Soft skills, holistic approach key to well-trained nurses

Clinical Practice Teaching Award recipient uses interactive techniques to keep students engaged

Training nurses is no easy task. Yes, students need to absorb medical information and learn procedures — but that’s just the beginning. Add in the complexity of a real medical environment — with patients, family members, doctors and more — and things can get stressful quickly for a nurse trying to coordinate care. That’s perhaps even more true when a patient has serious mental health issues.

“Students really have to learn how to manage their own distress” in such situations, says Selina Hunt McKinney, clinical associate professor in the College of Nursing and director of the graduate-level Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Program. “So, not only are there specific skills the students need to know how to do — the tasks — but they also need to be able to manage their own feelings.”

Increasingly, McKinney adds, soft skills like communication and diplomacy are important, too.

Luckily for those students, Clinical Practice Teaching Award recipient McKinney — who received her doctorate from Carolina in 2010, then pursued a research fellowship at Duke University before returning to teach — has thought long and hard about how to educate nurses. From advance meetings with a facility’s nursing staff to training students on how to interact with patients, every aspect of the clinical environment — and how to learn from it — has been carefully considered.

Getting the clinical part of teaching right is a big part of what McKinney does: Last fall, she supervised 18 clinical sections in three different cities. But her efforts also extend to classroom teaching and simulation labs and include undergraduates. She uses music, video clips and various interactive techniques to make sure students are engaged.

“I am just constantly trying to hook them, because it’s about hooking their brains — and you have to keep them hooked into you and hooked into the content so they’ll remember it,” she says.

Ultimately, it’s about providing a holistic education — one in which students can integrate what they have learned in the classroom into the clinical setting, and where they start to understand the environmental and social factors that contribute to health outcomes.

The work is paying off. McKinney’s engaging teaching style and active mentoring has led to more students pursuing graduate training. The College of Nursing’s online nurse practitioner program was recently named No. 1 in the country by U.S. News & World Report. And, since McKinney returned to Carolina in 2013, average proficiency scores on standardized tests for mental health nursing have increased to 90 percent from 66 percent.

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