Cultivating adolescents’ compassion skills for the self and other
September 22, 2022
As young people return to school this year, educators are facing the challenge of how best to support the mental and emotional health of their students. Many studies on the benefits of meditation practices have spurred the use of mindfulness-based programs in schools as one approach to supporting students. Newer programs, however, are focusing on building skills around not just mindfulness, but also care and compassion for self and others. By orientating toward compassion, these programs become more than personal and therapeutic, but also social and aimed at systems-level change. Skills of compassion include mindful awareness of suffering, perspective-taking, the ability to sense and tolerate uncomfortable feelings arising from the perception of suffering, a sense of interconnectedness and mutuality with others, and a concomitant desire to alleviate suffering. This collection of skills can expand our natural caring capacities and be directed toward the self (e.g., not being so hard on oneself during moments of struggle) and toward others (e.g., not judging quickly/listening to others’ struggles with curiosity and perspective).
Although studies have shown that self- and other-directed compassion skills among adults can be improved through training, little research on the cultivation of compassion in adolescents has been explored. To address this gap, we developed and tested a new school-based program, called Courage of Care Youth Program (CCYP), to teach skills of care and compassion to high school students. CCYP is comprised of eight 50-minute lessons – half of which focus on self-care and the other half on caring for others – and can be delivered either virtually or in-person. Relational, compassion-based practices (i.e., self-care, receiving care, and extending care) are embedded throughout the curriculum to reflect a social approach to transforming not only personal wellbeing, but also our relationships. The program was inspired by the applied work of an existing organization, Courage of Care Coalition, which utilizes a relational, anti-oppressive approach to compassion training. Program development was also guided by adolescent development theory in an attempt to create a developmental “fit” between the program content and adolescent needs for belonging, wisdom, self-transcendence, and mattering to the world-at-large.
Indeed, one 11th grade student expressed that she “enjoyed learning how we are not alone and that we all need to face problems together” and that the program made her realize “that mindfulness is not just about one person.”
To evaluate the impacts of CCYP, we partnered with a high school in a suburban area of western Pennsylvania and conducted a quasi-experimental pilot study of the program. The 34 students who participated in the program were peer-nominated into an existing schoolwide initiative aimed at empowering students whose grade-level peers viewed them as naturally kind and helpful. Because peers looked to them for care and support, we thought it would be important to support the further development of compassion skills in these students. To provide a match to this unique group, we created a comparison group that included 40 students who had also been peer-nominated, but who did not participate in CCYP. The program was delivered virtually in the fall of 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic and impacts were assessed in relation to the comparison group.
Overall, adolescents reported that the program was well implemented and acceptable. Results also showed that the program had positive impacts on adolescents’ self-compassion, sense of interdependence (i.e., feeling as though humans are connected to one another), and perspective-taking over time compared to adolescents in the comparison group. The program also seemed to improve female adolescents’ mindful awareness over time. Contrary to our expectations, adolescents in the program group did not show greater improvements in their compassion for others. Perhaps a lack of good measurement of compassion for others, ceiling effects in which these caring adolescents did not have much room to grow on these skills, the virtual nature of the program, and other factors may have explained these results. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic may have hindered students’ ability to practice and improve upon skills related to compassion for others given limited social contact occurring during the study period.
Taken in total, we believe the results indicate the potential of the CCYP to positively impact aspects of adolescents’ psychological and social development in ways that can improve their mental health and relationships during this challenging time in history.
This research also suggests a need for more rigorous program evaluations of this and similar programs that extend work on mindfulness and therapeutic outcomes to compassion and relational outcomes. Results also indicate a need for better measurement tools for compassion for others and greater attention to gender differences in the teaching and evaluation of compassion trainings.
Compassion-based programs may provide a better “fit” with adolescents’ increasing social awareness, motivation, and need for relatedness, especially for adolescents who are sought out by their peers for care and support. Indeed, one 11th grade student expressed that she “enjoyed learning how we are not alone and that we all need to face problems together” and that the program made her realize “that mindfulness is not just about one person.” If we seek to address the social-related difficulties of adolescents, and to cultivate virtues like compassion for self and others during this important developmental stage, providing programs like CCYP could be a fruitful direction of research and practice. As one 10th grade student concluded, “There are students who are just trying to keep up a façade of being perfect and looking good. If there was a way to mess up the façade and make mindfulness and compassion the norm, it would be really helpful.”