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Honoring Joan Chan-Chinese American Child Life Leader

As the 34th individual to earn the child life certification, Joan Chan served children and families across the northern United States for 25 years, utilizing a background in social work and education. She founded multiple child life programs, mentored dozens of child life interns, and worked alongside child life leaders such as Mary Brooks and Emma Plank to grow the profession. During Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (AANHPI), we honor Joan's legacy as a Chinese-American child life professional.

Joan Chan with Child

Born in Hong Kong, China in 1932, Joan and her family immigrated to Australia during World War II. Joan’s interest in serving children and families led her to pursue a degree in social work from the University of Sydney in Australia, where she graduated in 1955. In 1964, she won a Fulbright Fellowship at Columbia University in New York and earned a Master’s of Social Work. After taking  a few years off to raise her daughter, Joan returned to the workforce as founder and President of the Parent Cooperative Nursery School at the Downstate Medical Center in Brooklynn, New York, where her husband was a faculty member. While employed at Downstate, she visited the pediatric floor and noticed the lack of child-friendly spaces and décor. She cites observing a young child in a wheelchair as the catalyst for her passion helping hospitalized children:

“We saw a young boy with both legs in casts. He had originally come in with one fracture. He was bored with nothing to do and had been wheeling himself around and got a 2nd and 3rd fracture. This visit and the boy made a great impact on me about the impact of the institutional setting on children: long corridors with typical ‘70s décor and nothing for them to do.”

1997 Interview with Joan Chan, hosted by Debbie Laskey-Fingerhut

As she learned more about pediatric hospital experiences, Joan encountered the Association for the Care of Children in Hospitals (ACCH), a membership organization dedicated to creating child- and family-friendly hospital environments. In 1972, she traveled to attend their annual conference in Atlanta, Georgia where she made connections with child life leaders and learned about their role in the hospital. After the conference, Joan immediately began laying the foundation for a child life program at Downstate. Over the next decade, she directed and developed the program across three in-patient units, continually lobbying hospital administration for recognition and funding. She simultaneously served as Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Downstate, where she was responsible for the design and implementation of a child life component in the psychiatry clerkship for third year medical students. Over the span of her career, she would continue teaching and hold professorships and faculty positions at Adelphi University, State University of New York at Stony Brook, and Bank Street College of Education, where she collaborated with two other faculty members to establish and teach the first two courses leading to a major in Child Life.

In 1983, Joan took the position of Director of the Child Life Department at Schneider Children’s Hospital of Long Island, where she was responsible for establishing and administrating clinical programs across four inpatient units and one ambulatory care unit. She also set up a CCTV system, a resource library, and a children’s art gallery while growing the program to include ten professionals in addition to students and volunteers. In 1989, she transitioned into the role of Education Consultant, in which she designed and implemented the clinical training program for child life fellows and interns.

Over the span of Joan’s career, she had nearly 100 presentations and speaking engagements across the United States and abroad. She authored or co-authored 16 publications; her notable publications include:

“Educating Interns in a Child Life Program: The Agency Supervisor’s Perspective” Journal of Experiential Education Fall 1983

“Play and the Abused Child: Implications for Acute Pediatric Care” Children’s Health Care, Winter 1988 Vol. 16, No. 3 with Patricia Taner Leff

“Parenting the Chronically Ill Child in the Hospital: Issues and Concerns” Children’s Health Care, with Patricia Taner Leff, Volume 11, 1982 - Issue 1

“Talking to Parents: Enhancing Parent-Professional Relationships” with Patricia Taner Leff and Elaine H Walizer, Childrens Hospital Quarterly 1(2) Summer 1989

“Self-Understanding and Reaching Out to Sick Children and Their Families: An Ongoing Professional Challenge” with Patricia Taner Leff and Elaine H Walizer, Childrens Hospital Quarterly, 20(4), 1991

Joan and Art 

Joan’s career also included significant involvement in the ACCH and Child Life Council, serving as a committee member, executive board member, chairperson of the education and program review committees on the CLC. In 1991, she received ACLP’s Distinguished Service Award. She added this to a collection of recognitions, including a Citation of Merit, Mayor of New York’s Volunteer Awards (1976) and the naming of the Joan Chan Fellowship, established in her honor by the Children’s Medical Fund of New York (1988).

After retiring in 1990, Joan enjoyed keeping up with her students and acting as a mentor as well as painting. In a 1997 interview, Joan cited her greatest dream for child life as it being “as strong and as well recognized as the medical profession.”

ACLP recognizes Joan’s dedication and service to the field and the systemic injustices she faced as a Chinese-American woman. We extend great appreciation to her contributions in child life history while acknowledging that we must continually progress towards systemic change to address anti-Asian discrimination. View our statement on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion here.

Child Life Profession