What is a Child Life specialist & why does my family need one?
What it takes to evaluate a child’s needs at a pediatric hospital.
When I first moved to Fort Worth from Chicago, it felt like I was asked at least once a day, “What brought you here?” My quick response that I moved to work at Cook Children’s surprised many, perhaps because it seems that if you work in health care, you can work anywhere. There is truth to that to a certain extent, but as a child life specialist, something told me Cook Children’s was where I needed to be.
When I came to work here, I was in an as-needed position that required me to work anywhere and everywhere in patient care. One morning I was working in outpatient surgery when, to my surprise, an anesthesiologist asked me to help walk his patient back to the operating room due to high anxiety. What was even more surprising was when a second anesthesiologist made the same request just a few minutes later. I was in the middle of trying to make a decision about whose patient to help when the second doctor let me know he would wait for me to bring his patient back. Anyone in child life can tell you how huge that is; the recognition that the services provided by child life are so vital that they are worth waiting for, even in the fast-paced world of surgery.
Though to an outsider our work may look like many of the things that people innocuously comment (you have the best job ever; all you do is play all day; I wish I got paid to blow bubbles and play on an iPad), it is important to clarify that in all things a child life specialist does, there is a therapeutic value. I remember when I was a student in child life and my preceptor was referred to as a “glorified babysitter.” Though it may have stung her to hear that, it sparked an important conversation about what child life specialists aren’t, and more importantly, what they are.
Child life specialists are educated in child and human development; they have at least a bachelor’s degree, and in many cases, a master’s. They complete a semester of practicum, a 480-hour highly selective clinical internship, and must demonstrate theoretical and practical knowledge to pass a certification exam. Once certified, they are required to maintain certification by participating in professional development and continuing education. The knowledge gained on the way to becoming a certified child life specialist is used to build therapeutic relationships that help patients and their families master the health care experience.
With a child life specialist on the health care team, patients gain an understanding of their diagnosis and treatment in a way that meets their needs. The patient’s specialist may use medical dolls, messy activities and other forms of play to help the patient and any siblings clearly understand what they are going through. It is the work of child life specialists to assess the patient’s development, needs, and psychosocial goals. They then help to equip the whole family with knowledge and coping skills; they normalize a very abnormal environment, and perhaps most importantly, they make sure that kids have every possible opportunity to still be kids while they are here.
And yes, child life specialists do have the best job ever.
About the author
Kizzy Marco is the Child Life Zone Program Coordinator at Cook Children's and the primary handler of Ralph Lauren, a therapy dog at Cook Children's. Cook Children's Child Life specialists work with kids and families to make their visit to the medical center easier and more comfortable.