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How to Become a Child Life Specialist

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Making Life Better for Sick Children

Consider how intimidating it is to be an adult patient in a hospital or clinic. Now, imagine how children must feel in these settings. Surrounded by official-looking strangers asking questions, touching and poking, with beeping, flashing equipment and strange smells all around—they must be bewildered and frightened. You may have had experience with a child of your own being sick and scared. While doctors and nurses try to adjust their bedside manner for young patients, child life specialists are trained to make it easier and less scary to be a sick child. They may just be the best thing for sick children since teddy bears.

Job Description

"Point to the picture that shows how Jessie is feeling today," a child life specialist might say. Or, she might give the child crayons and paper and say, "Let's draw pictures!" She's known for her happy demeanor and for the fun or interesting props she brings along or has in her office, from dolls to art supplies to building toys.

The concept of child life specialist originated in the 1960s and was modeled after Montessori methods such as hands-on learning and educating through play. Today, child life specialists use proven methods of education and therapeutic play to help young patients, and even infants, feel better able to cope with the stress of being in the hospital.

This includes explaining upcoming procedures to them in ways a child can understand. Children may not be able to express exactly how they're feeling, but the child life specialist knows how to talk with them, work with them and watch how they play or react to situations.

Nurses in pediatric units enjoy their little patients and try to make them comfortable, but they're focused on medical care. A child life specialist has time to find out what her young patients need and has the training to know how to help make clinic visits or time in the hospital a happier experience.

Child life specialists also understand how the child's family figures into his well-being. They include families in discussions and work with family members to ease their frustrations and fears. They are recognized as essential members of a child's health-care team.

Education Requirements

Becoming a child life specialist requires a bachelor's degree in child life studies or another field. Not all colleges and universities have programs specifically in child life, so academic programs in child psychology, early childhood education or child development are recommended for study instead. A bachelor's degree in any field is acceptable, however.

To qualify for certification, applicants must:

  • Have a bachelor's degree in any field.
  • Take 10 courses in child life, family systems, child development, play, research, bereavement and grief and additional courses of your choice. 
  • Complete an internship of at least 600 hours, supervised by a certified child life specialist (CCLS). 
  • Receive a passing score on the Child Life Professional Certification Exam.

The salary range for those employed as child life specialists as of January 2018 was between $45,228 and $56,798, with a median salary of $50,661. A median salary is the midpoint in a list of salaries, with half being higher and half being lower.

About the Industry

Most child life specialists work in the health field, especially in pediatric hospitals or pediatric departments of general hospitals. You might also work in pediatric clinics or in any environment serving children, focusing on helping them cope with chronic illness, upcoming or ongoing procedures, death and bereavement.

Years of Experience

The internship serves as experience for a recent graduate who wants to work as a child life specialist. Upon being hired for the job, you can expect a salary at the lower end of the salary range. Salaries are also dependent on the part of the country you'll be working in and even vary between cities. Many employers will hire you without certification as long as you are working toward completing the requirements soon. After certification, and as you gain more experience, you can expect your salary to grow accordingly toward the median salary and even higher.

Job Growth Trend

Since the 1960s, the role of child life specialist in a child's health-care team has grown in importance. While growth in the field might not be as robust as it is in comparable roles that serve the growing senior population, the proven benefits of having child life specialists on the team ensure that they will be needed to replace retiring professionals and to add to the team in areas where the population of children under age 18 is growing.