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A child life specialist is a professional trained to work with children and their families during difficult and traumatic situations. According to the Child Life Council, a child life specialist is responsible for educating caregivers, professionals and the public about the impact of significant stress on children and how to work with a child facing serious illness, death or trauma. Today, child life specialists are employed in hospice programs, hospitals, camps, early intervention programs, courtrooms, bereavement groups and community programs.
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What Does a Child Life Specialist Do?
A child life specialist has several varied responsibilities. They provide services to the child, to the child’s family and to the general public. For children, child life specialists assist with counseling the child prior to significant tests, surgeries and major medical procedures. The specialist can also be present during some of these procedures to help calm the child. They can assist in the emergency room in providing psychological care and relaxation techniques to an anxious child. For children who have faced major surgery, illness or trauma, the child life specialist can work with the child using medical and recreational play. Children who experience the life threatening illness or death of a sibling or parent may need a child life specialist to help with grief counseling at the funeral home or hospital. Children who are in the hospital for extended periods of time may have child life specialists plan parties and activities for the child.
The child life specialist can help the family unit as a whole by providing pre-admission and pre-surgery tours to the child and family to help calm fears. The specialist can also consult with the families to help explain results and procedures or to answer questions. They often provide support to siblings of sick children and may provide siblings with basic counseling and therapeutic play in order to help the sibling cope with their brother or sister's illness or death.
Finally, the child life specialist can educate the public in helping children cope with trauma or acts of mass violence, such as school shootings or war. The specialist can work with community leaders and child professionals in order to learn the signs of anxiety, depression or post traumatic stress disorder in the community's children and help design and coordinate therapeutic interventions. They may also work in foster care settings to assist children and foster families with coping following the removal of a child from a situation of abuse or neglect.
Becoming a Child Life Specialist
In order to become a child life specialist, one must have a bachelor’s degree in the field of psychology, sociology or child development. All applicants must have completed 10 courses in a child life subject and at least one must have been taught by a certified child life specialist. Courses can be taken in documentation, scope of practice, impact of illness on the patient and families, therapeutic play and family-centered care. Courses in child development, human development, therapeutic recreation, expressive therapies, counseling and family dynamics just also be completed. Classes on nursing, death and dying and cultural diversity may also be useful.
During the degree program, the student must also complete a supervised internship of at least 480 hours. The supervisor must have at least 4,000 of paid clinical child life experience and have a valid child life certification. Following the successful completion of the internship and coursework, the applicant is eligible to sit for the Child Life Professional Certification Examination.
A child life specialist plays an essential role in the well-being of children and families during crisis situations. The therapy and care provided by a CLS can make a significant impact in the child's ability to psychologically recover from a traumatic situation and to heal from illness, loss or trauma.