Institute for Learning
Big Ideas from the IFL Interview with Dr. Brian Galla
How did you get interested in studying mindfulness?
I stumbled into meditation and mindfulness in my early 20s when I was faced with looming adulthood and the reality of leaving school and forging my own path. As I’m sure many young adults experience, it was very stressful, and I had not found a kind of reliably helpful path through that stress. My therapist introduced me to yoga, which coupled with therapy, offered a way of finding greater introspection into my inner mental life. Through yoga, I discovered meditation, and then, through various encounters with local Buddhist centers, I learned how to practice mindfulness.
For me, it was a breath of fresh air in terms of providing what I considered to be an internally consistent view about the way our minds operate and how suffering arises and is perpetuated through the things we do and how we think.
What is mindfulness? How would you define it?
In the context of the Buddhist organizations I was involved with, mindfulness is a way of becoming attentive to the present moment so that we can observe how our mind responds to our experiences. The Buddhist perspective frames mindfulness as a way of sustaining awareness of our subjective experience so that we can investigate how our minds work, how we naturally try to push away unpleasant things and gravitate towards things that feel good. It’s a way of observing and developing discernment about how our minds operate.
In the Western secular settings, it’s a similar approach—albeit without the larger worldview and ethical foundations of Buddhism. Mindfulness is typically defined as paying attention to the present moment on purpose and without judgment. That’s the kind of ‘Jon Kabat-Zinn mindfulness-based stress reduction’ approach. Within this definition, there are two components: The first is the self-regulation of attention, so keeping your attention on the present moment, and the second is cultivating an attitude of curiosity and ‘non-judgmental-ness.’ So whatever does arise in your mind, you don’t try to push it away or grab onto it, you just accept it. The definitions from both Buddhist teachings and Western psychological science can be complementary, but there is considerable debate and nuance associated with each approach to understanding mindfulness and its functions.
There is scaffolding for mindfulness in the rich contemplative Buddhist traditions – it’s not just sort of boiled down to particular features. So, what do mindfulness interventions look like in schools?
School-based mindfulness programs have largely been subsumed into the Social Emotional Learning movement that has gained in popularity and influence over the past three decades. So the way that mindfulness in schools has tended to operate has been to incorporate itself as a kind of social-emotional learning program. Or rather, mindfulness is seen as a skill that can support other social-emotional competencies, including self-awareness, self-management, and relationship skills. It’s seen as a way of fostering these social-emotional competencies that research has demonstrated can be beneficial for students both in school and beyond.
One of the things that my colleagues and I have learned from our recent review and synthesis of school-based mindfulness programs is that it’s hard to say what a mindfulness program ‘looks like’ in schools. We reviewed 36 different programs, and they varied considerably in length, content, and who teaches them. Many school-based mindfulness curricula for adolescents though, provide instruction in basic kinds of mindfulness techniques. Students learn how to cultivate attention to the present moment and approach their experiences with kindness and curiosity. They learn ways of trying to come into contact with their own inner experience so that they, like all of us, can potentially be more equipped to manage stress, be less reactive in relationships with others, and offer kindness to themselves in difficult moments.
Talk a bit about your research.
Some of my research, at least with adolescents, has focused on intensive mindfulness practices. I have collaborated with a nonprofit organization called Inward Bound Mindfulness Education (www.ibme.info) to evaluate the effects of their weeklong, intensive mindfulness retreats on teenagers’ well-being. I gravitated toward studying these kinds of programs because they are taught by experienced mindfulness teachers, which is not always the case in school-based programs. Adolescents have more choice in whether they attend mindfulness programs outside of school. These kinds of ‘sleep-away’ retreats also provide a very high, intensive dosage of mindfulness. So my thought as a scientist was that if we want to see if there are benefits to adolescents of practicing mindfulness, they might show themselves in these intensive programs where teens engage in hours of daily practice across multiple consecutive days.
Our research shows that following these weeklong retreats, teens report reductions in depressive symptoms and they report increases in self-compassion and positive emotions like gratitude. They seem to be better able to meet their own suffering with care and kindness. These initial studies suggest that intensive programs could be beneficial for cultivating the kinds of developmental assets and skills that we think contribute to resilience and have positive effects on mental health outcomes.
What did you learn from your research about how mindfulness might naturally develop in adolescents?
Well, to take a step back, in the last 15 years, the popularity of school-based mindfulness programs has outpaced our understanding of more foundational developmental issues, including how mindfulness skills manifest and express themselves during adolescence, and for which adolescents and under what conditions might these skills mature naturally. In the early days of doing this research, we largely assumed—based primarily on research that had been done with adults—that mindfulness training would be good for teens and so we developed programs for them. Of course, available research does support some benefits of school-based mindfulness programs for youth. But my point is that there’s a lot of foundational developmental research and theory-building on mindfulness that has yet to be conducted, and which could inform the next generation of interventions.
For example, in research published in Developmental Psychology last year (2020), we tracked a group of about 1,600 adolescents throughout eighth and ninth grade. The transition to high school can be a very stressful period for a lot of youth. We thought this could be an important point during development to examine how mindfulness expresses itself and to see if it is associated with stress reduction and greater emotional well-being.
We found that mindfulness increased naturally from the fall of eighth grade through the spring of ninth grade, which was interesting because it provides some of the first evidence for a naturally-growing capacity to be mindful in adolescents. We also found that teens who were more mindful during that transitional period reported less stress and more positive mood than their peers who were less mindful.
Do you have any plans to develop an intervention to help with the transition to high school?
There’s nothing formally in the works right now. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about environmental forces and internal factors that influence natural developmental trajectories of mindfulness during adolescence. For example, with Robert Roeser and Blake Colaianne at Pennsylvania State University, we have new research showing how classroom contexts can impact adolescents’ mindfulness. Our data showed that high school students who perceived their teachers as demonstrating mindful qualities—teaching that is calm, clear, and kind—were themselves more likely to have higher mindfulness and compassion at the end of the academic year. We think that mindful teaching created classroom climates that were more sensitive to adolescents’ core psychological needs. Adolescents are more likely to internalize the qualities and socializing messages of others when they believe their environments provide opportunities to act independently, to demonstrate competence, and to feel connected to others.
This is just one example of a potentiating force. We can imagine other circumstances that could hinder the expression of mindfulness, for example, when teens are exposed to negative social interactions like bullying. The hope is that by clarifying the contexts and social relationships that impact the expression of mindfulness—what I’m calling the “social ecology of the mindful adolescent”—we will be able to design new interventions that intentionally incorporate and capitalize on these supportive factors. The work described above also suggests that it might be even more helpful to provide mindfulness training to teachers, as they are potential conduits of mindfulness for others.
You mentioned that targeting teachers for mindfulness training might benefit students, perhaps even more than offering mindfulness training to students directly. Does learning to practice mindfulness have other positive benefits for teachers?
We’ve done some preliminary work with first-year classroom teachers to try to reduce burnout. I’m sure many of your readers know that something like half of new teachers leave the profession within five years. Beginning teachers can be bombarded with numerous daily challenges—managing unruly students, dealing with failed lesson plans, and so forth—that can wear them down over time. To mitigate this downward trajectory, we designed an intervention that sought to instill self-compassionate interpretations of such challenges. It did so by suggesting that struggles during the transition to teaching are common and temporary—friendly advice that we hoped would convey to teachers that they are not alone in their struggles and that they can overcome them with time (core principles of self-compassion).
This project was lead by a PhD student at University of Pennsylvania, Rebecca Baelen, along with Rebecca Maynard (also at Penn) and myself. Over the course of about a year, we developed a short (30-minute) intervention that used storytelling as a means of helping first-year teachers reinterpret struggles and worries. We decided to use this brief method instead of delivering a more traditional mindfulness intervention because those programs take a lot of time and resources—something first-year teachers might not have. Our intervention shared stories from more experienced teachers who had worried about being effective in their first year, but that these worries had receded with time. The intervention then asked first-year teachers to reflect on why they think teachers’ worries during the first year are common but temporary, and then write a compassionate letter to a future teacher who is struggling with self-doubt.
We found that first-year teachers who were given this 30-minute intervention in late fall reported higher teaching self-efficacy and less occupational burnout six months later compared to teachers who were randomly assigned to a control condition. However, a key caveat is that the self-compassion intervention only worked for teachers who said before the intervention that they were committed to the teaching profession. So for teachers who responded affirmatively before entering the classroom to questions like, “I plan to teach as long as I am able,” or “I plan to be a teacher until I am eligible for retirement,” the self-compassion intervention was of benefit.
Is there something else you would like to tell us about your current research?
There is some evidence that school-based mindfulness programs can reduce mental distress and increase mindfulness and self-regulation skills in youth. But that doesn’t mean that we should just roll them out to everybody. One conclusion of our recent review is that it’s important to think carefully about what is the outcome that we want to target and whether there is evidence that mindfulness affects that outcome for the targeted student population. Then we have to think about whether there are resources to implement mindfulness interventions. These programs have promise, but we need to be thoughtful about how we roll them out, especially given that there are still a lot of open questions and a lot left to be learned about mindfulness with youth.
For more information about Dr. Galla’s research on mindfulness, you can read a full research brief here.