For this episide, I interviewed Sam Himelstein, the president of the Center for Adolescent Studies about mindfulness, the pitfalls of pop-culture “mindfulness” and the importance of trauma-informed care in his work with youth.
Listen to the podcast below. (iTunes and Stitcher links are at the end of this post.)
Sam Himelstein, Ph.D., is a Licensed Psychologist specializing in working with juvenile justice-involved youth, addiction, and trauma. He travels the country speaking at conferences and conducting professional trainings and is the president of the Center for Adolescent Studies. His mission is to help young people become aware of the power of self-awareness and transformation, and train professionals with similar interests.
It was inspiring to hear Sam talk about working with at-risk and incarcerated youth, about “rolling with resistance” rather than top-down authority; building trust; trauma-informed care; mindful walking and the importance of bilateral stimulation (what we call stimming); individual strategies for fostering interpersonal safety; and also about the “mindfulness” fad and how to change the problematic dynamics around it.
Sam’s compassion and understanding about how kids feel comes in part from having been through the system himself. He knows that for anyone working with kids, especially at-risk kids, the first priority is building an authentic relationship with them to truly help improve their life outcomes and get them out of the school-to-prison pipeline. He is breaking new ground in his approach, especially around empowerment and rethinking some long-held beliefs about authority.
“Most of young people’s lives are getting told what to do and what not to do as adults,” Sam points out. We discussed ways that kids can be put into the driver’s seat, to feel empowered, safe and respected.
We also talked about the problems with behaviourist approaches that focus on measuring outcomes—which is the core of Applied Behaviour Analytics and is also a trend in many mainstream classrooms (thanks in no small part to Common Core). Sam says: “The present day paradigm in therapy, the post-positivist view in the field of education really focuses on outcomes, a small slice of outcomes, which is behavioural outcomes. …You see a lot of wanting to reduce behavioural symptoms but not as much wanting to increase other subjective outcomes that lead to greater life success.”
This type of measurement also links in with pop-culture mindfulness, especially when it is viewed as a magic-button for classroom control. Mindfulness, Sam reminds us, isn’t a disciplinary tool. It isn’t a quick-fix and shouldn’t be co-opted as a tool of social control. When used in that way, it can actually harm; as in the case when mindfulness is not trauma-informed. Our podcast ended with talking about what it means to have trauma-informed practice, a topic of Sam’s most recent book, which just came out this month!
A lingering question, which I don’t think anyone has yet answered, is what an autistic-informed-and-led mindfulness could look like. Another very crucial question: what is the impact of existing forms of mindfulness training on autistic youth? How does mindfulness manifest differently, depending on neurotype? In seeking some answers, we can look towards the work of Damian Milton about “flow state,” which we will be discussing in the next episode.