Steamboat Springs Kristen Race was studying the neurology of stress for her doctorate several years ago when she learned she had an autoimmune disease, likely caused by stress.
The experience strengthened a personal and professional interest in stress and how it affects the brain for Race, who moved from Denver to Steamboat in 2007 with her husband, city council member Kenny Reisman, and their two young children.
“I think we are living in what I call 'generation stress,'” Race said. “A generation of stressed out adults raising a generation of stressed out kids.”
While working as a consultant for First Impressions of Routt County, Race arranged to teach a mindfulness training to preschool students at Discovery Learning Center.
She asked students to participate in active, mindful listening and in movement exercises that allowed them to feel what it's like to exert a lot of energy and then gradually slow themselves down.
“It teaches them to calm themselves,” Race said. “They catch onto it quickly.”
Word of Race’s one-time training at the preschool quickly spread, and soon she was teaching 70 classes a month in early childhood centers across Routt County.
She named the program Mindful Life.
As the mother of young Macy, now 11, and Charlie, now 9, Race soon realized she couldn’t keep up with the demand for classroom trainings and found it would be more efficient to train teachers instead. This training model meant that teachers would learn mindfulness, how the brain functions under different conditions and techniques for reducing stress.
“When teachers are stressed and overwhelmed — that trickles down to kids,” Race said.
A formal study of the Mindful Life Schools method showed students trained in the program demonstrated increased attention, emotional regulation and impulse control and teachers saw a decrease in stress levels.
The popularity of Mindful Life has continued to grow over the past five years, leading Race to create a six-session online program as well.
To date, more than 5,000 teachers and 15,000 parents and youth development professionals have been trained either online or in person by Race, who cycles through local schools in Steamboat, Hayden and South Routt, as well as throughout Denver and other areas of the United States for trainings.
The trainings have proven popular in local schools, where teachers sometimes struggle to gain the attention of students distracted by problems in their home lives, according to Kristi Brown, health and wellness coordinator for the Hayden and South Routt school districts.
“In this day and age, we expect so much from our teachers, and there’s only so much they can do,” Brown said. “When they’re trying to work with kids who show up so distracted and so stressed out that they’re not bringing their best selves, it’s difficult for the teachers to be successful.”
Brown said the Mindful Life training gives teachers skills beyond what they can learn through academic professional development.
“Being able to pull these kids in and say, ‘For this moment, I want to be able to focus on what we’re doing and tune all the noise out,’ is really powerful and has proven very successful,” Brown said. “This really works and there’s data to show that.”
Brown said she's received feedback from teachers that students are engaged in the program and often come to class asking to participate in a mindfulness exercise.
Steamboat Springs parent Lizzie Larock said she observed the benefits of the Mindful Life program firsthand when one of her twins was taught the program's techniques a few years ago, while the other wasn't.
Larock also visited her daughter's classroom and saw how the program tamed a room full of wild first-graders.
"It was amazing to watch these kids who couldn't sit in their seats for 30 seconds suddenly be quiet and mindful," Larock said.
Race shared her expertise on how stress affects the brain during a TedX talk in Denver in 2012, and the following year published a book, “Mindful Parenting,” focusing on simple solutions for raising creative, engaged children in a hectic world.
Larock said she devoured the book, which she said provided useful resources for all people, not just parents.
The book debuted as a No. 2 bestseller in Colorado, was named to Amazon.com’s Parenting Best Seller List and was positively mentioned in a Washington Post article.
Race’s tools for stress resiliency have also earned her interviews with media outlets including Real Simple magazine, The Huffington Post, Parents magazine, USA Today and the New York Times — recognition Race said is “exciting.”
Race said she never expected her career to take off the way it has or that she would be the president of a company that’s trained people on six continents.
“I’m so lucky to live here and operate this little business,” Race said. “I was never a business person, but I think the need for this is definitely there, and it’s super satisfying work. I feel like it helps people.”
Learn more about Race and the Mindful Life program at www.mindfullifetoday.com.
To reach Teresa Ristow, call 970-871-4206, email tristow@SteamboatToday.com or follow her on Twitter @TeresaRistow