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  • Lisa Jevens

In the Sex Ed Classroom, Nursing Students Make Great Teachers

Remember sex ed class in school? Who can forget the cringeworthy sight of watching a teacher put a condom on a banana?

It hasn’t gotten any easier teaching school kids the facts of life. But Rush University College of Nursing generalist entry master’s (GEM) students are braving the giggles in two Chicago Public Schools, and everybody’s learning.

Heide Cygan, DNP, RN, PHNA-BC, assistant professor, and Diane McNaughton, PhD, RN, PHNA-BC, associate professor, launched the program in 2014, serving Chicago Public School students in grades four through 12 at Robert Lindblom Math & Science Academy in West Englewood and Mason Elementary in North Lawndale. It’s another way the unique skills of nurses are making a difference.

“The program started after CPS wrote a policy in 2013 requiring that every student K-12 get comprehensive, medically accurate, age-appropriate sexual health education. Legislation passed in Illinois at the time required all schools that receive state funding and teach sex ed to do the same. Coupled with rising rates of (sexually transmitted infections) and teen pregnancy in the city, creative interventions were needed,” Cygan says.

Nurses understand, relate to students

Are nurses better suited than teachers to explain the birds and the bees? The answer is yes.

“There are studies out there that show nurses are more effective delivering education on sexual health for several reasons,” Cygan says. “In this program, the nursing student is not the CPS students’ regular teacher, so they tend to open up more. It leads to a great rapport. Nursing students also are (often) closer to their age, so there is that relatability. Plus, they are health care professionals. When young people ask questions about everything from biology to infectious disease, nurses have a rich resource base to give comprehensive answers.”

Though it is difficult to gauge whether the new sexual health classes are preventing pregnancy or STIs, there is proof that the messages are sinking in. Using pre-tests and post-tests, one sample school boasted a 32.7 percent increase in test scores after taking the six-week class. CPS students also report being more comfortable talking to peers and family members about these sensitive topics.

Anecdotally, the nursing students and the public school students alike love the program, Cygan says. “After we have spent six to eight weeks with them, they give us hugs and make us cards.” It takes a special type of nurse to talk frankly about sex to a classroom of 30 to 50 kids. Nursing students are carefully screened and trained before they enter the classroom.

“The ones who do it are already committed to sexual health education. Afterward, many say they want to continue working with youth in Chicago, public health nursing or even volunteer for CPS. This is unique, as many new nurses are attracted to the more technical areas of nursing these days,” Cygan says.

Carly Tribbia, MSN, RN, was one of those special student nurses. She taught seventh-grade students sex ed at Lindblom when she was at Rush.

“It is intimidating to be in a room with 40 students who giggle any time you mention a reproductive body part. We told them it is OK to laugh or feel uncomfortable. They knew that we were also students learning to present the information. That made it more casual,” Tribbia says.

Yes, they have no bananas

In case you were wondering, Tribbia reports that the banana demonstration is (fortunately) a thing of the past. However, students do get to examine various methods of birth control close up to see what they look like.

After graduating from Rush, Tribbia spent one year as an ICU nurse. Then she jumped at the chance to switch to public health nursing when an opportunity with the Integrated Wellness in Supportive Housing program opened up on Chicago’s South Side.

IWISH is a new federal pilot program that aims to support seniors in HUD-assisted housing, with the goal of minimizing hospitalizations and improving medical and social services and safety for folks in independent living. Tribbia works as a patient advocate and educator from her office in a Bronzeville senior living community.

“I always wanted to be a teacher, but then I decided to be a nurse,” Tribbia says. The Chicago Public School teaching experience taught her she could do both. “It is really amazing when you get to impact an entire community,” she says. “It is an incredible feeling.”

Originally published in the Chicago Tribune special section Nursing In Action on February 22, 2019.

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