People often think of grade school as the place for learning reading, writing and arithmetic, but is there room to teach children social skills and how to deal with their emotions? Ivelisse Torres-Fernandez, assistant professor of counseling and educational psychology, says yes.
Torres came to New Mexico State University in 2008 and along with teaching graduate courses and conducting her research, she dove right in to the land-grant mission of community outreach. Torres began her outreach efforts by adapting and implementing a program called “Strong Kids” at Hermosa Heights Elementary School in Las Cruces. Strong Kids is a PreK-12 curriculum that teaches social emotional learning and resiliency in children.
“Social emotional learning is a set of skills that enables our children to express themselves more openly and efficiently,” Torres said. “This includes understanding and building respect, relationships and resilience.”
When working with younger children, Torres is using a strategy that includes “Kimochis.” Kimochi (key-MO-chee) means “feeling” in Japanese and “Kimochis” are a brand of toys educators can use to teach children about their emotions. Each Kimochi is a stuffed animal with an assigned feeling and attributes. For example the character “Bug” is shy and afraid of trying new things, while “Huggtopus” is an octopus that doesn’t know its boundaries and always gets in others’ way. The use of these tools helps children relate to the lesson and keeps their attention.
“Traditional education is focused on academics and there’s a lot of pressure on children to pass standardized tests which often leaves them feeling anxious,” Torres said. “We try to help kids learn how to express themselves more effectively, put a name to their feelings and teach them how to be self-aware, identify and regulate behavior.”
Torres has not only been teaching the Strong Kids program at Hermosa Heights, but has helped translate the program into Spanish and has trained other educators in Dona Ana County and beyond. With the support of Michael Moorehead, dean of the College of Education, and John Schwartz, head of the Counseling and Educational Psychology Department, Torres was able to organize an institute that trained educators from Central America and the Caribbean in the Strong Kids program and social emotional learning.
Torres’ latest project is called “Cruzando Fronteras” or crossing borders. The project is a collaboration with the Deming Public School District and will provide mental health services to children impacted by violence on the U.S.-Mexico border. The project will begin at Columbus Elementary School, which has approximately 685 students, but only one school councilor.
“We will not only work on social emotional learning and resilience, but will also do trauma focused work,” Torres said. “There is a lot of direct trauma and vicarious, or second-hand, trauma that these children are experiencing.”
Whenever Torres is working in the community, she has graduate students, who she has trained in the curriculum, assisting her in implementing the programs.
“At the graduate level we have an excellent group of students who are very driven and motivated and want experience,” Torres said. “I try to provide them with an extra set of skills and opportunities to expand what they’ve already learned in class and translate theory into practice.”
Torres said she takes a “train the trainers” approach and enjoys teaching curriculum and techniques to others so they can teach the principles of social emotional learning to those in need.
“With the train the trainers approach you can impact more people at once, especially in a state like New Mexico where the population is spread throughout a large area,” Torres said. “I think this will make a big difference in the long run.”
Written by Melisa P. Danho