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Health educators focus on parent education

The Floating Hospital’s health-education specialists have long focused on helping patient families live healthy lifestyles, whether that’s learning about disease management, better nutrition or self-care and well-being. The programming is diverse and when the team isn’t conducting workshops in the new Chef Maria Loi-Loukoumi Make A Difference Foundation Teaching Kitchen, it takes the show on the road, so to speak, to city homeless shelters, public schools and community centers.

It’s at Camp Rise Up, the week-long life-skills camp for homeless youth, where a new teaching curriculum was inspired—this one geared toward parents.

Integral to the camp are lessons in adolescent or teen sexual health, an area that affects kids no matter where and how they live, as well as their parents. Families in the throes of puberty, whether they are housed or not, have one thing in common: a discomfort when it comes to talking to their kids about sexual behavior. Pressured by peers, social media and the general complexities of living in a fast-moving urban environment, couching the subject in metaphors about the birds and the bees just doesn’t cut it anymore.

photograph of rey with a quote
photograph of rey with a quote

“There are so many things that need to be discussed around sexual health. It’s not just a chat about STIs and unwanted pregnancy,” says The Floating Hospital director of education Meghan Miller, Ed.D. “Parents need to be comfortable talking about consent, effective communication, sexuality and reproductive anatomy, among many other topics that all fall under the sexual-health umbrella.”

“We want to ensure that parents are confident in how to broach these subjects with their kids and are passing along the correct information,” she said, adding that unhoused families are particularly disproportionately affected by other health inequities, and this program aims to close some of those gaps. “Kids in temporary housing are at the highest risk of unsafe sexual behavior.”

To help parents jumpstart the difficult conversations, Miller and her colleague, Reynaldo (Rey) De Leon, are designing a program based on the teachings the campers receive—a two-tier age-appropriate curriculum that covers anatomy, contraception, risky behavior, peer pressure and consent, and engages youth with role-playing scenarios. The new program will equip parents with the same knowledge their kids learn at camp when they come home, the conversations continue with accurate and relatable information.

“It’s important to involve parents but they aren’t able to access and share evidence-based information,” says De Leon, whose work on the program is part of his doctorate research at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Miller completed her doctorate at Columbia last year, with an evaluation of Camp Rise Up as her dissertation topic.

“Sex education has to be age and contextually appropriate and there’s really nothing conducted on this level in shelters or temporary housing in the United States,” De Leon says, adding that the topic is taught less often in public school, and even more rarely to parents.

“Most parents are not comfortable talking to their kids—sometimes their information is out of date and often there’s still a stigma attached to talking about it,” he continued. “As parents play an essential role in teaching sex education to adolescents, it is imperative for them to be involved in the design and implementation.” De Leon notes that such a collaborative approach may contribute to the overall success of the program, when participating parents feel their input will be valued in such interventions.

graphic of kids in classroom and an infographic
graphic of kids in classroom and an infographic

De Leon has completed a initial survey of camp parents and analyzed the answers, a process that elicited preliminary perceptions about sex education in general. The next phase will include interviews for a sub sample of parents to further gain understanding of their attitudes, beliefs and views toward sex education and help identify the design, feasibility and content of the parent-centric program.

“In the end, we want to help normalize the conversations parents have with their kids, equip them with accurate information about sexual behavior, as well as related issues of consent, peer pressure and self-esteem,” Miller says.

De Leon plans to finish the interviews this summer and, using the data, both educators will start building the program for a spring launch. They hope that thus armed with information and a comfort level in talking about sex, families can circumvent unwanted behavior and sexual violence.

“Effective parent-child communication about sex education topics is essential to positively influence adolescent sexual behavior,” De Leon says. “But, it is also vital to involve parents in the design and planning process, to ensure their input on program content and how it should be conducted is taken into account.”

—Lana Bortolot

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The Floating Hospital provides high-quality healthcare to anyone who needs it regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, immigration or insurance status, or the ability to pay. By providing unrestricted medical care in tandem with health education and social support to vulnerable New York City families, The Floating Hospital aims to ensure those most in need have the ability to thrive, not just survive.


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