The authors say this the first study to show that mindfulness training can be used in combination with cognitive behavioral therapy to protect attentional functioning in high-risk incarcerated youth.
The scholars followed 267 incarcerated males, ages 16 to 18, over a 4-month period. The researchers found that participation in an intervention that combined cognitive behavioral therapy with a mindfulness training called Power Source had a protective effect on youths’ attentional capacity. This research is the largest controlled study of mindfulness training for youth to date.
Improving attention can lead to better self-control. Reflecting on the impact of the intervention, one study participant stated, “Just yesterday. Got into an altercation with a guy in the kitchen. Guy said, ‘We’re gonna fight.’ At first thought, my initial response was to fight. Then I thought about the consequences – I'd lose my job [in the prison kitchen], don’t want to go to court and don’t want to hear the judge mouth about my fights.” Attention to the goal of staying out of trouble allowed this participant to consider an alternative to fighting.
The mindfulness training is complemented by exercises that focus on taking responsibility for offending behavior and increasing motivation for engaging in non-violent, pro-social behaviors, though there is no direct evidence of that, they noted.
“Mindfulness training helps youth consider more adaptive alternatives,” says Dr. Bethany Casarjian of the Lionheart Foundation in Boston, who developed the Power Source intervention and co-authored the study. “It creates a gap between triggers for offending behavior and their responses. They learn to not immediately act out on impulse, but to pause and consider the consequences of a potential offending and high risk behavior.”
Study design and results:
Study participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups based upon the prison dormitory where they resided: the intervention group received cognitive-behavioral/mindfulness training and the control group received an evidence-based cognitive-perception intervention focusing on attitudes and beliefs about substance use and violence. Participants completed a computerized Attention Network Test (ANT) prior to the intervention and four months later.
The researchers found that this high-stress period of incarceration led to declines in attentional task performance for all subjects. This poorer performance over time might be accounted for by the unrelenting stress on cognitive control which is necessary for complex problem solving, emotion regulation, and behavioral inhibition.
However, the cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness training intervention group showed significantly less of a decline in attentional task performance as compared to the control group. Within the cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness training group, the attentional task performance among those who practiced outside of intervention sessions remained stable compared to those who did not practice outside of the intervention sessions. These findings indicate that a multi-session cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness training intervention can be effective in limiting degradation in attentional performance in incarcerated youth, thus providing a protective effect on offending youths’ functional attentional impairments during incarceration in a high-security urban jail.
The authors say that the current results suggest that strengthening attention through mindfulness training may be a key route for reducing recidivism among young offenders, and highlight the need to teach detained youth strategies to improve cognitive and emotional control in the stressful detainment environment. In particular, training methods that allow youth to actively engage in exercises on their own to improve cognitive control may be ideal in conjunction with structured intervention activities or psychotherapy to help youth cultivate resilience by building their capacity for cognitive control while detained and after release.
Citation: Noelle R. Leonard, Amishi P. Jha, Bethany Casarjian, Merissa Goolsarran, Cristina Garcia, Charles M. Cleland, Marya V. Gwadz and Zohar Massey, 'Mindfulness Training Improves Attentional Task Performance in Incarcerated Youth: A Group Randomized Controlled Intervention Trial', Frontiers in Psychology 4:792 doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00792