Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Mindfulness Should be a Core Skill in Youth Development: More on The Clarissa Effect

Mindfulness Should be a Core Skill in Youth Development: More on The Clarissa Effect

Don Siegel

Last Spring Project Coach had a guest presenter who conducted several sessions on an attentional focusing technique called Mindfulness. As taught, participants were instructed to breathe rhythmically and to focus their attention on various sensations and thoughts that passed through their minds while they sat quietly in a circle. The overall point of the exercise was to try and teach PCers that it is important to be able to focus their attention on what is occurring in the present if they and their players are to perform optimally, as dwelling on the past or worrying about the future has little bearing on what one is doing in the moment. Great athletes have learned to be mindful while performing, leaving thoughts about the past and future to their training sessions. As we have been told by our coaches, “don’t worry about what just occurred, be in the moment.” But, as so many of us know, these directions are a lot easier conveyed by coaches than followed by players. Like other self-regulatory skills, such as managing stress, learning to stay in the present takes practice. The breathing strategy deployed by our guest presenter was a good starting point. Nonetheless, we found that staying in the moment was not so simple, as we needed to learn how to allow any disruptive thoughts to passively, and non-judgmentally, pass through our minds while we refocused on the actual sights, sounds, and sensations impinging on us.

While athletes and coaches know the value of being in the present, another take on the value of mindfulness relates to what I labeled The Clarissa Effect in my last post. This entails the phenomenon of program participants starting to thrive only after years of little change. In Clarissa’s case, she behaved poorly for a number of years, but all of a sudden started to bloom, once she realized how much her peers and program staff cared about what she needed and wanted, and how her own attitudes and behavior had been counterproductive to her development. The question for all of us who have seen this story play out time and again is what changed in Clarissa? Why did it take so long for her to follow a more positive trajectory? Could it be that her self-perceptions and view of the world was biased by ingrained images of an unhappy past, and a lack of hope for the future?  Was Clarissa’s transformation prolonged because of her inability to better understand her present situation, in which she was engaged in an array of enriching experiences and supported by peers and program staff who cared about her?

As conveyed in my previous post I alluded to Daniel Kahneman’s ideas about the disconnect between our experiencing self (Self 1), and our conscious self (Self 2). The gist of his contention is that Self 2, which is the self with which we have internal conversations, and the one that we think of as playing a critical role in the choices that we make and the behaviors that we emit, is greatly influenced by our recall of past experiences. As Kahneman tells us, Self 2 also bases such judgments on somewhat biased memories of those experiences, as it has a tendency to recall “peaks and valleys” of those experiences and how they ultimately ended, more so than the actual ongoing stream of experience itself. Consequently, a youth may be engaged in activities that are intrinsically rewarding, highly developmental, and socially redeeming, but may only label and recall her experience of them by sampling a few salient events occurring within them that may not authentically reflect their true meaning and value to her while involved. For example, someone like Clarissa may be participating in a game of soccer that she seems to thoroughly enjoy, but because of an altercation that occurs late in the game with a peer, and a subsequent reprimand from a staff member, may result in her Self 2 labeling the activity unpleasant, and counterproductive to her personal development, even though a large portion of her engagement in the activity was extremely positive. Indeed, she may have learned or enhanced her soccer skills, discovered new ways to foster teamwork with her fellow players, revealed leadership qualities that she heretofore was not aware of, and enjoyed the mental and physical challenges of sport. Yet, the altercation and its aftermath leave Self 2 painting a very different and negative picture of the overall experience.

I wish to contend that just as mindfulness training can enhance an athlete’s capacity to perform in the present, it can also be deployed to help Self 2 better connect with Self 1. Seemingly, if this is so, then it may be possible to weaken The Clarissa Effect as Self 2 would get a richer perspective of the many developmental experiences a youth experiences when participating in a sport based or other youth development program. The idea here would be for youth to better understand how what Self 1 experiences is not necessarily what Self 2 recalls, and that Self 2 needs to do a better job of recalling more of what Self 1 is experiencing, just as coaches do when they review game film. More succinctly, if we believe that exposing youth to enriching experiences impacts their development, then youth need to understand what these experiences are, what they are learning from them, how participation in them makes them feel, and how such experiences can impact who they are and how they behave across various contexts in their lives. On the other hand, if youth are less able to process all the positive developmental experiences to which they are exposed, then it seems likely that such exposure will have less of an effect on them, and that The Clarissa Effect will have greater potency.

While I do not know of any strategies for using Mindfulness Training in this manner, I would like to propose that we start by adapting a protocol from the Experience Sampling Methodology (ESM), a technique pioneered by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the originator of Flow Theory. Using ESM, subjects are typically probed at random times while engaging in an activity by answering such questions as what are you doing, who are you with, how are you feeling, what are you thinking about, what are you learning, who are you helping, etc? The basic notion is that by asking youth such questions at random points during their activities Self 2 will become much more aware of ongoing experience, and, thus, recall these ongoing experiences much more readily in constructing their summative memories of them. Project Coach has actually run several ESM studies and data from them support the notion that youth are able to assess their ongoing experiences quite accurately. However, we have not yet tested whether their Self 2 recalls of those experiences correlate highly with what their Self 1’s are saying. Clearly, teaching our youth to be mindful goes well beyond them learning to kick a ball better or teaching their players to shoot it more accurately. If deployed creatively, my guess is that it can greatly decrease the time kids like Clarissa get to “takeoff” velocity.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

“The Clarissa Effect” in Youth Development

“The Clarissa Effect” in Youth Development

Don Siegel

After so many years of debating the virtues of such things as charter schools, vouchers, Race to the Top, teacher assessments, no child left behind, and now, the common core, little attention has focused on how kids see things, and what gets their fires lit to learn. No initiative, no matter how logical it may seem or how much political and financial support it gets, is going to promote real growth in our youth unless youth are on-board, ready, and willing to engage with curricular content and the people responsible for delivering it.     

As a case in point, the story of a child struggling in an afterschool program provides a window into this critical aspect of a child’s life. Clarissa came from a difficult home situation, and lived in a neighborhood in which gangs, violence, and drugs were rife, and in which unemployment and poverty were the norm. She struggled with school, had not thought much about her future, and was on track to become another teen mother who would likely continue in this cycle of hopelessness. By chance, she connected with an afterschool program that engaged kids in a sport, while promoting a better life through academic enrichment, travel, and building social capital. When Clarissa first started the program she conveys that she had a “bad attitude”. She talked back to staff, fought with peers, gave only a half hearted effort during sport sessions, and blew-off the academic component of the program. Essentially, she was a kid “on the bubble” who was not really engaged or taking advantage of what the program had to offer. She was also the kid who staff dreaded, and who was on the verge of being constantly suspended because of her bad attitude and the negative effect she was having on others in the program.

Yet, after several years, Clarissa had an awakening in which she realized that her negative attitude was not really getting her what she wanted from life.  She conveys that she started to realize that listening to staff, participating more positively, and following directions got her more satisfaction than talking back and being nasty to everyone. What changed for Clarissa?

Clearly, it took Clarissa a great deal of time to understand that the people who she saw everyday really wanted to help her, and lookout for her wellbeing; something that she had not experienced with other peer and adult relationships she had experienced over the years. Clarissa conveyed that her bad attitude came from “never feeling like anyone was there for me and not caring about what I wanted and needed, so, after a while I didn’t care about others.” She further observes that once she really felt valued, having a positive outlook came easily. Overall, she felt happier, which in turn, became a source for her to move forward despite other challenges that she faced.

Over the years, Project Coach staff have observed many variations of Clarissa’s awakening. It is not unusual for us to work with youth who for a very long time, sometimes several years, have poor attitudes and are fairly non-responsive and unwilling to participate fully in our activities. But, then all of a sudden something clicks, and like Clarissa, they start on another, more positive, trajectory. This is one of the ironies and frustrations of doing youth development work. It is very non-linear in that there may be little overt change from day to day with a kid, but then one day, like “Leo the Late Bloomer”, a switch seems to flip, and they begin to blossom. For want of a better label, we might call this the “Clarissa Effect”.

While no one really knows how or why such transformations take place, I  believe that they have to do what is going on in a youth’s emotional life. A recent book by Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, has something to say about the “Clarissa Effect”. Kahneman proposes that we really have two selves driving our behavior. The first he calls Self 1, which is instinctive, automatic, emotional, stereotypic, and frequent. The second is Self 2, which is what we typically think of when we describe who we are. It is slow, effortful, logical, and conscious.

Of particular interest in his framework is the notion that these two selves work independently as we experience the moment (Self 1), and as we recall the aggregate of moments experienced (Self 2). In essence, Kahneman believes that our conscious self remembers overall experiences more by their peaks and valleys, and by the way an experience ends, than by the quality of ongoing experiences from start to finish. According to Kahneman, Self 2 is the remembering and conscious self, while Self 1, the experiencing self, that which lives in each moment of an experience, is a “stranger” to us.

While these dichotomies of self, as they relate to one’s identity and behavior, can get quite confusing, the take away from Kahneman’s work is that the “stranger self” (Self 1) needs to become less strange and more familiar to the  “conscious self” (Self 2). In essence, Self 2 needs to become more aware of the positive experiences associated with ongoing involvement in an activity; it’s positive affect, and the part that one’s behavior makes in shaping such experiences and feeling.

My take away from Kahneman is that for Self 2 to get to this point, the Clarissa’s of the world need to be immersed in activities that feel good and leave a dense trail of salient peaks with few valleys.  Ultimately, it is Self 2 that is transformed by day in and day out exposure to positive experiences; the snippets of which are compiled and assembled into pictures that the more conscious, deliberate, and conscious mind can understand. This takes time, especially for youth who’s Self 2 has already been defined by negative experiences that have shaped their negative identities. Consequently, the “Clarissa Effect” entails bringing Self 2 into better alignment with Self 1, a process of cohering one’s conscious and less conscious worlds.

The bottom line here is that over time we will encounter many Clarissa’s, and if we wish to get them on-board with our programs, and in so doing, a brighter future for themselves, we need to help them feel good about themselves, and understand how their own behavior promote such feelings. There is no formula for doing this. But what seems to work is sticking with these kids and exposing them to a continuous stream of interesting activities and supportive people. Some may respond quickly, while others may be multiyear projects. But, if they keep coming back, they are finding some satisfaction in being with us. As the aggregate of peaks build so will the likelihood that they change course, and move in a more productive direction.  


Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Readiness to Learn Problem

Don Siegel

As a teacher, coach, and co-director of a youth development program, I have become increasingly aware of the gap that exists between educational initiatives, the curricula they produce, and the youth that such policies and curricula are designed to serve. That is to say that those who craft policy are rightfully concerned about such things as educational inequality, educational under achievement, and developing a workforce that can compete globally, but they do not seem well versed in understanding how to connect with and engage the youth to which policy initiatives are targeted. My guess is that developing policy is a lot easier than figuring out how to attract and retain the attention of youth over the long haul. This is something that youth development workers know about, since participation in such programs is normally voluntary, and youth can simply walk away if a program fails to inspire them. 

As a case in point, No Child Left Behind had the noble intention of requiring all children to be proficient in literacy and numeracy by a specified date; but it failed to produce these outcomes because it provided no guidance for how to include children in getting there. Simply, setting up a variety of rewards and punishments for schools and states that did or did not make progress towards its goals made little difference to the kids who were the recipients of the policy. In fact, No Child Left Behind led to inordinate amounts of “drilling and grilling”, with associated testing that probably took a lot of fun out of going to school, and wanting to do well. Of course, children had to go along with what adults were requiring them to do because they could not simply walk away. School is required, but, their hearts were not into the concomitants of this ill-conceived policy initiative.

 Similarly, I think that there are both arguments to be made for and against charter schools, vouchers, Race to the Top, and Common Core. All of these policy initiatives and constructs have a logic to them that makes sense, and if operationalized with children’s’ needs considered as a priority, they would produce the sorts of outcomes that their creators envision. Yet, despite the intellectual firepower that has gone into all of these ideas, we still seem to be making only marginal progress in helping kids develop the academic and developmental capabilities that will make them happier, healthier, and better able to thrive in a highly competitive globalized world. Why is this the case?

While I can’t provide a definitive answer to this question, my experience working with and observing kids over the years leads me to one possibility.  Simply put, the programs that adults have crafted, while logical, fail to get a youth’s “fires lit.” By this I mean, there is a disconnect between program design and its operationalization into something that invokes a kid’s willingness and interest in engaging in it. Educational psychologist, Edward Thorndike recognized the importance of receptivity to learn in his famous Law of Readiness, which proposed that for learning to take place a child needed to be ready to learn. For youth not so prepared, learning would be less than optimal, if it occurred at all. Given that readiness is a critical prerequisite to learning, it seems remarkable that so little attention has focused on how best to get a child ready and eager to learn. Virtually, all initiatives in education and youth development have been about ways to organize and run schools and programs, develop curricula, and/or by what means to assess students and staff. How to get the recipients of all of this, children, ready and engaged has been a largely missing piece, or at least a piece that I believe has not received enough attention.

With the readiness/engagement question in mind, ethnographer Herb Childress tackled this problem, and reported on what he found in an essay entitled Seventeen Reasons Why Football is Better than High School. Having spent a year visiting high schools and observing students not listening to teachers, conversing with one another rather than doing their work, putting their heads down on their desks in response to boredom, and generally tuning out, he wondered why the same students appeared to be fully engaged in a variety of extracurricular activities.  In contrast to school, he saw the same kids coming alive and giving their best efforts.  Ironically, Childress stated that he selected football as a case in point, not because he personally loves the sport, but because he hates it. His contention being that “even football is better than school”. Why was this so?

Some of the elements that Childress identifies include that in football:
·      … teenagers are considered important contributors rather than passive recipients. Here youth understand that they have unique contributions to make to a team’s success, and that they have a valued role to play. In contrast, much of what goes on in school does not recognize their unique talents. Instead, they are viewed more as passive vessels to be filled by others, than as valued contributors to a noble enterprise.
·      … youth receive honors, status, and recognition from the wider community. Typically, this does not happen in a class, in which grades are more of a personal thing that has meaning in a very limited sense between a student and her teacher, and, perhaps, a parent.
·      … the unexpected often happens, which makes things more exciting. In contrast, classes typically are choreographed with carefully crafted lesson plans which make them very predicable, routine, and monotonous.
·       … emotions and human contact are expected as part of being successful in the activity. In contrast, the norm in classrooms is for students to work independently, with minimal communication and interaction with peers.
·      … there is a lot of individual instruction and encouragement from adults who work with smaller groups of players. In classrooms, teachers typically provide large group instruction, and because of class sizes of 25 or more, are unable to provide much attention to each student. As well, the interest and enthusiasm of coaches for being at practices and working with players clearly exceeds that of teachers in classrooms, who often appear more subdued and less excited to be there.
·      … there is a great deal of peer learning in which more experienced players teach and inspire less experienced ones. This is reinforcing to players on both sides of the experience equation. In classrooms, adult teachers normally provide all of the instruction, as more able and less able students may be assigned to different groups.
·      … a public performance is expected, and provides an incentive to practice hard in order to acquire the necessary skills to compete effectively, while being observed by family and friends. In contrast, a youth’s schoolwork is typically performed and evaluated in private, and a student’s success or failure has little impact on others.
While, Childress does not mention any of the educational policy initiatives previously identified, I believe that his observations are closely aligned with Thorndike’s Law of Readiness. His main contention is that the same adolescents who may be cynical, alienated, and disaffected in one context can be inspired, engaged, and exhilarated in another. As a result, they become active, eager, and effective learners. The take away from his observations is that, as educational philosopher John Dewey asserted, children are not simply empty vessels to be filled with intellectual content, but are naturally curious, social, and creative. In essence, Childress’ observations corroborate Dewey’s assertion, and challenges educators to recast their classrooms to better connect with what adolescents need and want.

Clearly, this is not a trivial undertaking. Yet, with all the energy and attention, over the years, going to curriculum development and associated standards to be met, we have sometimes forgotten that whatever we come up with will have little impact if we are unable to get kids engaged, and willing to expend energy acquiring the knowledge and skills that we wish them to have. As the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. Kids know little or care much about such policies as No Child Left Behind or Common Core. As we see in Childress’ observations, they want to be part of something that is exciting, that everyone cares about, that is subject to public acclaim or condemnation, that is social, that requires them to play a valued role, and that makes them accountable for executing that role effectively. When so engaged, they become eager to learn.

 In Project Coach, I believe that we recognize this, and strive each day to craft ways to appeal to the natural proclivities of youth. Teaching and coaching entails lighting fires in learners/players.  As we have found over the years, this is probably our greatest challenge, but to paraphrase, Dr. Seuss, once kids become fully engaged there is no limit to the places that they can go! Our responsibility is to light their fires, and to make certain that our activities are filled with lessons that not only make them successful coaches, but have transfer value to other important contexts in their lives.