Employee Spotlight: Petra White

Petra White is a former Grafton teacher who returned to the Richmond campus in 2022 as a behavioral analyst. She enjoys collaborating with her colleagues and witnessing the successes of clients as they progress toward their goals. Read our interview with Petra to learn more about how she helps make Grafton a special place for kids.

What made you want to work with children with special needs?

When I was a teenager, my high school had a program for kids with autism. One day, I saw one of the kids having a meltdown in the hallway. I didn’t understand, so I didn’t react to it appropriately — I laughed. A counselor pulled me aside and asked, “Haven’t you ever had a bad day? This is what his bad day looks like.” I decided from then on, I would be more mindful of the kids who went to my school and what their experiences entailed.

When I decided to drop out of high school, that same counselor convinced me to earn my high school equivalent and start college. I know what it’s like to be the underdog, and that affects how I work with the kids.

Can you share a little more about your education and career path?

Of course — it was a winding path! I finished my undergraduate degree at Virginia Commonwealth University. Then, I ran off to New York City and became a hairdresser.

When I eventually returned to Richmond, I continued working as a hairdresser, but I was dissatisfied. A friend encouraged me to apply at a school for kids with autism. During my interview, I got to observe a classroom, and I was really taken by the challenges the kids were overcoming on a day-to-day basis. That’s when I quit hairdressing and became a teacher.

What made you want to work at Grafton?

I’ve always loved working with students, and I enjoy being able to exercise freedom and creativity in the work I do with the kids. I worked with Grafton several years ago as a teacher, before my career took me in another direction. When I returned as a behavioral analyst, I found that mentoring others became one of the greatest parts of my career.

Do you feel like the training you received at Grafton has been useful?

Yes, I do. This is the first place I’ve worked that uses no physical restraint, and that requires people to be much more thoughtful about their interventions. I think the training at Grafton is really helpful in that way.

What’s a typical day at your job like?

I provide direct therapy, and I also help with two intensive support classrooms. I work with the students on my caseload and spend time collaborating with other behavioral therapists and related service providers. And I do a lot of paperwork!

I spend a lot of time working to provide a cohesive program that connects educational and clinical support. I also provide crisis response and teacher support, and I collaborate with case managers in addition to being hands-on with kids.

What’s your favorite thing about working at Grafton?

Our students are the best part of the job, and they see the world in such a different way. The progress that they make is sometimes incremental, so it’s great to step back and see how far they’ve come. The change can be phenomenal. Being part of a team that never gives up on our kids is a great way to spend my time.

Do you have a favorite story from your time at Grafton?

One of the greatest things about returning to Grafton is that some of the students I had as a teacher back in 2009 are about to graduate. In fact, one of my former Second Grade students is going to graduate in June. Seeing how he’s grown has been really delightful, and I’ve been able to help with his transition to adult services.

What do you think of Grafton’s philosophy of comfort versus control?

My perspective on trauma-informed applied behavior analysis (ABA) really changed when I became the step-parent of a child with autism. I realized that writing a protocol and following a behavior plan is very different from loving a child in your own home. It changed the way I write my treatment plans. From a parent’s perspective, knowing that their children are being loved is the most important thing, and that’s one reason why the philosophy of comfort versus control is so important.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

We have a really amazing group of people at Grafton, and working here has been a great experience. This team always rises to the challenge, and I’m so glad our program is bolstered by such caring, dedicated people who put our kids first.