Improving the well-being of Mississippi children

Oxford, Miss. The University of Mississippi has received more than $1 million in funding for an initiative in Mississippi preschool programs that advance children’s social and emotional learning and can enhance their overall well-being.

The $1,025,492 grant is from the WK Kellogg Foundation, a private, independent foundation that works with communities to create conditions that help children achieve their full potential in school, work and life. Mississippi is one of the priority places for enterprise investment.

Alicia Stabb

The scholarship promotes healthy minds, bodies, and communities, an innovative standards-based preschool curriculum that combines yoga, mindfulness, gardening, nutrition, socio-emotional competencies, physical activity, anti-bullying, and anti-bias to support good health—being Mississippi children.

The curriculum has been piloted within early childhood programs across northern Mississippi and has the potential to address key challenges facing the state through integrated strategies that nurture physical, social, emotional, and intellectual health while developing community participation.

Alicia C. Stabb, associate professor of health and physical education and one of the Miss Ole team members involved in the initiative said. “I was thrilled and honored to know that the program that we have invested in for nearly four years will have the necessary support to implement and include everything we hoped and dreamed of.

“We now have the potential to make a huge difference in the lives of so many, and we believe this is just the beginning.”

Through the program, Mississippi has become an innovative leader in childhood education with the potential to develop and implement the nation’s first one-year pre-K mindfulness curriculum.

Besides Stapp, the multidisciplinary UM group working on the scholarship includes Tess Johnson, Program Director, Department of Teacher Education; Laurel Lambert, Assistant Professor of Nutrition and Hospitality Management; Georgiana Mann, Assistant Professor of Nutrition and Hospitality Management; Stephanie Miller, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Director of the Graduate Experimental Program; and Kenya Wolf, Associate Professor of Early Childhood Education.

“It is a great honor that the Kellogg Foundation believes in what we do and understands how exciting and important this initiative is to the health and education of preschool children,” Lambert said. “Now, we will be able to reach more children in more communities.”

Laurel Lambert

The program began in 2019 in 10 pre-kindergarten classrooms in Lafayette County and Oxford communities and has since expanded to include Sunflower County Consolidated School District and Greenwood Leflore Consolidated School District.

The Kellogg Foundation grant will enable the initiative to expand into new areas such as the Delta Health Alliance Head Start programs and Jackson Public Schools, as well as further research into the impact and effectiveness of the curriculum.

The group will also expand its work with families and community partners by hosting events and programs that bring the classroom home.

Additionally, after finding out that children are eager for new yoga videos rather than re-runs, the group will use grant money to create and produce eight additional yoga videos for use in the classroom. Videos are a unique aspect of the initiative as they reinforce each unit and reinforce the academic content learned in the curriculum lessons.

To reap the benefits of year-round gardening, the initiative includes the use of tower gardens and aerated indoor gardening systems that can be placed in classrooms.

“Two-thirds of children in Mississippi are not considered ready to enter kindergarten,” Stabb said. We know that kids who enter school in the back continue to struggle to catch up.

“Although teachers in state-funded cooperative pre-kindergarten institutions in Mississippi have been working on developmental skills, most preschool curricula in the state focus primarily on academic learning in mathematics and literacy. Given that social and emotional skills Being the biggest indicator of a school’s future success, a curriculum that focuses entirely on child development and that integrates social and emotional skills into teaching is critical to preparing children for learning.”

The beginnings of the initiative

Although the Growing Healthier Minds, Bodies and Societies initiative is only a few years old, it has received external support from several regions to develop momentum and gain more funding.

Georgiana Man

The initiative, founded by Johnson and Stub Wolff, won an initial grant in 2019 through the UM Flagship Constellations Research Development Program to pilot the initiative that fall.

In 2021, the collaborators sought proposal development support through the university’s Interdisciplinary Research at UM, or IDRUM, a renaming and expansion of key towers to reach more faculty across additional collaborative areas of interest.

Some of the winners are members of the university’s Interdisciplinary Research Development Program, or INSPiRED, which focuses on training faculty in building, coordinating, and directing significant research efforts, including interdisciplinary programs and centers.

“IDRUM provides valuable resources and support as a multidisciplinary team,” Mann said. “I served in the leadership of INSPiRED and enjoyed being on the co-side, informally, and in leadership. Being involved with this wonderful team has also helped provide candid insight into how we can develop and better meet the needs of multidisciplinary teams.

“It’s great to see that the university is supporting this work with programming, but it’s helpful to get additional funding to make us more marketable.”

The initiative has received additional university support through the UM Achieving Equity Award for Expanding Parental and Guardian Engagement Programs and the 2021 Excellence in Community Engagement Award for further support of the initiative.

More awards were received in 2020 and 2021 from Move On Up Mississippi, an organization established in 2015 by Oxford chef John Korns that inspires and funds educational initiatives to achieve a healthier future for Mississippi children.

“Important funding through the UM Flagship Constellations grant helped kick-start the early pilot phases of the project, but the public support meant a lot,” Miller said. “It helped us expand our project to help us support children not only in the classroom but also at home by providing the funding we need to develop accessible parental education that complements our curriculum.”

Distinguished specialties working together

Stephanie Miller

Bringing together disciplines such as early childhood education, health and physical education, nutrition and hospitality management, psychology and teacher education has enabled the Develop Healthy Minds, Bodies and Communities initiative to take a multifaceted approach to preschool education.

“Supporting a child’s growth and development is not one-dimensional,” Lambert said. “Our different disciplines have allowed us to develop programs that fully support child development. Working on this initiative and with this research team has been very exciting because we all bring different perspectives and strengths to the project.”

Drawing different perspectives from their different disciplines, Miller said, was a key factor in the initiative’s success.

“It has allowed us to draw on multiple approaches and systems to address the complex question of how to fully support child health across contexts,” she said. “Having team members from these areas gave us a deep knowledge base and a wide range of methodologies to draw from to better understand how to develop a successful curriculum and measure multiple outcomes across different environments.

“I learn something new every time we work together as a team and I’m proud of the way we’ve combined so many different perspectives to support the entirety of child health.”

Preliminary results from the first sites were promising, and the group expects to report increased academic engagement and improved readiness assessment scores, healthy eating behaviors, and motor development in students.

kenya wolf

The group also expected decreased behavioral problems, incidents of bullying, and implicit and explicit bias regarding differences between teachers, students, and families while reporting increased teacher-reported positive social interactions among students and reduced conflict in the classroom.

“An anti-bias approach is central to the curriculum, which recognizes and celebrates the differences between all people,” Wolf said. “Our goal is to start challenging prejudice early to counter the many stereotypes and prejudices children face as they grow.”

Besides expanding the initiative, the Kellogg Foundation is supporting a curriculum improvement plan that includes a 16-week pre-K mindfulness program and related lending libraries, continuing professional development, and more community partnerships that include working with the Mississippi Farm to School Network to develop outdoor gardening programs and increased family involvement with family yoga offerings and teacher-to-teacher retreats.

Going forward, the group hopes to make the “Increasing Health of Minds, Bodies and Societies” initiative more accessible to any school, Johnson said.

“We want to continue to do this work and hope that the Kellogg Foundation will continue to support our work,” she said. “We see a strong need for social and emotional support for school communities; we believe our program can be the resource that teachers and students need.

Our vision includes schools that embrace the philosophy and embody our program to help change their school culture. Wouldn’t it be amazing if every child knew the power of their breath? “

Tess Johnson

The Kellogg Foundation, based in Battle Creek, Michigan, works throughout the United States and internationally, as well as with sovereign tribes. Particular emphasis is placed on priority places where there are high concentrations of poverty and where children face significant obstacles to success.

Foundation priority places in the United States are in Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico and New Orleans. and internationally in Mexico and Haiti. For more information, visit

The Fund to Support the Development of Healthy Minds, Bodies and Communities is open to accepting charitable contributions from individuals and organizations to expand its work. To contribute, send a check with the “GHMBC Education” indicated on the note line to the University of Mississippi Foundation, 406 University Ave., Oxford, MS 38655, or submit online at

For more information about supporting this interdisciplinary work of Mississippi children, contact Katie Morrison, Director of Foundation Relations and Strategic Partnerships, at or 662-915-2135.

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