What is a Child Life Specialist?
Directly from the Child Life Council:
Child life specialists are trained professionals with expertise in helping children and their families overcome life’s most challenging events.
Armed with a strong background in child development and family systems, child life specialists promote effective coping through play, preparation, education, and self-expression activities. They provide emotional support for families, and encourage optimum development of children facing a broad range of challenging experiences, particularly those related to healthcare and hospitalization. Because they understand that a child’s wellbeing depends on the support of the family, child life specialists provide information, support and guidance to parents, siblings, and other family members. They also play a vital role in educating caregivers, administrators, and the general public about the needs of children under stress.
So What Do I Do on Daily Basis?
Education and Preparation
Child life specialists help patients cope with their medical conditions or injuries in many different ways. A large part of this is education and preparation. We provide education to our patients on their medical conditions in the most honest and least threatening terminology possible. We are somewhat of an interpreter from medical language to developmentally appropriate terminology or metaphors that the patient can understand.
We also prepare patients on what to expect for tests and procedures. We break their upcoming experience down into steps using developmentally appropriate language and focus on what the patient will see, hear, smell, taste, or feel. For both education and preparation we often use play as a tool to get our message across using real medical equipment on teaching dolls. Whenever possible, we allow patients to explore the equipment themselves and show us what they understand. To accompany explanations we also use pictures, diagrams, models, or actual equipment to give patients a better idea of what things will truly look like and provide more concrete information. When children know what to expect they are less anxious and afraid and better able to cope with procedures.
When our patients have procedures, we go with them and aim to provide the most conducive environment possible. We advocate for parental presence and comfort positioning whenever appropriate. We try to lower the stimulation in the environment by being the one calm voice the child hears during the procedure providing reassurance and narration of what to expect next. We also provide distraction during procedures when appropriate for the child. We may engage the child in conversation, a game, or with a toy to divert their attention from the medical equipment and procedure itself to something more pleasant. We find that many times, children’s anxiety builds while the medical team is preparing for the procedure. When they are not focused on the medical team during this time, they are less anxious and upset during the procedure itself because they have not already worked themselves up. When they are calm, their veins are often easier to see for the nurses which can make placement of an IV or getting a blood sample much easier and quicker.
We encourage our patients to express their feelings. Being in the hospital and/or experiencing illness or injury can evoke many different emotions… all of which are completely normal! For our older patients we become a safe person to confide in when times are tough. For our younger (and older) patients we look to provide opportunities through play or therapeutic art modalities (music, art, technology, creative writing, etc.) to express themselves or their feelings. We have lots of activities up our sleeves to “let our mads out” and know how to be a therapeutic presence at times of sadness, grief, or loss.
We are available to all family members and patients for emotional support. We are there to lend a listening ear, seek out resources with the help of social work, process experiences, provide validation, and advocate for our families needs. We seek to help provide a family centered care environment and to include all family members in supportive roles for our patients.
We are also there to provide normal childhood and adolescent experiences for our patients. No one wants to spend their birthday or holiday in the hospital. In these times, Child Life helps celebrate these moments with families who wish to. We also try to get our patients involved in activities whenever possible not only to keep them busy and happy but also to encourage socialization, ambulation and movement, and working toward developmental goals and milestones. Play is the work of children because it is how they learn and process experiences and their environment and so we want kids to play whenever possible. Although experiences at the hospital are not “normal” for the child, we want to make the environment as normal and close to their home routine as possible.