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Child Life Specialist  What They Do

Just the Facts


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dotChild life specialists use play therapy, art and music to help infants, children and teenagers feel less anxious about medical procedures.

"My kids are all medically involved, so I deal primarily with helping the children through their daily medication regimes and routines," says Samantha Leon, a certified child life specialist in Florida. "I literally sit with the kids while they're getting their medication or going through a procedure."

dotTraumatic hospitalization events can erode self-esteem, discourage normal childhood development and invite dependency. Child life specialists help children express their feelings and fears and prepare them for tough health-care experiences.

Therapy can mean anything from sticking fake needles into dolls (simulating shots) to drawing pictures. Techniques depend on the client's developmental age: playing with dolls may work great for a four-year-old child, but it could be a disaster with an older teenager.

dotMost child life specialists work in a hospital setting. To ensure the young client gets the best possible care, they interact with many medical professionals, including social workers, nurses and doctors.

"We're facilitators of communication," says Tom Collins, a child life specialist in Oakland, California.

"I work with nurses, social workers, physicians, respiratory therapists, dietitians and physical, occupational and speech therapists," says Alison Page, a child life specialist at a Florida hospital.

dotMarsha Herman is the executive director of the Child Life Council. She says the child-care industry is stabilizing. The health-care system in the United States depends on funding sources and medical practices. Savvy child life specialists are branching off into related fields such as dentistry and children's hospices.

Child life specialists usually work an eight-hour weekday shift. Depending on where you work and staffing situations, you may be required to work some evenings and weekends. Also, if a child is in crisis at the end of the shift, child life specialists typically stay with the child until they are stabilized.

"No overtime is expected, but much is put in. I usually work until 7 p.m. or later and I do a lot of work-related things on weekends," says Leone.

dotPrepare to lift kids! Child life specialists frequently interact with small children -- which means frequent lifting and bending. To prevent injury, you should learn proper lifting and bending techniques. Specialists deal every day with suffering, disease and death, so there can be a large amount of psychological stress.

"The rewards are immediate. To see a child who is crying enter a playroom where music is playing, game cupboards are open, crafts are on the table and a volunteer is blowing bubbles, and then stop crying and smile is a great feeling," says Deidre Tamlin, a child life specialist.

"The days that kids die are always the worst, especially when it is a kid that you have worked with for a long time. You still have to make it a fun day for the rest of the kids that are there, so you have to be funny and creative on the outside while you cry on the inside."

At a Glance

Help children deal with hospital stays

  • There can be a lot of psychological stress in this job
  • Child life specialists work with nurses, social workers, physicians, therapists and dietitians
  • Educational backgrounds: early childhood education, art therapy or psychology