• Working with Teens - Creating Engaging Mindfulness Experiences for Adolescents

    What’s happening with our students’ brain and how can mindfulness support them? 

    As a high school teacher in the Bronx for 14 years I got to meet and deeply know a lot of teens. Having those relationships taught me a lot about what makes adolescents tick. I saw that the way adults view teens impacts the way teens see themselves, and ultimately the lives they think they are capable of leading. I also witnessed how school settings can be fertile ground for greater understanding and connection, or misunderstanding and miscommunication between teachers and young adults.   

    One of the high schools I worked at was a traditional school, with honors classes, Advanced Placement courses, Senior trips and proms. The other was a transfer school, where students go as a last chance for a high school degree (their prior schools failing to meet these students' needs in one way or another). In this school students call teachers by their first name, they work closely with community based organizations, and it’s where I was lucky enough to introduce mindfulness. You can learn more about that school and my experience introducing mindfulness in this Atlantic article.

    Both schools were Title 1 schools, which meant the majority of the students were receiving free or reduced lunch. Both had committed, caring (and overworked) administrators, staff and teachers.  

    Since leaving the classroom I’ve gotten the opportunity to work with teens in more affluent communities (one of the schools a mere 10 miles north of the transfer school) where kids are getting the best education and resources their parents and communities can generously give. I wasn’t surprised to also see committed, caring, and overworked administrators, staff, and teachers but I was surprised to see how much these teens were also struggling. 

    Even though these adolescents’ educational contexts are very different, a couple of things are true for all of them. The adolescent years are challenging, confusing, and filled with changes to the body, their brain, and relationships. Adolescence is a tumultuous time of our lives!  

    Let’s also not forget about technology and the impact it’s having on our children. Most of us can probably remember what it was like to be bored when we were young and not have a screen readily available. Our parents would tell us to figure it out, go outside, go play. Or they would assign us a chore to make sure we didn’t stay bored. These moments of boredom often led to free play, which is critical in child development.  According to the American Academy of  Pediatrics free play helps children develop their imagination, curiosity, and healthy relationships with the children around them and their parents.

    Whether we think the advent of technology is good or bad, it is here to stay and it is rewiring our children’s minds. Many have a harder time focusing their attention and developing relationships outside of their digital persona. 

    The Developing Brains of Adolescents

    When I taught mindfulness to my teens in the Bronx, I often introduced the book Brainstorm by Dr. Daniel Siegel. Even though it was a challenging text for them to get through, they were engaged with the book because it was giving them insight into the way adults looked at them.  It helped them understand what was changing in their brains and effecting the way they were feeling and acting. I will summarize some of the things I shared with my students here, but if this is a topic, you think would be helpful to you or your students will find interesting, make sure to add Brainstorm to your reading list. 

    Myths of Adolescence:

    The way we see adolescents becomes the way they see themselves. These misunderstandings can lead to confusion and conflict for teens and adults.  Which of these myths are you familiar with?

    1. Raging hormones cause teenagers to “go mad” or “lose their minds.”According to Siegel hormones do increase, but these levels then stay consistent throughout much of adulthood. Its not the hormones that are causing behavior changes. What adolescents experience is primarily the result of natural and needed changes in their developing brains.

    2. Teens are immature and need to grow up.
    The risk-taking tendencies, impulsiveness, and high emotional sensitivity of teens is not a sign of immaturity but rather an outcome of exactly what they are supposed to be doing during this developmental stage—testing boundaries, creating their own view of the world, and preparing for life beyond the family home and school community.

    3. Growing up requires moving from dependence on adults to total independence from them.
    The healthy move to adulthood is toward interdependence, not complete do-it-yourself isolation. Giving care and receiving help from others is the model we should be supporting.

    Pause, take a couple of breaths, and reflect on your own middle or high school experience. I’m sure you can understand why adolescents struggle during this time of their lives especially if the adults around them fundamentally misunderstand them. Remembering our own experience can help us be more understanding and compassionate in the interactions we have with teens.

    Qualities of the Adolescent Mind:

    Dr. Siegel goes on to name the attributes of the adolescent mind as well as the benefits and challenges associated with these changes.  His book also guides reader through activities that ask adolescents to reflect and bring awareness to their internal landscape, and which support healthy communication.

    • Novelty Seeking: Increased drive for rewards and increased inner motivation to seek new experiences and feel life more fully

    Upside: Being open to change and exploring new ways of doing things that lead to a sense of adventure

    Downside: Sensation seeking and taking risks without considering consequences can lead to dangerous behavior

    • Social Engagement: Enhanced peer connectedness and new friendships are explored

    Upside: The drive for social connection leads to creation of supportive relationships that can support and enrich teens their whole life

    Downside: Adolescents might isolate themselves from other adults and only surround themselves with other teens, which can lead to increased risky behavior

    • Increased Emotional Intensity: Emotional sensitivity increases, allowing teens to feel life experiences more intensely

    Upside: Emotional intensity can fill teens with energy and a sense of vitality for being alive

    Downside: Emotional intensity can fill teens with energy and a sense of vitality for being alive. Emotions can rule the day, leading to moodiness and, sometimes unhelpful, reactivity

    • Creative Exploration: Expanded sense of being leads to conceptual thinking that question status quo and approaches problems with out-of-the-box solutions

    Upside: Sense of wonder, creativity, and curiosity can be nurtured; new solutions and strategies for a fuller life are explored

    Downside: New explorations can lead to crisis of identity, susceptibility to peer pressure, and lack of direction or purpose

    Taking these findings into account highlights why mindfulness interventions are critical at this age.   

    There is promising, if nascent evidence, that mindfulness can support adolescent wellbeing by supporting development of their prefrontal cortex (where empathy, thinking of consequences, and other executive function skills live), by enhancing their ability to focus, and helping them name and regulate their emotions. In addition, studies of adults participating in mindfulness interventions like Mindfulness Based Stressed Reduction “suggest that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.” These research studies, coupled with my experience teaching adolescent, makes it easy to argue for introducing mindfulness interventions to adolescents.   

    Introducing mindfulness to teens can be especially rewarding and challenging. Working with adolescents can bring to the surface the unresolved feelings and painful experiences we faced as adolescent. To be effective with this age group, we must reflect and turn to our own practice. We also have to make sure that when we offer mindfulness to adolescents it is relevant and engaging otherwise we won’t be able to truly support them. 

    The following reminders are helpful when working with teens. 
    Some of these apply to all age groups, but they hold special importance when working with adolescents.
    Adolescence spans from the ages of 12 to 24. This is one of the most confusing times of our lives, even when things are going well.

    • Remember what your adolescence was like, and have compassion!
    • Students’ feelings should be validated always, but especially keep this in mind now, because many adults are dismissive of the strong emotions of teens.
    • Practices, conversations, and activities should be relevant tothe students’ lives.
    • Learning should be student centered when possible, and students should be given opportunities to share and interact with one another.
    • Students tend to be sensitive about the way they are perceived by others, but they might not fully understand how they perceive themselves. 
    • Support healthy identity formation by creating a culture of acceptance of individual difference and respect for personal boundaries.
    • Avoid stereotypical language, and recognize your own assumptions and biases.​

    This is just the beginning of a conversation.  Little Flower Yoga has activities specifically designed for this age group.  Check out our Teen Deck as well as our Teen Webinar on Wed, Dec 5 at 7:30 PM, EST, which goes into more details about creating engaging experience when working with adolescents.   

    If this is a topic of interest we hope you’ll find these resources helpful.

    Argos Gonzalez is a teacher, lecturer, and mindfulness and yoga instructor.  He has 13 years of experience teaching high school in the Bronx and teaches pre-service and in-service teachers at Hunter College School of Education in NY.  Argos is certified through both Mindful Schools and Little Flower Yoga (LFY), and currently serves as the director of professional development for The School Yoga Project, a program of LFY.

    For more information about Little Flower Yoga and The School Yoga Project, visit www.littlefloweryoga.com. Contact Argos by email at argos@littlefloweryoga.com.  

    We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. If you are interested in purchasing any of the resources mentioned above, you can help support free programs like Mindful Mondays by navigating to them through the included links. Thank you for your support!

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  • Body of Emotions: A Mindfulness Practice to Explore Emotions with Teens

    Neuroscience research shows that the only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going inside ourselves.

    One of my favorite exercises to do with youth I teach in New York City explores our body and emotions. I often tell my students the body is home for our emotions and feelings. The body has a way to collect and store these feelings and sometimes the feelings can come up at random moments; when someone touches us by patting us on the shoulder, during a back rub, or while practicing yoga or other mindful (or random) movements.


    Emotions can arise unexpectedly through physical sensations and at times we might feel overwhelmed by them and not know what to do with them. Sometimes what comes up has nothing to do with how we were feeling the moment before. For example, we might have gone to a yoga class and felt pretty awesome practicing backbends until a physical sensation or an emotion comes up that changes the whole experience and our perspective on that moment. Sometimes we cannot locate exactly what it is we are feeling, what that emotion is talking about, or why that area of our body is contracting or tensing.


    The body is talking to us. It might be speaking to us about something we experienced in the past, or about something we didn’t realize affected us. Our body, at times, seems to be speaking an old language that seems familiar but we don’t fully recognize or remember.


    When I was young and I was practicing yoga I had no idea what these things were and why they were coming up. I felt overwhelmed by waves of rage or sadness without knowing how to channel them, harness them, safely explore them, and, finally, lovingly let go. That is, until the next time they resurfaced again.


    Because of this personal experience with my feelings, I make it a point in my teaching practice to explore this topic with my teenage students, even if it means breaking the taboo of not talking about how we feel. We explore  how to hold space for big emotions, loud emotions, difficult emotions— we welcome all of them. And as my students learn, I also learn—which is what a teacher is supposed to do anyway, right? It’s a win-win!


    To explore these ideas and emotions, one of the exercises we do in our mindfulness class is an art exercise called Body of Emotions. We dive into this activity after a body scan mediation where we explore physical sensation in the body.



    Materials needed for the exercise are color pencils (or crayons) and paper.


    First, I lead students thought a body scan. I then ask students to outline the shape of a person like a ginger bread man on a a piece of paper and to color, draw, outline any observations or findings they noticed during the body scan meditation. This could look a variety of ways and I usually don’t give too many instructions. Some students create an elaborate landscape of patterns and colors throughout their whole paper, each of them relating to sensations, feelings, or emotions. Some kids draw memories that the body scan brought up in their minds. Some others write about thoughts they had while focusing on the art exercise.


    I ask students to then create a key on top of the page that describes the patterns and colors on the body outline they drew. Both the art process and the writing part helps create together a vocabulary around the body sensations, as well as increase awareness on the body’s sensations.


    “In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.”

    ~ Bessel A. van der Kolk,
    The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

    This exercise can be practiced multiple times throughout the course of a school year, and sometimes students request to do it as their comfort zone expands. Often kids will want to share something with the group about their drawings. I often ask the students if they noticed something new about their body, like a soreness or pain or other physical sensations that they were not aware of before. It’s really important for the kids to reflect because it takes some internal check-ins to notice how we are feeling. As we go about our mindfulness program their ability to self-reflect becomes increasingly second nature to students.


    Becoming emotionally aware of our internal landscape and befriending our body has many important upsides. When we know how our body feels, we are able to make more informed decisions about what our needs are. We learn to recognize when it’s time to pause, to listen, to speak up, to leave or to stay. We learn when to rest, when to engage, what is good for us, and what is not.


    Attuning to our own body also teaches us self-preservation and self-care—it’s a form of practicing non-violence towards ourselves and, on a larger scale, to practice non-violence towards others. We learn to respect and take care of the communities we operate in and engage with.


    When we are given the tools to take care of our deep self, it is only natural to feel compelled to extend this feeling to others. This might sound radical but it really isn’t. Students continually demonstrate this inward and outward care every time we practice this exercise and mindfulness.


    Bessel A. van der Kolk explains “mindfulness not only makes it possible to survey our internal landscape with compassion and curiosity but can also actively steer us in the right direction for self-care.” This is what we do in our classes, we cultivate a sense of agency in self-care and self-inquiry by allowing the youth to explore, share and connect with others.  They learn how to have these important questions and begin to destigmatize the conversation around feelings. 


    It has been powerful to helps students create their own personal vocabulary around feelings and to support ways to talk about them. They develop a way to connect to their body. They become familiar to how their body talks to them about the way they are feeling. They can begin to consider why certain emotions are stored or felt in certain areas of the body. These tools and resources will serve them as they continue to learn about themselves and navigate their personal relationships. I encourage you to find ways to support your students in exploring the way emotions show up in their body.



    As a senior teacher, Daniela has delivered mindfulness-based programs in public schools, youth detention centers as well as homeless shelters. Daniela is a coach and mentor for LFY as well as part of the teaching team. Daniela leads professional development trainings on integrating mindfulness and inclusive, trauma-informed and cultural competent practices into classrooms and schools. Daniela is a program coordinator at Lineage Project as well as a mentor teacher and instructor. Daniela has over 15 years of experience teaching underserved and vulnerable children and youth in both Italy and US.

    We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. If you are interested in purchasing any of the resources mentioned above, you can help support free programs like Mindful Mondays by navigating to them through the included links. Thank you for your support!

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