JEFFERSON COUNTY — When students enter Falcon Bluffs Middle School, Nicole Herrera is there to help cut out problems before they start.

"The first full-time mental health position that's purely preventative," Herrera said.

She is a social emotional learning specialist. This is a position created by the district two years ago to make sure students can develop interpersonal social skills.

"Solving conflict with peers, managing your emotions when you're upset or even excited," Herrera said. "Recognizing social awareness, how kids are feeling. How do I respond to that? Those interpersonal skills that I think people believe are innate, but they really aren't. They are skills that need to be taught just like anything else."

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Herrera says middle school is such an important age because kids are developing while also learning independence.

"There's so much support at the elementary level and there's a lot of structure and there's a lot more parent interaction. Parents are still there all the time in elementary school," Herrera said.

She is not only there for the kids. She helps teachers weave social emotional skills into their lessons.

"The goal is to teach and show teachers that they have to talk about these types of skills also in their daily instruction," Herrera said. "You just can't talk about it one time for a student to completely understand it."

In order to prevent future issues, Herrera wants students to use social emotional skills to cope with any problem that might come up especially serious ones like drug use, violence, and suicide. Though she cannot cite the exact cause, Herrera says discipline issues at Falcon Bluffs have gone down since social emotional skills have become a focus.

"I think the research around social emotional learning is really just gaining traction," Herrera said.

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