When 14-year-old Leiona Ray feels stressed or upset, whether it’s about school, family or friends, she turns to her iPod.

But she doesn’t play games or surf social media. She takes a special survey designed by Kent State University researchers to gauge her mood.

If she scores poorly, the iPod plays inspirational words recorded by her to her favorite song With You by Chris Brown. It’s supposed to improve her attitude.

“It does help me,” said Leiona, an eighth-grader at Buchtel Community Learning Center in Akron.

The innovative app, part of the larger Sisters United Now program, blends two teenage obsessions — technology and music — as a way to teach young black girls to identify and manage stress in their lives. The theme song, chosen by each girl, helps trigger a change in attitude, a process called cognitive restructuring.

Kent State has been testing the program for over a year at Buchtel, where it handed out more than 30 iPods to black seventh- and eighth-grade girls. So far, researchers and school leaders say it’s helping improve behavior.

The effort stems from similar research at Kent State involving black women, who later said they wish they were taught skills to handle stress when they were younger.

Kent State psychology professor Angela Neal-Barnett, who runs the Program for Research on Anxiety Disorders among African-Americans, adapted the program for teens.

She developed the app with computer science professor Arden Ruttan and two of his students.

“We knew it would work. We just didn’t know it would work so well,” Neal-Barnett said.

The app allows the girls to stop and replace their frustration with positive thoughts. The song is vital to the process.

“In times of trouble you may forget even your name, but you don’t forget a song,” Neal-Barnett said.

The app is not available for purchase and Neal-Barnett emphasized that it is part of a larger program that includes five counseling sessions.

Kent State can track the responses in real time, seeing how often and when the students play their song. There were a surprising number of girls using it late into the night.

How it works

The app works like this: The girls receive push alerts on the iPod asking them how they are feeling.

They can take a survey to rate statements such as “Only good things lie before me” and “I have little control over things in my life” on a scale of 1 to 10.

The song — with their inspirational comments — kicks in if they score poorly. They also can replay the song if their mood hasn’t improved.

“We’ve had girls tell us, ‘I was really upset and I listened to my song and I was in a better mood and ready for school,’?’’ said Leia Belt, 21, a Kent State senior psychology and sociology major from Bakersfield, Calif., who is helping with the program. “Or someone was yelling at me and I listened to my song and I was able to calm down. Even their teachers see it.”

The iPods were purchased through funding from the Women’s Endowment Fund of the Akron Community Foundation and Kent State’s Division of Research and Sponsored Programs and the Applied Psychology Center.

Before the students are handed the iPods, which they get to keep at the end of the study, they are required to attend the counseling sessions to learn about stress.

Some of the students don’t realize what stress is or that that’s the reason they are acting out.

Buchtel eighth-grader Auttiana Rackley, 13, admitted that she was sometimes anxious and didn’t know it until using the app.

She chose the song Listen by Beyonce.

“It lifts my spirits,” she said.

Neal-Barnett said adults underestimate the type and amount of stress that young girls are experiencing. The girls cited being yelled at, their parents, school and homework as causing the most anxiety.

“It is so important to give them these tools early because it affects their lives going forward,” she said.

Buchtel counselor De’Anna Edwards has been impressed with the results, saying the majority of the students learned how to manage their stress.

“I saw them using the strategies,” she said.

For boys?

Edwards hopes that Kent State can develop a similar program for male students.

Neal-Barnett said she doesn’t believe boys would respond positively to a song, and she would have to find out what would trigger a positive reaction for them.

The goal is to expand the program into other schools and community organizations, she said.

Anyone interested in the program can email Sandra St. Louis Thompson at sstlouis@kent.edu.

Rick Armon can be reached at 330-996-3569 or rarmon@thebeaconjournal.com.