In recent years people in New Mexico have mourned the loss of children who have died at the hands of their parents – Albuquerque, too, has seen its share of cases – now an associate professor at The University of New Mexico has found an opportunity to be part of the conversation to help increase healthy child development.

Last year, The City of Albuquerque convened a group of individuals that included city leaders, health professionals and representatives from the New Mexico Children, Youth & Family Department to discuss child maltreatment. UNM’s Family and Child Studies Associate Professor Ryan Kelly attended the initial meeting.

"Here at UNM, we have an incredible platform; what we know helps prevent child maltreatment is providing education ..." - Ryan Kelly, UNM associate professor

He said it centered around understanding what can be done to prevent or intervene with child maltreatment. He said that several discussions lead back to one common theme, education.

“I was sitting in the meeting thinking, ‘What can UNM do?’ he said. “Then I thought, ‘I’m already doing these things,' much of my research is conducted on family violence and here at UNM, we have an incredible platform because we have all of these students who come take courses.”

In Family and Child Studies, one of Kelly’s courses is Marriage and Family Relationships. The course is designed for both majors and non-majors and provides a broad overview of important topics related to marriage and family relationships. Students learn about science as it pertains to healthy romantic relationships, predictors of divorce, and communication skills that improve relationships. Other topics include unintended teen pregnancy, stepfamilies, health and racial disparities, raising children, diversity in marital relationships and overcoming crises in relationships. There is a special emphasis placed on topics related to abuse and neglect including child maltreatment, corporal punishment, sexual assault, parental alcoholism and marital violence.

“Typically, the students who take these courses are minoring or majoring in Family and Child Studies,” Kelly said. “So, my next challenge was to expand what we already know and distribute that material to a larger audience.”

The answer? Kelly spent the last year transforming the class into a general education course at UNM. The University gave final approval in May. Being an introductory level course, Kelly said students don’t have to have any experience or prior training related to any of these topics.

“I started looking at all available GE courses and very few were related to the well-being of children. Very little placed a special emphasis on child maltreatment or family violence,” Kelly said. “Yet, this is something that affects all of us.”

He’s still in the process of making minor adjustments to the course to fit the broader range of students, rather than students who are immersed in Family and Child Studies.

“Now, we’re saying this information isn’t just relevant for students minoring and majoring in Family and Child Studies; it’s important for everyone,” Kelly said.

Kelly stresses the importance of prevention, something he believes this course can provide.

“We have to start having these science-based conversations with our students 10 years before they ever become parents,” Kelly said. “What we know helps prevent child maltreatment is providing education. Many of our students are between the ages of 18 to 25, so, if we can provide  them this information now, it can be beneficial not only to their own families, but useful in understanding policies that prevent maltreatment and it could possibly help them find career field.”

Dr. Ryan Kelly

Kelly said one of his goals is to expose students to this line of work and the variety of job opportunities.

“We need lots of help when it comes to this topic and maybe taking this course will expose them to an entire field they never even considered,” he said.

According to Kelly, his research shows the majority of parents admit they’ve never had any formal education when it comes to parenting. He said it is common for parents to inherit practices based on tradition.

“We have journal articles coming out every day, around the world, from these leading research labs about topics that include, ‘What predicts healthy child development?’ Kelly said. “We have a really good idea about what predicts that. That in itself can help impact the ways we interact with children at home.”

Kelly said he hopes after taking this course, students become more educated on what predicts healthy child development and the methods that decrease rates of child maltreatment.

“Probably one of the most important things we’ll do in life is raise our children,” Kelly said. “We don’t really receive much education about this topic, yet we have a whole science dedicated to it. Moving forward we’re going to do a better job to make sure that the science is available to all students passing through UNM.”

Students can sign up to take Marriage and Family Relationships (FCST 2130) with Kelly this Fall semester.