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What’s Next in Nursing Research: Helping homeless youth become their best possible selves

Posted: Sept. 26, 2016

The School of Nursing is renowned for research that bridges the gap from laboratory to real life, whether it’s developing a model program to increase access to mammograms for members of minority populations; community-based interventions to improve diabetes self-management among Mexican Americans; or school-based programs helping children with asthma learn to manage symptoms and reduce environmental risk factors — to name a few.

Lynn Rew, EdD, RN, AHN-BC, FAAN

Nursing research at the UT Austin School of Nursing continues to make a difference in peoples’ daily lives. One such study is a new intervention for homeless youth that takes a more positive approach to this population.

Statistics show that the number of homeless youth is on the rise. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 34 percent of the total homeless population is under 24 years old. It’s an issue that has a lot of people asking, “Where do you start to help these kids?” According to Lynn Rew, EdD, RN, AHN-BC, FAAN, and professor at UT Austin School of Nursing, you start wherever they are.

Dr. Rew, whose work on the sexual health and health behaviors of adolescents has received more than $3 million in research funding from the National Institutes of Health since 1999, has designed a study to help homeless adolescents, some of whom have aged out of foster care, make better, possibly life-changing choices that could eventually get them off the streets and into more productive lives. She is quick to acknowledge that merely staying in touch with this transient population is a challenge, but one she’s prepared to meet.

Her current research project “An Intervention to Promote Healthy Behavior in Homeless Youth” is funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and will test an intervention consisting of six 30-minute sessions during which youth between 18 and 23 will be asked to imagine and describe their best possible self and set goals to help achieve that.

homeless youth

“The intervention is 
based on the theory that
 we all carry in our minds our most wonderful,
 possible self, but also 
a feared self,” Dr. Rew, 
the Denton and Louise
 Cooley and Family 
Centennial Professor in
 Parent-Child Nursing, 
said. “We know they
 are likely to be involved in two specific behaviors: substance abuse and risky sexual behavior, and so we help them think about their own behavior and ask if they think they are moving toward their best possible self. If not, we ask them what they’d like to be doing and then to visualize how they might move toward that during the next few months.”

At the same time, the research teams will teach participants to set manageable goals. For instance, if the participant would like to stop drinking as much, they will be asked to come up with a short-term goal they think they can attain. Because homeless youth tend to make short-term decisions (“What do I need right now?”), Dr. Rew knows she and her team will have to help them create manageable goals initially.

The study is a double randomized control trial of four groups, two of which will be given a pre-test and the other two not. She anticipates this helping the researchers know whether or not the intervention has a significant effect on the outcome by understanding what effect, if any, the pre-test makes on the participants’ responses.

The intervention is delivered by iPad at two sites: a homeless shelter near the UT Austin campus and Star House in Columbus, Ohio, and builds on her earlier interventions that also used technology for outreach and follow up. In this case, Dr. Rew’s team will track 600 homeless youth for six months by email and Facebook on cell phones, which will be provided to participants.

Dr. Rew’s co-principal investigator is Natasha Slesnick, PhD, and professor of Human Development and Family Science at Ohio State University. Karen Johnson, PhD, RN, and assistant professor at UT Austin School of Nursing, is also a co-investigator and will help train graduate students to administer the intervention in Austin.

“We’re excited about the study’s positive orientation,” Dr. Rew said. “We think it will strengthen this population’s resilience and optimism. We’ll focus on existing strengths and what they have going for them rather than any weaknesses.”

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