What is a Child Life Specialist?
A child life specialist is a healthcare worker who is often employed in the pediatric department of a hospital among other venues. They work with children under 18 years of age (although patients are often younger children) and their families to ease discomfort during hospital visits as well as educate children on health issues and topics.
The role of a child life specialist is important within the pediatrics department at a hospital. Pediatricians receive special training to work with children, however they often rely on child life specialists to handle easing of emotional trauma and increasing health-related education of children and their families.
What Does a Child Life Specialist Do?
A child life specialist is mainly focused on easing psychological discomfort of children before, during, and after receiving medical care. They will use a variety of strategies to ease discomfort depending on the age and needs of the child. For instance, a child aged 4-6 getting shots often experiences anxiety beforehand. A child life specialist can play with the child with jokes or make-believe or they may direct parents to comfort their child.
An older child aged 12-14 going in for surgery may have different needs. The child life specialist may offer to listen and discuss the pre-teen’s concerns and may distract them with a story, television, or a book. While strategies beforehand are often focused on reducing anxiety and increasing education, similar strategies can be employed after serious procedures to manage pain.
The job duties of a child life specialist go beyond direct comfort of children prior to medical procedures. Child life specialists often work directly with parents and caregivers as well.
In the example above with the pre-teen, the specialist’s job would also require comforting parents or caregivers and easing any worries related to their child’s procedure. They may work with the parents/caregivers and child separately or together as a unit.
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Even when the child is not the individual receiving medical care, child life specialists are often present to provide care. For example, children need to be comforted when a person close to the child is receiving serious medical care like chemotherapy or extensive psychiatric care. A child life specialist will often discuss specifics with the child so they are informed and can better understand what is going on.
When a death in the family occurs within a hospital setting, a child life specialist can be there to speak with the child as well as give the child’s parents/caregivers guidance on how to ensure their child is appropriately adjusting to the change. They can refer children to therapists when needed; however some child life specialists work with outpatient facilities to continue care with children and their families.
It should be noted that a child life specialist is not involved with direct medical care such as taking vitals or physically preparing a child for medical care. These tasks are the responsibility of the pediatrician or pediatric assistant. However, a medical professional will often call upon a child life specialist to ease emotional stress related to the procedure either before, during, or after the patient receives medical care.
What Do You Learn in a Child Life Specialist Degree Program?
- Child Development Knowledge: Child life specialists need to be familiar with the typical behaviors, thoughts, and emotions experienced by children from ages 1 to 18. Programs will begin to introduce students to differences between age groups, particularly during internship programs.
- Therapy Basics: While child life specialists are not therapists, certain therapy-based skills like listening and empathy are taught and practiced within programs.
- Methods of Play: As play is a common distraction technique for anxiety and pain, programs will introduce students to examples of play and which are best for a particular age group.
- Methods of Communication: Communication with children, teens, parents/caregivers, and fellow staff all take different forms which requires practice to ensure communication goes smoothly and is helpful to patients and families.
- Bereavement Education: As not all child life specialists have personal experience with bereavement, programs introduce specialists to the ways in which children cope with bereavement, tactics for easing emotions, and special methods of communicating with children.
- Basic Medical Terminology: Although not taught in all programs, child life specialists will need to become familiar with some basic terminology in order to better communicate with medical professionals.
- Chronic Illnesses: Education surrounding chronic illnesses is taught, with particular focus on illnesses that affect children and what resources they need to cope with the illness. Programs also touch on illnesses that impact adults so they can better help children who have family members that are impacted.
- Hospital Protocol: Many child life specialists in training do not have extensive knowledge of basic hospital protocols. This information is often learned via internships.
- Application of Skills: Internships are an important part of applying skills learned in classrooms. A few internships are offered at the undergraduate level but are more common in graduate programs.
What are the Requirements to Become a Child Life Specialist?
A bachelor’s degree is required to become a child life specialist. Programs may offer a degree in Child Life, a concentration within a human development field, or a minor in Child Life. For programs with a concentration or minor offered, the degree received may be in Psychology or Human Development more broadly.
Programs typically focus on classes that teach students about child development, the bereavement process and coping techniques, communication, and basic medical jargon. The Association of Child Life Professionals lists certain courses that are required to become a certified child life specialist.
A Master’s degree in Child Life is an option for those who wish to expand their education, get more hands-on training, and become more competitive in the job market, however it is not necessary. Master’s programs often last two years and can offer more in-depth education. For instance, students who know they want to work specifically with children in dental offices can find programs that offer relevant courses.
Child life specialists who meet their educational requirements prior to 2019 must undergo 480 hours of supervised training during an internship. After 2019, a total of 600 hours will be required. A certified child life specialist must oversee all hours of the internship.
All child life specialists must become certified in order to work. The certification cannot be obtained until receiving at least a Bachelor’s degree, completing the internship, and taking an examination.
The Association of Child Life Professionals administers the exam three times a year. The exam is made of 150 multiple-choice questions that will test knowledge learned during internships and within educational programs.
Once the exam is passed, the individual will be considered a certified child life specialist for five years after which they will need to be re-certified. Recertification can occur by taking the exam again or receiving professional development units. These can be obtained via supervised internship or by taking courses. This option is cheaper that retaking the exam, but often takes longer to complete.
Where Does a Child Life Specialist Work?
Child life specialists work primarily in the pediatric department of hospitals. They may be called to assist in other departments within the hospital setting to comfort children when an adult in their life is receiving care.
Some child life specialists work in less common settings like dental offices, schools, or funeral homes. These specialists may work as independent contractors who move between several locations depending on needs.
Child life specialists working with children who have chronic illnesses but still attend school may educate the child’s classmates on the child’s illness.
The specialist is often a familiar face to children who receive care from a host of medical professionals, so it is often important they attend to needs outside of the hospital as well. While these child life specialists are employed at the hospital, the location of their job duties will vary depending on the child’s needs.
What are the Pros and Cons of Being a Child Life Specialist?
- Personal Fulfillment: Helping children, particularly those who experience traumatic events or who are suffering from a chronic illness, can be very rewarding. Many specialists can see the direct impact of their work in their daily job duties.
- Variety of Job Duties: Depending on the location, child life specialists can have a variety of tasks to perform on a daily basis. Even those who work repeatedly with the same children need to insert a variety of games and communication styles to keep children distracted and entertained.
- Variety of Job Locations: Although the majority of child life specialists work in the hospital setting, there are other facilities where they can work. Within the hospital, there are also a variety of settings to work in.
- Being a Team Member: Working as a member of a medical team can be a fulfilling experience, particularly for those who are working within the hospital setting. There are opportunities for specialists who wish to work primarily on their own as well.
- Growing Respect Within Medical Field: Having colleagues who appreciate the role of a child life specialist can increase job satisfaction immensely. Not all hospitals hire specialists, but those who do value their role within the medical field.
- Application of Learned Skills: While not all fields directly utilize skills learned in education programs, child life specialists will be able to directly apply and practice techniques learned in order to help patients.
- Emotional Strain: Some child life specialists work with children who have terminal illnesses that require assistance for many years. The loss of a patient can be very upsetting for those on the child life team.
- Competitive Field to Enter: While there are numerous openings for child life specialists, those with additional education, certification, and hundreds of volunteer and internship training hours have the advantage. Patience is required throughout the process.
- Misunderstanding of Job Duties: In some situations, parents and caregivers may underestimate the role child life specialists play in helping their child. While specialists should listen to parents and their concerns, there will likely be times when adults do not appreciate the role specialists play.
What are the Advancement Opportunities for a Child Life Specialist?
Child life specialists are often hired directly from educational programs and after obtaining certification into work facilities like hospitals. Some of these individuals have already advanced from a child life assistant, which only requires a two-year degree.
From the child life specialist position, there can be advancement opportunities into leadership and team management positions. Child life specialists can also choose to work for different facilities that may pay more, however their job duties will remain relatively similar across locations.
How Much Does a Child Life Specialist Make a Year?
The salary of a child life specialist depends on location, experience, and education. In general, child life specialists make between $43,000 and $67,000 per year, with the median falling at about $55,000, as of December 2021. Child life specialists in California report earnings between $49,000 and $61,000 while those in Ohio report earnings between $42,000 and $66,000.
Hourly wages are often reported as child life specialists may work on contract so do not earn an annual salary. Hourly wages reported vary between $20-$30 per hour, with higher wages earned for those at more illustrious institutions (like UC San Francisco Medical Center).
What is the Job Outlook for Child Life Specialists?
Those looking to become a child life specialist will be happy to know the job outlook for the field is expected to grow in the next several years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a 7% growth is expected for individuals in this field and of child life workers in general.
Despite the low birth rate in the United States, hospitals and other facilities have grown to appreciate the role a child life specialist plays. While previously parents or medical professionals were responsible for filling the role of psychological easement for children, it has become clear that child life specialists are needed address this need.