Have you ever visited a hospital and felt the palpable tension in the atmosphere? Everyone there seems to be anxious and fearful. This experience can be very frightening for children as well, because hospitals look and sound different from what they know, with strange equipment and people in unfamiliar clothes. The fear is also because they might not understand what’s happening.

Do you think about reaching out to these children and their families and genuinely supporting them through this difficult time? Becoming a child life specialist could be the answer. 

With a career as a child life specialist, you will be able to help young patients and their families cope with medical challenges. You will be a part of their emotional journey in the hospital and be able to make a positive impact on their lives. In this career, you will be in for an immensely rewarding journey.

Your role as a child life specialist would include helping children and providing therapeutic activities for them. You will also assist their families by providing emotional support, helping them understand their child’s diagnosis and treatment, and helping them cope with the emotional and psychological effects of their illness.

A child life specialist works with children who are in hospitals. The role of a child life specialist is to ease a child’s discomfort during medical treatment by supporting them, keeping them cheerful through play, helping them with self-expression, and ultimately helping them cope. 

Some roles that child life specialists perform could include explaining sickness to a child in a way that is simple to understand. Distracting children during their medical tests. Helping the child’s family members, for example, makes sure the hospitalized child’s sibling gets the care they require as well.

Child life specialists do not use medications to treat their young patients; their role is limited to providing support and helping a child cope. This support is often extended to the child’s family as well. 

The care provided by child life specialists can look different for different patients. This care is tailored according to each child’s specific needs. Here are some common roles and responsibilities that child life specialists perform:

  1. Explaining sickness to a child in a simple and understandable manner.
  2. Providing therapeutic play, preparation for procedures, and education to reduce fear, anxiety, and pain.
  3. Helping children cope with anxiety, fear, separation, and other emotions related to the hospital experience.
  4. Acting as a coach and advocate for the child during medical procedures, using various distraction techniques and relaxation exercises.
  5. Collaborating with parents, healthcare professionals, and other members of the healthcare team to meet the distinct needs of children in managing the effects of stress and trauma.
  6. Providing developmentally appropriate preparation and education for any child who has an adult family member in the hospital.
  7. Helping children and families navigate the process of illness, injury, disability, trauma, or loss and bereavement.

The Association of Child Life Professionals lays down some requirements to obtain certification in this field. To become a child life specialist, you must first complete extensive training. Becoming a child life specialist requires you to complete four steps.

  1. Bachelor’s degree 

First, you will need to get your four-year undergraduate degree. 

A bachelor’s in child life studies or a related field is preferred but not mandatory. Most child life professionals get their bachelor’s in child life or related fields such as child development, human development and family studies,  psychology, child and family studies, or early childhood education. 

  1. Coursework 

Here you have two options:

  1. Graduation from an ACLP-endorsed child life academic program. 
  1. Successfully complete 10 college/university courses as follows: 

– A child life course taught by a CCLS 

– A minimum of 2 child development courses that cover ages birth -18

– Family systems course 

– Play course 

– Loss/bereavement or death/dying course

– Research course

– 3 additional courses in related content areas

*For each of the 10 required courses, it is recommended that students take a 3-credit course or the equivalent to have an appropriate depth of instruction. For a course to count, the required content must be the primary focus of the course. 

3. Internship: 

Students pursuing certification as child life specialists must complete a (minimum) 600-hour clinical internship in child life under the direct supervision of a Certified Child Life Specialist. 

4. Certification Exam 

To become a Certified Child Life Specialist, you must appear for and pass the certification exam. Make sure to successfully complete the first three steps before attempting this exam. 

As a child life specialist, you can tailor your career by specializing in areas like pediatric oncology, cardiology, or intensive care. This not only involves additional training but allows you to deepen your expertise, providing more targeted support to children and families facing specific health challenges. 

According to data from Indeed, the average base salary for child life specialists in the United States is $74,487 per year as of 2023. The pay scale for child life specialists ranges from $47,457 to $116,911. Your salary can depend on factors like your workplace, location, experience, and other such factors.

Are you eager to know what your career in this field would look like? Based on an interview with a child life specialist recorded by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), we have noted some common tasks that professionals in this field perform.

Child life specialists are in high demand in a variety of settings, from hospitals to medical clinics, hospices, dental offices, and schools. 

As a child life specialist, you will have a busy but rewarding career. Usually, you’ll put in about 40 hours of work a week. You’ll be attending to one patient after another, which will keep you on your feet constantly. Every interaction you have with a patient must be recorded.

In addition to your child-related duties, you may also take on a variety of administrative tasks, such as handling donations, organizing special events, and training staff. You may also have a seat in important committee discussions on topics like pain management, quality improvement, and bereavement. Other standard tasks include email, mentoring, and staff meetings. 

Also, continuous professional development is essential, so be ready to commit yourself to learning and growing. As per the requirements set by the Association of Child Life Professionals, you will need to maintain certification by paying an annual maintenance fee for the first four years and completing recertification in the fifth year. The recertification process involves earning Professional Development Units (PDUs) or re-taking the Child Life Professional Certification Examination. 

On a happier note, be prepared to join a lot of celebrations. You will celebrate when your patient overcomes a challenge, when they get better, and when they finally are ready to be discharged and move on. You will get to be a part of these special moments and a lot more. Making a positive impact on these lives is what will keep you going.

As a child life specialist, you need to empathize with your young patients and be passionate about helping them and caring for them. Here are some necessary skills to learn in order to excel at your work. 

  • Empathy: You need to be able to understand and relate to the feelings of children and their families and create a safe and supportive environment for children to express their emotions.
  • Communication skills: You will be constantly talking with and listening to your patients. For this, you willl need to be good at communication, and be able to communicate effectively with children of all ages, as well as their families, and maintain a professional demeanor in all situations. 
  • Dealing with stress: The job can get emotionally stressful sometimes, and it is important to be able to deal with your emotions and remain optimistic and cheerful. Sign up for therapy if needed to blow off some emotional steam.
  • Teamwork: Expect to collaborate with healthcare professionals and parents to provide efficient care. This includes listening actively, expressing ideas and concerns, and providing constructive feedback while being respectful at all times.
  • Flexibility: Working with different children with varied needs means that you will need to be flexible. Be willing to adjust your approach based on the individual needs of each child.
  • Problem-solving skills: You will often need to come up with creative solutions to help children cope with difficult situations.
  • Engaging children: Your job will require you to be able to grab children’s attention, initiate play, and engage children in activities that promote their physical, emotional, and cognitive development.

Your career as a child life specialist will be a rewarding ride. You will get the chance to positively impact many people. Meeting people, interacting with them, and helping them will be something you will do on a daily basis. Working with children and helping them recover while supporting their families can be extremely emotionally satisfying.

If you are considering pursuing this profession, then take the time to do your research and make sure to volunteer. When you volunteer, you get to experience what the job is like on a first-hand basis, after which you can decide whether this job is truly for you. 

Is being a child life specialist a good career?

Yes, many find it to be a fulfilling and meaningful career. The sense of fulfillment in making a positive impact on young lives and families often makes it a rewarding career for those passionate about child development and healthcare support. If you have a genuine interest in helping children navigate difficult situations, being a child life specialist can indeed be a fulfilling and meaningful career.

What are the challenges of being a child life specialist?

Challenges may include dealing with emotional situations, adapting to varying work schedules, and maintaining self-care. However, many find the rewards of helping children and families outweigh the challenges.