Breathe in. Breathe out. Pay attention to your breath and try to clear your mind. Continue for a full minute, or maybe several. Repeat the exercise any time your day feels hectic or you feel frustrated or stressed.
Mindfulness—in addition to regular coursework and studies—is something Flint children are practicing at school, several times a day, thanks to programs implemented in partnership with the Crim Fitness Foundation. Teachers, parents and administrators say it’s helping to counter some of the symptoms commonly associated with lead poisoning including reduced attention and poor impulse control.
“We started small in a few classrooms to gauge interest and need,” said Sarah Sullivan, mindfulness program director at the Crim Fitness Foundation. “We’ve been astounded by the interest. I think it’s because the teachers saw such an impact and transformation. Then kids started going home to their parents and teaching their parents.”
The fitness foundation was created more than 40 years ago with the mission of boosting fitness opportunities for Flint residents. Crim’s signature event is an annual fundraising race, but the foundation hosts numerous fitness programs for Flint residents throughout the year, including nutrition programming in schools.
In 2011, Crim CEO Jerry Myers attended a mindfulness workshop hosted by author and alternative medicine advocate Deepak Chopra. It inspired the Crim Fitness Foundation to train its staff and launch its own program the following year. In 2016, the Foundation hosted a lecture on mindfulness for the community which attracted 1,000 attendees. By 2017, the program was in all Flint schools, with a program director at each school funded by the C.S. Mott Foundation. The Flint Community Foundation provides the bulk of the program’s funding.
“There was such a focused effort to do whatever was needed to support youth at that time,” Sullivan said, referring to the peak of the water crisis. “We thought mindfulness could be beneficial, but wanted to make sure it was research-based. So we pulled together a team from Michigan State University and really looked at the potential for it. It hadn’t been used in other communities directly to support countering the effects of lead poisoning. But there was enough evidence that it has potential to really help mitigate the effects.”
Teachers can choose how they implement the programs Crim has developed. Lessons last as long as an hour or as little as two minutes for things like brain breaks or mindful moments. The curriculum’s last class focuses on gratitude and building empathy and communication skills. Each lesson ends by asking students to teach a parent, sibling, or friend what they’ve learned, in order to help build their leadership skills.
Mindfulness exercises typically come in handy around transition times, like first thing in the morning or when students are returning from lunch or physical education, said Shelly Umphrey, Flint City School District’s assistant superintendent for academics.
“It’s calming for kids after a transition, which is huge for students under stress,” Umphrey said. “It helps to focus them, so they concentrate as they move into instruction.”
“You can see the broader impact at the classroom level,” she added. “But when you begin to see children utilizing the strategies outside of it being led by a teacher, that’s when you really see the impact. We started to see that—students, who maybe needed a moment away from their class because they were stressed, would come into the behavior support room, sit down in a chair and use the strategies.
Or you would hear a parent say, my child told me if I just breathe calmly in my nose and out my mouth, I will feel calmer.” The goal is for kids to begin to realize there is something that can help them to regulate themselves when they get angry or upset, Umphrey explained.
Crim is training a cadre of principals to champion the program in order to help ensure its sustainability. And it’s offering ongoing mindfulness programming to the community, including free mediation sessions on the second Monday of each month and community yoga the first Wednesday.
But the program’s focus remains on students and their teachers, who say the benefits are striking.
“I’ve been teaching in the Flint schools for 24 years and have seen students having difficulty managing the many stressors in their lives,” said Jenny Purman, a reading intervention and 4th-grade teacher at Durant-Tuuri-Mott Community School. “I was asked to work with a large group of 4th-graders struggling in reading, [and] I realized that until we could settle our minds and bodies, there would be very little learning going on. We started each intervention session with 10 minutes of mindfulness and then were able to apply ourselves to the reading task at hand.
“Some of my most troubled students shared how much they felt mindfulness helped them to focus, slow down, practice gratitude, and even forgiveness,” she added. “Those student testimonials were the only proof I needed that mindfulness makes a difference.”