Special needs children require a level of attention that far exceeds that of other children. Compassion, patience, and understanding are resources that are often quickly exhausted when addressing the demanding task of caring for these special children. As children enter adolescence, their disabilities become more difficult to manage and can increase the stress on teachers and family members. This creates a tension that impacts intimate relationships, relationships with other family members, and overall well-being of caregivers. For teachers, the quality of instruction they deliver to the rest of their students is compromised because of the increased stress. In fact, barely one-third of teachers believe they are qualified to address the many needs of these children who are integrated into their classrooms. Replenishing the emotional resources of these key individuals is vital to the psychological and physical health of the disabled child, the parents, and the teachers.
Mindfulness training (MT) is a technique that is based on Jon Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and teaches individuals how to reduce stress by increasing compassion, empathy, and forgiveness. This emotional regulation intervention was the basis for a recent study conducted by Rita Benn of the Institute for Social Research and Department of Family Medicine at the University of Michigan. Benn enlisted 52 parents and caregivers of special needs children and followed them as they participated in five weeks of MT. They were assessed for levels of compassion, forgiveness, and stress before the MT, shortly after week five, and again two months later.
Benn found that all of the participants reported increases in their awareness, patience, and compassion. Specifically, participants were more conscious of the way they processed their emotions and were less judgmental and more tolerant of others. Benn discovered that this effect increased with time, with all the participants showing elevated levels of awareness, patience, forgiveness, and compassion two months after the study. Teachers in the study also reported improvements in self-efficacy as a result of the MT. However, parents who were with their children for longer periods of time during the summer months in which this study was conducted, realized smaller gains in stress and compassion than the teachers. This finding could suggest that parents, who do not get nights and weekends off from caring for their children, may need ongoing MT in order to see changes equal to those of the teachers. Overall, this study demonstrates that implementing MT in a school setting can provide much-needed stress reduction and positive psychological effects for the caretakers of special needs children and for the children themselves, but even more research is needed. Benn added, “Key to this work will be an assessment of how and when MT affects observable behavior in family and classroom settings and what effects, if any, such changes have on children’s academic, social, and emotional development.”
Benn, R., Akiva, T., Arel, S., & Roeser, R. W. (2012). Mindfulness training effects for parents and educators of children with special needs. Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0027537
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