By McDonald, Cinda
The Exceptional Parent , Vol. 31, No. 7
WHAT IS A CHILD LIFE SPECIALIST?
Child life specialists are nonmedical members of a medical team, meaning they do not diagnose or perform medical treatment. They strive to help children in both inpatient and outpatient settings by reducing the stress and anxiety that many children experience in these situations. While the use of child life specialists has been mostly limited to hospitals, it is now more common to see them in pediatric physician and dental offices, outpatient clinics, counseling clinics, and any other environment that includes a pediatric population.
Child life specialists have been around for many years and have been referred to by many different names. They are sometimes known as play ladies, (although there are male child life specialists), patient activity specialists, or even babysitters. Although these names may give some clues, they do not supply enough information to give an accurate picture of a child life specialist. A child life specialist must achieve specific educational standards, which include earning a minimum of a baccalaureate degree in child life, psychology, child development, human and family studies, or another closely related field. For certification, a potential child life specialist must complete a 500-hour internship in a child life program, under the direct supervision of a certified child life specialist followed by a comprehensive, written examination given by the Child Life Council.
Requirements to maintain certification include professional development hours, which can include: lectures, college courses, and seminars relating to direct and indirect patient care, as well as required retesting with the Child Life Council at regular intervals. In addition, the employer of each child life specialist may have its own requirements.
WHAT DOES A CHILD LIFE SPECIALIST DO, AND HOW CAN THEY HELP ME AND/ OR MY CHILD?
Although the field of child life is relatively small, it is safe to say that no two child life specialists or child life programs are alike. Responsibilities of child life specialists may include many different areas, but the essentials remain the same. At Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children, Dallas, Texas, where I practice, the responsibilities of the child life specialist include: pre-admission tours; developmental assessments; explanations of procedures in child- and parent-friendly terms; support and distraction during procedures; medical play; supervision of the child life playroom and organizing activities; planning and participating in field trips, parties, special events, and special camps; attending physician rounds and patient staffings; planning and implementing behavioral modification; education of hospital staff about child life; giving disability awareness and school transition talks in the community; being present at inpatient and outpatient procedures to lessen stress and make the child more comfortable; and most important, becoming an advocate for child patients and their families.
THE PRE-ADMISSION TOUR
Most families' first exposure to a child life specialist is when their child is admitted into a hospital or on a pre-admission tour. During the pre-admission tour at our hospital, we first discuss why the child is being admitted (i.e., surgery, physical therapy, tests, etc.), and learn more about that child and their family, including how they are coping with the pending treatment plan and upcoming hospitalization. We also make recommendations to the child and parents in regard to "medical play" at home, items they may want to bring to help comfort their child, behavioral changes they might expect to see in their child both during and after hospitalization, and how to talk with their child when questions or concerns about their hospital stay arise, among other things.
THE ADMISSION PROCESS
During the admission process, a child life specialist will perform a developmental assessment. …