What I do

What I do: Tomasina Pena, paraprofessional, children's psychiatric unit

Tomasina Pena, District 75 paraprofessional.Cara Metz

District 75 paraprofessional Peña has worked in hospital classrooms for nine years and currently works at Kings County Hospital Center in Brooklyn.

Tell us about your students.

I work with 4th- to 6th-graders in the psychiatric department, assisting the teacher to get them to focus on their work. Some of them already have a diagnosis. Others just have severe behavioral problems. Some are on medication.

What are some of those diagnoses?

ADD with hyperactivity. Schizophrenia. Mood disorder, bipolar disorder, depression disorder, impulse-control disorder.

How do they come to be in your hospital classroom?

Sometimes they have a crisis in school, fighting with other students, spitting on the teacher. Sometimes they come from home rather than from a school classroom. There are many cases of sexual abuse.

What do you generally do when the children first arrive?

You have to help them transition to being here in a hospital setting. If they’ll be going to a foster family or a group home after the hospital, then you have to help them transition to the idea, tell them that everything is going to turn out for the best.

What is the goal?

To send them back to their regular school, sometimes in weeks, sometimes longer, with insightful knowledge and with individual gain, with progress. 

What’s your role in that?

Each child has their own therapist and social worker, and most are given an individual behavior plan that we follow. We work with a Positive Behavior Intervention and Support system, giving kids points for good behavior. Every Friday we have an assembly and celebrate their behavior with certificates and prizes; we have gold, silver and bronze levels. So I am involved with that as well as helping the teacher with the curriculum, which follows DOE standards. That way, when kids go back to school, they’re not behind.

What’s the hardest part of this work for you?

In the beginning I was heartbroken all the time until I learned I had to separate my personal feelings from my work.

Are there safety precautions for the children and the staff?

Oh yes. Everything is restricted, such as pencils and rulers; we count everything so the children can’t take anything out of the room they may use to hurt themselves. Also, there is staff outside the classroom to help with behavioral issues, especially in times of crisis. We have a button we press, with a color code. For example, orange serves as a warning when we can sense something is about to happen. Red is extreme, when a student doesn’t want to follow directions and starts acting out. The psychiatrist will come in at that point and the student may have to be restrained. In the highest crisis, when a child is getting out of control, we have security personnel around us and have a direct line to 911, but we’ve never had to use it.

This is difficult work. What enables you to do it?

The students are my priority. I  work for them, help them, I’m here for them no matter what. Working with special kids in need is my passion.

How do you work with children in addition to schoolwork and the behavioral plan?

Sometimes they just want a hug. You hold them and say they are very important, that you care for them, that we can work together for a bright future. You tell them that they can be somebody someday.

What is progress?

Some children come back here three times. Progress is when they never come back.

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