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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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NMSU professor helps build 'strong kids' and improve students

While people are becoming more aware of the increasing problem of bullying and acting out with today's children, New Mexico State University's Ivelisse Torres Fernandez has been working with a method that has proven results for decreasing these actions and for making a better school environment.

The Strong Kids program was developed by Torres Fernandez's previous mentor, Ken Merrell at the University of Oregon. It teaches children from preschool to grade 12 how to identify and express their feelings appropriately. The program covers anger management, problem solving, empathy and how to get along well with others.

"I started to work with the prepublication experimental version back in 2004 and I had been using it with preclinical populations before I started as a faculty member," Torres Fernandez said.

In 2008, Torres Fernandez was invited by NMSU professor Lisa Grayshield to work together at Hermosa Heights Elementary School to use the Strong Kids curriculum. Torres Fernandez and Grayshield were able to convince the principal of the school to let them test the curriculum for one hour a week for one semester and if it did not work, Torres Fernandez would leave. Over the semester they saw a difference and were allowed to continue.

"Over the past three years, the school has seen tremendous improvement in the behavior and academic performance of the children," she said.

Since the start of the program, the two have been able to work with close to 250 students. For two years in a row, the school has received an award for being the most improved in standardized test scores.

"In the way we equip our children to cope emotionally, they are going to be better equipped to deal with the academics because that will balance out," Torres Fernandez said. "We can't have one without the other."

Torres Fernandez was given the chance to train the school counselors and psychologist in the district in the Strong Kids curriculum so it can be used in all the schools throughout Las Cruces. Her training has even extended to Dexter, N.M.

Beginning this spring, the curriculum will be expanded to high school students, who are also taking college courses, using the Strong Teens curriculum which parallels to the Strong Kids curriculum.

Her hope is to take the curriculum international starting in Juarez. She has already taken the program to Beijing where it was widely accepted and they are planning on translating the curriculum into Chinese.

"What we are trying to do is instill hope and say, 'Yes, there is hope,'" she said.