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.