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Part I- What Exactly is a Child Life Specialtist?

Young girl playing doctors with her teddy.

As a child life organization, we recognize the benefits of the support we offer but realize that child life is rarely heard of in the community.  If you are familiar with the pediatric hospital setting, you may have heard about or worked with a Child Life Specialist previously however it's rare to find the profession outside of the hospital walls. 

First, a little history on Child Life… Emma Plank is well known for her contributions to the profession’s beginnings. In the 1950’s she started a program to address the “social, emotional, and educational needs of hospitalized children” at Cleveland City Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio. While a few other play-based programs had been previously established prior to this, Emma Plank's work played a crucial role in the momentum that would result in the birth of many child life programs nationwide.  The governing body of child life specialists, which is currently known as the Association for Child Life Professionals (ACLP), was established in 1965. 

Certified Child Life Specialists (CCLS) are certified and clinically trained in the developmental impact that illness, injury, trauma, and loss can have on a child. All CCLS's have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree and many hold a Master’s in child life or a related field.  While the degree can vary, all child life specialists are required to have completed specific coursework related to the profession.  Additionally, all CCLSs have completed a 600-hour internship under the supervision of a Certified Child Life Specialists and passed a national certifying exam.  

Child Life Specialists work with children of all ages, birth through young adulthood, and collaborate extensively with the child’s family, recognizing that they are the true expert in their child. The type of work they do with each age group greatly varies depending upon a host of factors including developmental age, setting, and anticipated event, to name a few. 

To reduce fear and anxiety, Child Life Specialists utilize developmentally and psychologically appropriate tools and interventions, such as therapeutic play, coping interventions, and supportive resources, to provide psychosocial and emotional support.  These interventions are tailored to meet the individual and specific needs of the child or family that the child life specialist is working with.  For example, if a child is having a test or procedure, a child life specialist can prepare the child for what to expect using age-appropriate language and teaching tools to help the child understand the steps that will occur and what medical tools and equipment will be used.  The child life specialist can also work with the child and family to develop techniques and strategies that the child and family can implement to help the child cope during the test or procedure.

Child Life emphasizes the idea of education as a form of support for children and teens.  Child life specialists believe that for many children the lack of understanding can create a fear of the unknown.  In turn, child life specialists work to educate children about complex medical diagnoses and procedures in a manner that makes the information understandable in age-appropriate ways.  We believe that kids tend to cope best when they are aware of what is happening on their level. 

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “child life interventions facilitate coping and adjustment at times and under circumstances that might otherwise prove overwhelming for the child.” The American Academy of Pediatrics recognizes the value of the child life profession and the support that Certified Child Life Specialists can provide to children and adolescents. 

At Hearts Connected, we believe that Child Life Specialists have a wealth of knowledge and tools that are valuable both inside and outside of the hospital.  We recognize that children and families are facing many medical circumstances beyond the hospital walls and benefit from knowledgeable support to help children and teens cope.

Reference: Committee on Hospital Care and Association of Child Life Professionals (formerly known as The Child life Council).