Researchers at NYU’s College of Nursing (NYUCN), the University of Miami, and the Lionheart Foundation have found that mindfulness training—a meditation-based practice that focuses on staying present in the moment—can improve attention skills in incarcerated youth, paving the way to greater self-control over emotions and actions. It is 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.

Their study, “Mindfulness Training Improves Attentional Task Performance in Incarcerated Youth: A Group Randomized Controlled Intervention Trial,” published in the online journal Frontiers in Psychology, holds promise for new strategies in reducing antisocial behavior among at-risk youth.

The researchers followed 267 incarcerated males, ages 16 to 18, over a four-month period. They found that participation in an intervention that combined cognitive behavioral therapy with mindfulness training (or “CBT/MT”), 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.

“The CBT/MT approach responds to the significant childhood psychosocial hardships that most incarcerated youths have experienced, including exposure to violence, poverty, and physical and emotional abuse by caregivers,” explains principal investigator Noelle R. Leonard, a senior research scientist at NYUCN. “These experiences impair cognitive control processes, such as attention regulation, which is vital for the self-regulation of feelings and actions. The antisocial behavior prevalent among youthful offenders is the result of an ongoing interplay between this psychosocial adversity and deficits in cognitive control processes, particularly attention.”

The researchers found that the 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 CBT/MT intervention group showed significantly less of a decline in attentional task performance as compared to the control group. Moreover, within the CBT/MT 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 CBT/MT 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 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.

“We know that incarceration is not good for youth, and with this study, we have direct evidence that incarceration depletes the very processes youth need to strengthen in order to steer their developmental trajectory in a more pro-social, law-abiding direction,” Leonard says.

The research was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

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