How to Become a Child Life SpecialistHow to Become a Child Life SpecialistHow to Become a Child Life Specialist

Millions of children are hospitalized each year in the U.S. Even under the best circumstances, hospital stays can be extremely challenging and stressful for children and their families.

When young patients arrive at the hospital, one of the first professionals they interact with is a child life specialist. A child life specialist’s primary responsibility is to positively impact children’s lives and remove barriers to optimal health outcomes. The focus isn’t always just on the patient; depending on the situation, patient care also extends to siblings and caregivers.

For those interested in learning how to become a child life specialist, pursuing an education in a field such as human development and family studies can help put them on a path to this rewarding career.

What Does a Child Life Specialist Do?

Child life specialists focus on patients’ physical and emotional needs. For professionals in this role, a primary goal is to mitigate the risk of psychosocial trauma for young patients facing a daunting diagnosis and hospitalization, according to the Association of Child Life Professionals.

Most trained child life specialists don’t have a medical or nursing background. They work full time in a hospital or facility as part of a child life program, which can serve patients seven days a week. Child life specialists perform some administrative tasks, such as coordinating patient-focused special events, training, and donations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). They’re involved in committees that discuss pain management, quality improvements, and bereavement, and they spend time emailing, mentoring, and attending staff meetings.

Create a Safe Environment

Child life specialists advocate for young patients and their extended families. Determining a care strategy and administering care can be particularly challenging if patients are unable to express themselves and share their concerns and needs. Younger patients also tend to have more difficulty fully comprehending medical conditions and treatments.

With this in mind, child life specialists work to establish safe environments for their patients. These professionals help children acclimate to new healthcare environments. Child life specialists focus on making sterile medical settings feel warm and normal, according to Children’s Hospital of Orange County.

Build Trust

Child life specialists use play therapy to ease a child’s fears and build trust, according to Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children. Play therapy, which is tailored to young patients, uses dolls or stuffed animals and medical equipment to help explain diagnoses, hospitalizations, treatments, and medications.

The multifaceted role of a child life specialist is centered on accommodating a patient’s unique needs, which can change over the care process. Child life specialists assess patients and their needs beyond their insurance and medical care, according to the BLS, and by developing age-appropriate support strategies.

Develop a Care Strategy

Developing a care strategy requires that child life specialists navigate often complicated care-related situations, such as injury, illness, trauma, disability, and hospitalization. As a result, they must keep a close eye on patient surgeries, cancer treatments, and celebration-worthy healthcare milestones.

Child life specialists provide care to various young patients, including infants, toddlers, elementary school-age children, and even teens and young adults. Child life specialists may also work alongside social workers and coordinate nonmedical care with doctors, nurses, and surgeons.

Steps to Become a Child Life Specialist

If serving young patients and their families sounds fulfilling, a few steps are involved for individuals looking to become a child life specialist.

Develop Skills

Those seeking to pursue a child life specialist career should have the following foundational skills and characteristics:

  • Leadership. Stepping up to lead in times of uncertainty and serving as a mentor to others.
  • Communication. Adjusting communication styles to meet both children’s and caregivers’ needs.
  • Active listening. Engaging with clients and their families by listening first, and then asking questions at appropriate times.
  • Interpersonal. Developing a cooperative relationship with patients and staff.
  • Organizational. Navigating organizational and group dynamics to achieve the best care plan for patients.
  • Flexibility. Adjusting schedules to follow care plans, which may evolve over time.
  • Compassion. Putting patients’ needs ahead of one’s own to find the best solution.

Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

Earning a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field, such as an online Bachelor of Arts in Human Development and Family Studies, helps to build a foundation for a career in creating safe environments for children as they work to overcome medical hurdles.

This foundational coursework includes instruction in family and community partnerships; critical thinking in the social sciences; and family law, policy, and advocacy. A child life specialist concentration — which focuses on child and adolescent psychology, counseling skills for medical professionals, and development play and learning — is designed for students looking to work in a healthcare setting.

Seek Certification

A bachelor’s degree in human development and family studies is further supplemented with the Certified Child Life Specialist (CCLS) credential from the Association of Child Life Professionals (ACLP). Those eligible to take the CCLS exam must have earned a bachelor’s degree in any field of study, graduated from an ACLP-endorsed child life academic program, and completed a 600-hour child life clinical internship. Professional organizations, such as the ACLP, also have continuing education requirements for maintaining certification, according to the BLS.

Gain Real-World Experience

Aspiring child life specialists should seek out internship and volunteer opportunities. Employers look for aspirants who have completed a pediatric internship that a certified child life specialist has overseen. Volunteer work allows students to test-drive the child life specialist role, according to the BLS, and develop communication and organization skills that are inherent to this career.

Child Life Specialist Salary and Outlook

The growth rate for child life specialists is expected to rise by double digits between 2018 and 2028, according to the BLS. The BLS classifies child life specialists as healthcare social workers, an occupation with a median annual salary of $56,750 as of May 2019 and 17% projected job growth between 2018 and 2028. Factors that may influence salary include education level, years of experience, and job location.

Discover How to Become a Child Life Specialist

Those serving our youngest patients should be compassionate and possess communication and leadership skills as well as foundational knowledge from a program such as Maryville University’s online Bachelor of Arts in Human Development and Family Studies. Discover how this program, paired with a child life specialist concentration, can help you develop the skills you need to succeed in this career.

Recommended Readings

Human Development and Family Studies Careers

Human Development and Family Studies vs. Social Work

What Is a Patient Advocate?


Association of Child Life Professionals, Certification

Blank Children’s Hospital, Child Life Specialist Qualifications

CHOC Children’s, A Day in the Life of a Child Life Specialist

Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project, Overview of U.S. Hospital Stays for Children: Variation by Geographic Region

Onet OnLine, Summary Report for Healthcare Social Workers

Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children, 3 Ways Your Child Could Benefit from a Child Life Specialist

The Leapfrog Group, Factsheet: Pediatric Care

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Workers: Job Outlook

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Workers: Pay

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “You’re a What? Child Life Specialist”

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