What I do

What I do: Karen White, school social worker

Starting her career in September 2011, White works at PS 536 at PS 102 in the Bronx, where she was elected chapter leader this June. Karen White, school social workerMiller Photography

What made you want to become a school social worker?

This is my dream! I was parent coordinator for four years at a middle school but knew that wasn’t my ultimate goal for working with children and families, which I love to do. I went to graduate school for social work so I could make more of an impact on children’s mental health and help them achieve their goals.

How do you help children achieve their goals?

Basically by teaching them social skills, coping skills and helping them to use words to identify their feelings instead of running out of the room or having outbursts. A lot of children don’t know why they were behaving the way they were. When they can label a feeling, such as being upset, and you tell them that it’s OK to be upset, then we can find some resolution other than acting out.

How do you steer kids away from acting out?

We have a nonpunitive reward system where kids get points — not just for “good” behavior, because that’s vague, but for the specific behavior that is relevant to them. It sounds easy, but it’s hard to get points when you’re used to having outbursts. We have a school “store” where they can “buy” things like pencils and books with their points. The Spider-Man activity book is a hot-ticket item. Computer-based activities can be a reward as well.

Tell us about the children you work with.

We have 224 pre-K through 2nd-grade students. I see mandated and at-risk students; general education as well as special education. Some students I refer out for mental services, for themselves and their families, when parents request it — they might be struggling with parenting skills or realize their child is struggling at home and at school.

Give us an example of how you help a child learn coping skills.

If a child gets bored easily and won’t stay in the classroom, I’ll work with that child and the teacher to identify ways for him or her to learn in the classroom, such as having a partner to work with. For children who have trouble focusing, I will play memory games with them to help strengthen that skill.

What’s a typical day?

There isn’t one. Every day is unpredictable and nonstop. I see individuals and groups. Often I go into classrooms and sit on the rug, play the games and sing the songs so children know I’m there for them and that I’m a safe person they can come to. That also keeps me abreast of their issues with peers. I work hard to have a name for every face and to know kids’ families.

So working with children’s families is par for the course?

Parents have my number and can call me anytime. One parent called to tell me she hadn’t realized just how much I cared about her son. Another called for help with housing; she’s about to get evicted. I’ve had parents call who have a court order of protection and don’t know how to get their children to school because they’re afraid to go out on the street. So I have a lot of community contacts and surround myself with people who know more than I do in specific areas so I can refer parents and they can get the help they need.

How do you measure success?

By what I see compared to when I first started. Children are calmer, the school is a happier place; children are excited to be here and don’t want to leave at the end of the day! Attendance is well over 90 percent.

If you could tell the world one thing about public school education, what would it be?

If you create an environment where children know that they are truly cared for and are safe, there’s no limit to what they can achieve. It doesn’t matter if they are labeled special ed, general ed, ELL — they can do it.

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