Mindful Coping Power Article

June 28, 2023

New mindful cognitive preventive intervention improves children’s social-emotional skills and stress physiology

Research shows that Mindful Coping Power, a new mindful cognitive prevention program, improves children’s stress physiology and makes lasting improvements in their social skills, and impulsive anger and aggression, according to Dr. Caroline Boxmeyer, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine in the College of Community Health Sciences, who led the research.

With funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Boxmeyer and her research colleagues developed the Mindful Coping Power program, a new format of the Coping Power prevention program. Coping Power was developed in the 1990s by Drs. John Lochman, emeritus professor and Doddrige Saxon Chair of Clinical Psychology of The University of Alabama, and Karen Wells, associate professor emeritus in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, N.C., for students in late elementary to middle school. The program provides skills training to increase children’s social competence and self-regulation, as well as positive parenting, and reduces children’s aggressive behavior and later substance use and delinquency.

“Our goal is to identify at-risk children and provide the building blocks of mental health and healthy relationships before adolescence, to reduce or prevent later problems, such as substance use, violence and difficulty in school and relationships,” said Boxmeyer, who is also associate dean for Academic and Faculty Affairs for CCHS.

Boxmeyer and the research team co-authored “Mindful Coping Power Effects on Children’s Autonomic Nervous System Functioning and Long-Term Behavioral Outcomes,” published May 23, 2023, in the Journal of Clinical Medicine.

In previous research, the Coping Power prevention program has had long-lasting effects on reducing children’s proactive aggression, a more intentional, goal-directed form of aggression. However, it has been more difficult to alter children’s reactive aggression, which is found in various mental disorders and typically reflects an impulsive response to perceived social threats, provocation and/or frustrations.

“Our team at UA has been leading this work, nationally and internationally, through the development, testing, and dissemination of the Coping Power prevention program, which has more than 25 years of evidence demonstrating its effectiveness,” Boxmeyer said. “Despite the proven effectiveness of Coping Power, it can be challenging to impact behaviors that are more biologically and temperamentally based, such as impulsive and reactive anger and aggression.”

Boxmeyer and the other researchers tested the effects of the Mindful Coping Power (MCP) Program in a one-year, school-based clinical trial that included 102 randomly selected fifth-grade students with elevated levels of reactive aggression. The students were from five elementary schools in Tuscaloosa, Ala., that varied in sociodemographic characteristics, including in race and the number of students enrolled in free or reduced lunch. To control for these characteristics, participants were randomly assigned to MCP or the comparison Coping Power program within each school.

The MCP child group sessions were offered weekly, lasted 45 minutes and met during the school day in a private meeting space. The parent group sessions lasted 60 to 90 minutes, were biweekly or monthly, and were held in the morning and evenings in a central location near the school.

MCP integrated mindfulness practices into the Coping Power prevention program, including practices such as breath awareness, mindful movements, as well as mindful eating and listening, thought awareness and compassion practices.

Boxmeyer found that MCP improved children’s inhibitory control at the end of fifth grade, which led to lasting improvements in children’s social skills at the end of sixth grade, compared to standard Coping Power. Inhibitory control is a specific type of executive functioning that involves controlling one’s attention, behavior, thoughts and/or feelings to override other impulses. The study also found that MCP has a beneficial effect on children’s autonomic nervous system functioning, by improving children’s skin conductance reactivity while playing a computer game designed to cause moderate frustration.

“Psychological interventions have begun to focus more on polyvagal theory and improving autonomic nervous system functioning, said Boxmeyer. “This approach can help individuals become more aware of their emotional and physiological arousal, and to learn to regulate arousal, which can help them live with a greater sense of safety, calm and ease and to develop healthier relationships.”

The findings in this study support this approach. Improvements in children’s skin conductance reactivity and vagal tone at the end of fifth grade led to long-term improvements in children’s reactive aggression at the end of sixth grade.

Results of this research showed that Mindful Coping Power helps improve self-regulation and long-term behavioral outcomes of at-risk youth and can positively impact children’s underlying stress physiology and executive functioning.

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