Graduate Admissions Blog

A Mother’s Take on the Value of Child Life Specialists

Featuring a Q&A with Jessica Parise, GSE ’12, and Caroline Kenny, Current GSE student

Long before I joined the Bank Street Graduate School of Education (GSE) staff in 2016, Bank Street had been a part of my life here in New York City. Because I lived in the Morningside Heights neighborhood, my two daughters, now 17 and 21, had Bank Street graduate student babysitters when they were young. At their nursery and grade schools, they had several Bank Street-trained teachers. And throughout their early years, the Bank Street Bookstore, which recently closed, was, according to both girls, THE place to go to after school and on weekends to browse, spend birthday money, and shop for presents.

I also professionally interacted regularly with many Bank Street Graduate School educators while working as the director of the New York Zero-to-Three Network, a job I held for about eight years. On multiple occasions, I’d meet someone new at an event or through membership, and we’d discover our mutual Bank Street connection. 

Flash forward six years since starting this job and I still regularly meet people outside of work who have a connection of some sort to Bank Street. Sometimes that happens when I’m carrying a GSE tote bag and a stranger approaches to give me a Bank Street shout-out. At this point, I think I’m ready to play a Bank Street version of the “Six Degrees of Separation” game.

Caroline Kenny, current student, Bank Street Graduate School of Education, Child Life program
Caroline Kenny
Jess Parise, 2021 alum, Bank Street Graduate School of Education
Jess Parise

Take this past June, for example. My younger daughter, Juliana, had spinal fusion surgery at the Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) to correct two scoliosis curves she’s had since she was a toddler that were still progressing. I’m happy to report Juliana did beautifully during her surgery and was quickly moved to her in-patient room to begin her recovery. That first post-op day, Juliana’s room was buzzing with hospital staff coming and going, and among them were two members of HSS’s Child Life team, Jessica Parise and Caroline Kenny.

I introduced myself to both Jessica and Caroline and told them I was very familiar with the term “Child Life” because I work for Bank Street Graduate School of Education, which offers a Child Life master’s degree program. Both lit up! It turned out that Jess, HSS’s Child Life Supervisor, is a Bank Street alumna (GSE ’12), and Caroline is a current GSE student who did her practicum at New York Presbyterian/Cornell last summer, which led to a one-week rotation at HSS that coincided with the week of my daughter’s surgery. We had an immediate connection and chatted about faculty members and other Bank Street people we had in common. 

Jess and/or Caroline returned every day they were on the hospital floor to check in to see how we were managing, chatting with me and Juliana and asking if we needed anything (pediatric patient rooms at HSS have in-room accommodations for one parent to stay during their child’s entire hospitalization). They were as concerned with how I was handling everything as they were with how Juliana was doing. They dropped off art supplies (not just for the patient!) to keep us busy during our long days, coordinated sensitive non-medical requests on our behalf, and delivered a gift bag filled with comfort items. While every clinician who saw my daughter that week was delightful, competent, and caring, there was a certain sense of comfort knowing that Jess and Caroline were on our team and that I could contact them as needed. They seemed to know the right questions to ask us and predict what it was we needed. Reflecting back, I realize now that with visitors still extremely limited because of COVID-19 protocols, it was also just so nice to have Jess and Caroline engage with us in friendly conversations about everyday things, distracting our thoughts.

Once we were home and I returned to work, I was excited to tell my colleagues about my new Bank Street connections, and the idea of writing this blog was born—to share the work of a Child Life program graduate and current student with you.

I had the chance to speak with both Jess and Caroline, and here’s what they had to say.

After experiencing your work first hand, it’s easy to see that it takes a certain kind of person to do this job. When did you realize that Child Life was the field for you? 

Jess: As a 20-year-old junior in college, I registered for an Introduction to Child Life course, which meant I had to wake up every Friday morning at 7:00 AM for class. I didn’t miss a single one. That’s how I knew this field had really caught my interest. I never turned away from it after that course. I just pursued the field through volunteering and interning. I put all of my eggs in one basket and applied to Bank Street at the end of my senior year. I had no back-up plan. I just knew it was going to work out.

Caroline: In my freshman year of college, I signed up to be a bone marrow donor through the Be The Match Foundation. Fast forward to the beginning of my senior year—I got a call that I was a perfect match for a newborn baby. When I was able to help save a helpless infant, I wanted to do more, and, through my research, I found out about the role of a Child Life Specialist.

Juliana and I didn’t really need to lean on you for help with medical care like you might have to handle for a family with other circumstances. Above, I explained a bit about how you helped us get through our long days. Can you describe the responsibilities of Child Life specialists?

Jess: Certified Child Life specialists (CCLS) are an integral part of the pediatric medical team. Our goal is to promote healthy coping while helping to minimize fear and anxiety surrounding medical procedures, hospitalization, illness, and injury. As you saw first hand, we tailor our goals to the needs of the patient. Juliana was coping courageously with her post-op pain. She, like some other kids, simply needed normalization brought into her room. Some kids need a CCLS to get through a painful or anxiety-producing procedure. Other kids need me to just be present, while allowing them to be a kid or teen, engaging in normalizing conversation or therapeutic play. Juliana was up and walking by the time I offered my support during physical therapy, so we were there for positive reinforcement and moral support.

Caroline: As a student, I am still learning and growing in the field. Throughout my practicum and my internship, I have learned that Child Life Specialists wear many different hats—we can be an advocate, an educator, a supporter, and a fun distraction.

Can you explain what a typical day for you might look like in your role as a Child Life specialist? 

Jess: I have never met two Child Life Specialists with the same role or schedule. For me, at HSS, I bounce around between inpatient, outpatient, holding areas (pre-surgical unit), PACU (post-op recovery unit), cast room, phlebotomy room, X-ray, MRI suite, etc. I prioritize my patients and my location based on the needs of each patient and on referrals from surgeons, physicians, nurses, and other medical staff. Taking a complete developmental assessment of a child is so important, otherwise, we would be running around missing the children that are in need of our support.

Caroline: Currently, my schedule as an intern is to observe my preceptor (in this case, Jess), take notes, and ask questions. During this internship, I learned so much about my role and responsibilities.

Have you had any stand-out moments in your career or your fieldwork?

Jess: I have had so many special moments. Gosh, I am so lucky! I can say that, in my career, I get to witness miracles. Really big miracles and tiny miracles that become big ones. A special moment that always stands out in my head is seeing a patient get wheeled into a hospital and, after medical care, rehab, and hard work, watching them walk out on their own.

Caroline: I have really appreciated how all members of the medical care team work together and rely on each other. It helps make each other’s job easier, but it also can make a difference for the family. I love seeing how big of an impact the Child Life Specialist has made on the patients and families throughout their hospital stay. Whether that means playing on the floor with the patient or just sitting in silence—a little goes a long way. 

Why did you choose Bank Street to pursue your degree? What was it about the program that stood out for you?

Jess: In my opinion, there is no other option other than Bank Street when it comes to pursuing the field of Child Life. First off, the location didn’t hurt since I am a born and raised New Yorker. Aside from it being very convenient and the ultimate place to live for a new college graduate, the academics and faculty are top-notch. I didn’t see myself applying anywhere else or see myself falling in love with the curriculum, faculty, experiences, and opportunities anywhere else. Bank Street just felt so right. Deb Vilas, Troy Pinkney, and all of the faculty will not only forever have a place in my heart, but also a place in my phone. I text and email them often. I am so grateful for the Bank Street community.

Caroline: I chose Bank Street because it has an incredible Child Life program and I knew that it would help me reach my career goals.

What would you say to someone considering a career in Child Life?

Jess: If you know that you want to work with children but you do not know in what capacity, you should look into the field of Child Life. Even more so, if you want to be a caregiver, if your heart warms when you help others, and you can stomach medical care, consider looking into this field. I absolutely love connecting with students considering the field of Child Life, so don’t hesitate to reach out.

Caroline: One of the best parts of this role is that there are so many different ways to be a Child Life Specialist, and everyone has their own way they like to do it. Being creative, going with the flow, and being able to make someone else’s day a little bit better is a great job.

Jess and Caroline, thank you again so much for all you do every day to make a difference for children and families in your community. It was so special to experience the work of a Child Life Specialist first hand and in such a personal way.