Iowa 4-H Offers Mindfulness and Mental Well-being Support to Youth and Families

AMES, Iowa – The pandemic, natural disasters, social injustices, and personal lifestyle changes and losses have intensified the need for more awareness, skills and resources to support mental health. Iowa State University Extension and Outreach 4-H Youth Development has responded with new, innovative programs in mindfulness for youth and families.
“May is Mental Health Awareness Month and as we reflect on the challenges Iowans, our communities and our world have experienced throughout the last year, it’s clear that the mental health of people of all ages has been significantly impacted,” said Tiffany Berkenes, 4-H youth program specialist.
A survey administered by the National 4-H Council in 2020 reported that 82% of youth wished the U.S. would talk more openly about mental health.
“As positive youth development professionals and caring adults, it is important to listen to youth’s needs and interests and develop relevant programming that empowers them, supports their personal growth, and improves their overall well-being so they can reach their full potential,” Berkenes noted. “Mindfulness supports youth and their families.”

Understanding mindfulness

According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction, mindfulness refers to paying attention in a particular way – on purpose, in the present moment and without judgment. Mindfulness is a variety of practices and activities done with present moment-awareness and focused attention. Examples include loving-kindness (gratitude and self-compassion), yoga, body scans, slowing down, and experiencing life and the world with all five senses, pausing before responding during interpersonal interactions, taking a few breaths during moments of stress, guided visualization, and coloring.
Research by Harvard Medical School neuroscientist Sara Lazar shows that consistent, mindful practice can essentially re-wire the brain, helping individuals increase resilience and achieve greater levels of peace, health and joy. Other benefits include increased focus and concentration; emotional regulation; increased self-awareness, empathy and compassion; improved sleep; and decreased risk of anxiety and depression.

Mindfulness for Iowa youth

Berkenes and the Iowa 4-H Healthy Living Team developed a six-session workshop series based on the book, “The Mindful Teen: Powerful Skills to Help You Handle Stress One Moment at a Time,” by Dr. Dzung Vo, an adolescent medicine specialist and clinical associate professor at the University of British Columbia. As a result of COVID-19, the program was also adapted to be delivered virtually.
The 4-H Mindful Teen series has positively impacted hundreds of Iowa youth since December 2019. More than 150 ISU Extension and Outreach 4-H staff, volunteers, and school and community partners from across the state have been trained to implement the program, which aims to equip teens with practical strategies and mindful practices to manage stress and cope with difficult emotions, foster thoughtful reflection and conversation in an inclusive and affirming space, provide mental health and mindfulness resources, and set goals for applying what they learned to support their overall well-being, relationships, and performance in school and activities.
Megan Freel, 4-H and family life educator for ISU Extension and Outreach Polk County and a trained 4-H mindfulness facilitator, helped implement the program in Polk County.
“The Polk County Extension Council determined the mental health of our community was an important initiative for COVID-19 recovery, so we have been offering the Mindful Teen series and recognize this is an impactful program. Youth across Iowa have shared that The Mindful Teen program has helped them feel accepted, calm, relaxed and more in control of their body and emotions. They have increased confidence and feel more balanced. Thanks to a grant from the Iowa 4-H Foundation, we are able to remove barriers to participation and provide this beneficial program with no cost to participants,” Freel said.
In addition, Iowa 4-H is piloting a four-session family mindfulness series that will be offered in Fall 2021 and is creating Mindful Moment activities for 4-H volunteers and staff to incorporate into club activities, school programs, events or meetings. The Iowa 4-H Program offers professional development to 4-H staff on mental health awareness to provide resources, and education in partnership with other mental well-being organizations, including the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Iowa and the Partnerships in Prevention Science Institute with Iowa State University.
Iowa 4-H will offer the first “THR!VE” Mindfulness Retreat at the Boone Y-Camp Oct. 8-10 for youth in grades 8-12 with an accompanying adult. This retreat will be an engaging and unique opportunity for youth and adults to learn and engage in mindfulness and camp activities together. Registration for the retreat will open Aug. 2. For more information on the retreat, please contact your ISU Extension and Outreach county office.
4-H Mindfulness Program facilitator tainings are open to any youth-serving organizations. For information about Iowa 4-H mindfulness programming, contact Tiffany Berkenes at For more information on the Iowa 4-H Youth Development Program, please contact your ISU Extension and Outreach county office or visit the Iowa 4-H website at
Shareable photo and caption: Youth from multiple counties participate in Iowa 4-H mindfulness activities during the SWITCH Southeast Iowa Healthy Living Summit.

About the Authors: 

Tiffany Berkenes

4-H Youth Development

Valyn Bodensteiner

4-H Youth Development Communications Strategist
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