Child Life Specialist

Mayo Clinic child life specialist working with children

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Field description

Child life professionals help children and their families navigate the emotionally and physically demanding process of coping with illness, injury, disability, trauma and hospitalization. Child life specialists are child development experts who support coping and adjustment through therapeutic play, diagnostic education, age-appropriate preparation and expressive activities that enhance understanding and support mastery of challenging experiences.

As part of the health care team, child life professionals advocate for the special needs of children and their families. Child life programs provide children with opportunities to engage in normal play and leisure activities that promote growth, development, and feelings of success and fulfillment. Child life professionals embrace the roles of parents and other family members as full partners on the health care team and promote the philosophy of patient- and family-centered care.

Characteristics of a successful child life specialist:

  • Has a passion for working with children of all ages and their family members
  • Possesses excellent written and verbal communication skills
  • Adjusts language and demeanor to the developmental and emotional state of the child
  • Works collaboratively with other members of the multidisciplinary team
  • Manages the emotional stress inherent in working with children who have life-threatening diseases
  • Prioritizes a variety of tasks simultaneously
  • Explains complex medical procedures and information to all ages

The field of child life began to flourish in the United States and Canada in the early 1960s through the pioneering work of Emma Plank (and others), who trained with Maria Montessori and used the principles of child development to promote appropriate care for hospitalized children. Prior to this time, it was not uncommon for parents to be excluded from the pediatric wards of hospitals except for brief visitation hours, sometimes just on weekends.

Today, the special emotional and educational needs of children are acknowledged by providing an environment and programs that recognize family members as integral members of the health care team and supports adjustment to health care encounters throughout childhood and adolescence.

Most, but certainly not all, child life specialists work in health care settings. Typically, the work centers on helping children and their families adjust to and cope with the health care environment and the many events that happen during a hospital stay or clinic visit. Some child life specialists work in outpatient settings such as clinics, dental offices, hospice, camps or community intervention programs for children with special health care needs. Since the professional skills of child life specialists involve helping children and families under stress, their skills have applications in multiple environments.

Education and certification

Some colleges and universities have a child life specialist program that awards a bachelor's degree. If the chosen school does not have a specific curriculum in child life, a student must complete a bachelor's degree in a related field. Some students major in child development, child and family studies, psychology, early childhood education, or a similar area.

To be eligible for the current certification process, coursework is required in certain areas. Following the completion of the degree program and the internship, assuming the required number of eligible courses has been completed, the intern is eligible to take the certification exam.

The certification exam is offered through the Association of Child Life Professionals, the only international professional organization for the child life profession. Find complete information about the certification process.

Please note, effective Jan. 1, 2019, eligibility requirements will change.

July 17, 2017