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Child life specialists use their knowledge of child development, therapy, and psychology to support children and their families through illnesses and medical procedures. While they do not have a hands-on medical role, they usually work in medical facilities alongside medical professionals and plan activities and events within the facility. Working as a child life specialist requires an outgoing and patient person who can help families reduce stress and empathize with their difficult situations. Child life specialists working in hospitals and medical centers may work rotating shifts with variable hours.

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Child Life Specialist Duties and Responsibilities

While a child life specialist’s day-to-day duties and responsibilities are determined by where they work, there are many core tasks associated with the role. Based on our analysis of job listings, these include:

Help Children with Medical Procedures

When children need medical tests, surgeries, or other procedures that scare them, child life specialists let children know exactly what to expect and answer questions to ease their concerns. During the procedure, they may come to distract the child with a toy or conversation and offer emotional support while medical professionals work.

Offer Counseling

When a child or parent is ill, child life specialists provide individual and group counseling to help individuals through the grieving process. They also help resolve family conflicts that come up during illness and provide age-appropriate support to siblings when their brother or sister is sick.

Participate in Therapeutic Play

Child life specialists use art, music, exercise, and other types of play to allow children to express how they feel about their situation. They may tell children stories, put on puppet shows, dance, or create crafts.

Provide Education to Families

Offering families advice on helping their children through medical situations is an important part of working as a child life specialist. This can include creating plans to reduce anxiety and explain procedures in a less fearful manner. They also help explain patients' treatment plans and answer questions.

Plan Support Programs and Events

Child life specialists also help create support groups for grieving families and plan events like birthday and holiday parties. These programs connect families with one another, while parties help children feel more at home.

Child Life Specialist Skills and Qualifications

Successful child life specialists work well with children and have the empathy and sensitivity to handle this challenging role. Employers seek candidates with a bachelor’s degree, experience working with children in a healthcare setting, child life specialist and CPR certification, and the following skills:

  • Knowledge of medical terminology - child life specialists should understand medical terminology to help families understand illnesses and answer questions they have about their situations
  • Knowledge of child development - when helping children during medical crises, child life specialists consider the child's cognitive and emotional development to provide age-appropriate explanations and therapies
  • Counseling skills - as social workers, child life specialists use counseling techniques such as individual and family talk therapy and therapeutic recreational activities to help children and families cope with trauma
  • Interpersonal skills - managing conflicts within families, listening to problems, understanding children's emotions, and influencing families positively all require child life specialists to have strong interpersonal skills
  • Communication skills - whether offering talk therapy or writing reports about cases, communicating clearly orally and in writing is an important daily task for child life specialists

Child Life Specialist Education and Training

Child life specialists need to earn a bachelor’s degree in child life, child and family studies, child development, or psychology. These programs often require coursework in psychology, early childhood education, children’s health, therapeutic play, child development, and medical terminology. Students usually also complete an internship as part of the program. This work experience is a requirement to qualify for the Certified Child Life Specialist certification needed to work as a child life specialist. This certification from the Association of Child Life Professionals requires meeting coursework and experience requirements and passing an exam. Child life specialists pay maintenance fees to maintain the certification. CPR certification is also a common requirement.

Child Life Specialist Salary and Outlook

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) classifies child life specialists as child and family social workers, and these professionals make a median wage of around $44,380 a year. The 10th percentile of child life specialists make about $28,500, and those with the highest wages make over $75,900. Medical facilities often provide time off, insurance packages, and retirement plans, and some also offer tuition assistance for employees who want to further their education.

Child life specialist employment will grow at a fast rate of 14 percent through 2016, reports the BLS. Since more people are demanding health care services, medical facilities will need to hire more child life specialists to assist, educate, and counsel children and their families. Having a master’s degree and experience with children in a healthcare setting can improve job prospects.

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Helpful Resources

Does working as a child life specialist sound interesting? These resources can help you get started.

Association of Child Life Professionals

in addition to offering certification, this organization provides career information, webinars, and educational resources for child life professionals and students.

The Handbook of Child Life: A Guide for Pediatric Psychosocial Care

designed both for students and practicing professionals, this book features case studies and practical advice on how child life specialists can address children's concerns when illness occurs, and also counsel children and their families through difficult medical situations.

How to Help Children Through a Parent's Serious Illness

author Kathleen McCue is a practicing child life specialist who offers family members and social work professionals advice on helping children when their parents face serious illnesses. Child life specialists can use this book to learn how to tell children about a parent's medical situation, provide emotional support, and guide them through the grieving process when the illness is terminal.

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