research on the potential usefulness of mindfulness for homeless young people.

Biggest takeaways from the research: Youth in both treatment groups, especially those who had or were currently experiencing homelessness, reported the mindfulness course helped them deal better with their emotions and behaviors, particularly those related to stress and anger. The majority of students reported feeling “less stressed," “calm," “peaceful," and “relaxed” when practicing mindfulness techniques both inside and outside school. Most students practiced mindfulness in places outside of school, such as at home or during sports. Only a few students indicated not practicing mindfulness at all outside of school.

Viafora et al. suggest several possibilities as to the reasons students facing homelessness reported more positive outcomes with mindfulness than other youth. One possible explanation is that the youth experiencing homelessness usually had two faculty members present during the mindfulness course session, while those not facing homelessness only had one faculty member. These staff members actively supported and encouraged the youth to engage in the course, and when there were fewer staff, students exhibited more disruptive behaviors. Another possible explanation, Viafora et al. say, is that children who have endured traumatic experiences such as homelessness are more likely to benefit from practices that address how to deal with stress, anxiety, anger, and other tough feelings.

The authors suggest future studies should examine other factors, like the number of classroom staff, and the impact of mindfulness practice on youth experiencing homelessness in different settings, such as homeless shelters or juvenile justice facilities.

Additional references: Learn more about on mindfulness and street outreach in our digital library.

Read an earlier summary of research articles on mindfulness and its use with homeless youth.

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth, the Family and Youth Services Bureau, or the Administration for Children and Families.

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