Child Life Specialist

Certified Child Life Specialists are educated and clinically trained in the developmental impact of illness and injury. Their role helps improve patient and family care, satisfaction, and overall experience. Child Life Specialists help infants, children, youth and families cope with the stress and uncertainty of acute and chronic illness, injury, trauma, disability, loss and bereavement. They provide evidence-based, developmentally and psychologically appropriate interventions including therapeutic play, preparation for procedures, and education to reduce fear, anxiety, and pain. Learn more about the child life profession from ChildLife.org.

Frequently asked questions about Child Life

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What other professionals does a child life specialist work with?

Child life specialists work with anyone involved in the care of the pediatric patient. Doctors, PAs, nurses, OTs, PTs, social workers, advocates, etc! A child life specialist needs to understand the procedures and diagnoses of patients to be able to support those children and their loved ones. They also have a role as an advocate for their patients to communicate with other members of the health team about the needs and concerns of children and families as well as strategies they plan to use to support during treatment/procedures.

What is the history of child life as a field?

Child life has existed for about a century as healthcare professionals sought to improve healthcare experiences for children by providing play, preparation, and educational programs. In the 1960s and 70s the field of child life became more defined as child life professionals collaborated to define the theoretical basis of their work with children, the essential elements of professional practice, and the requirements of an educational program to prepare students for the profession. The number of child life programs increased substantially, and colleges developed academic curricula incorporating hospital internships to prepare students to work with the hospitalized child. Today, child life specialists work and influence the delivery of care in both healthcare and community settings. They continue to help infants, children, youth, and families cope with the stress and uncertainty of illness, injury and treatment. Learn more about the history of the Child Life field.

How much are child life specialists paid?

The 2021 salary survey put together by the Association of Child Life Professionals (ACLP) noted that the average (mean) salary for child life specialists in a hospital setting was $53,971. Early career professionals would likely earn less than that. Read the salary surveys.

What is unique about child life compared to other healthcare professionals?

Child life specialists are very focused on the developmental needs of children and communicating with children in developmentally appropriate ways, especially through play. The presence of a professional educated in the development of children is beneficial to the child by giving them a voice and teaching them that it is helpful to communicate with doctors to get the medical that they want in a way that is the least harmful to them, this has been proven to reduce the risk of anxiety in the hospital setting for children.

Do child life specialists work in settings outside of hospitals?

Although child life specialists typically function in the hospital setting, their skills and training are often applied to support children and families in other settings, such as community outreach programs, hospice, dental care, schools, specialized camps, funeral homes, private practice or wherever children experience stress or trauma. In each of these areas, child life interventions focus on the individual needs of the child and family.

What education is necessary to become a child life specialist?

There are two Bachelor degree options to meet the educational standards for certification (there are also experience requirements – see next question).

Option #1:
Graduation from an ACLP-endorsed child life academic program

Option #2:
10 college courses* in the following content areas:

  • 1 Child life course taught by a Certified Child Life Specialist
    2 child development courses
    1 Family systems course
    1 Play course
    1 Loss/bereavement or death/dying course
    1 Research course
    3 additional courses in related areas

*For each of the 10 required courses, it is recommended that students take a 3-credit course or the equivalent to have an appropriate depth of instruction.
*For a course to count, the required content must be the primary focus of the course.

Option #3:
Complete any Bachelor’s degree and then graduate from an ACLP-endorsed child life Master’s degree program.

Learn more about the education needed to become certified.

When would a Master’s degree be beneficial as a child life specialist?

More education can be helpful, but isn’t required to obtain certification as a child life specialist. A Master’s degree could be beneficial for those who already have a Bachelor’s degree but not the educational requirements for certification as a child life specialist.

What experience is necessary to become a child life specialist?

Those pursuing certification as child life specialists must complete a (minimum) 600 hour clinical internship in child life under the direct supervision of a Certified Child Life Specialist. Internships are experience-based and are designed to teach and develop independent skills of child life practice. Individuals are expected, by the conclusion of the internship, to be able to function as job-ready, competent child life professionals. Internships are typically full-time, hands-on, and are required to meet the eligibility requirements for the child life certification exam. Many if not most internships are unpaid.

Pre-Internship: As part of the application for a child life internship, students are required to document experiences (paid or volunteer) working with children and families (1) within healthcare (environment due to medical encounter), and (2) outside of healthcare (not impacted by medical encounter).
Some child life internships may also require a child life practicum, which is mainly an observational experience to better understand the role and work of child life specialists. A practicum is not a requirement for certification.

Learn more about the experience needed to become certified.

What are the most common hurdles for becoming certified or finding a job as a child life specialist?

Child life has been a competitive field as child life specialists are not in every health care setting and child life specialists may need to relocate for job opportunities. Because child life specialists are not typically billable to insurance, healthcare organizations have to find other ways to fund the positions.

It is not uncommon for those interested in child life to have to apply for several internships (and perhaps apply multiple times) and relocate for an internship because of the competitiveness. Additionally, most internships remain unpaid, so those pursuing this path have to have a financial plan for their time as an intern. For students not a part of an ACLP-endorsed program, they will have more limited practicum and internship opportunities because many are affiliated with programs. The process can feel long and arduous at times, but if this is what you want, stick with it and remain patient to make it work out!

How do child life specialists grow professionally within the field?

Certified Child Life Specialists have to recertify with the Association of Child Life Professionals (ACLP) every five years and have to complete Continuing Education requirements to be eligible for recertification. These continuing education hours give an opportunity for professional development and continued learning in support of growth in the role.

Other ways that ACLP supports professional development of child life specialists:
ACLP annual conference – great way to network, learn about and contribute to future directions of the child life field.
Research – ACLP promotes research within the child life field and can help fund/support research by certified specialists who are interested in engaging with research.

What are areas of growth for the field of child life?

Child life is expanding into spaces outside of hospitals, such as community outreach programs, funeral homes, dental clinics,and private practice. There is benefit to having professionals specifically trained in the developmental needs of children across different settings where stress and trauma may occur.

There are also discussions about the needs of adults in understanding and coping with healthcare procedures and whether there is future space for “adult life specialists” to support.

Who are people who do this work that I could talk to?

Talk with Amanda

Amanda Lockett is a Certified Child Life Specialist and Human Ecology alum, holding a BS and PhD in Human Development & Family Studies. She is always happy to chat with students about child life! Contact: aellefson@uwalumni.com

Questions & Answers with Amanda:

What do you love about your work as a child life specialist?

I love to work with patients (and families) over time and see them learn and grow in their capacity to understand and cope with their own medical journey (whatever it entails). For patients who have a chronic illness we can really see them transform: In the beginning I introduce myself and services to patients who are newly diagnosed- I help them learn about the hospital, their diagnosis, and their treatment plan. Then, I prepare them for their first procedure and support them through it. One day, I looked up and they were able to utilize their coping plan and strategies we’ve used to successfully complete the procedure on their own. One of my favorite early memories as a child life specialist was when a patient I worked with said, “I didn’t even need you for my port access! I held my mom’s hand and pretended like I was blowing bubbles. I did it!” That is what being a child life specialist is all about for me- helping children and even caregivers to recognize and realize that they have the skills and abilities to do this. They already had the ability to do this on their own, we just help bring it out of them.

What is the most frustrating part of your work?

Having to repeatedly share what my role is with professionals in the healthcare system. Child life isn’t always known to social workers, nurses, and other healthcare professionals or they may not always think of a child life specialist as a resource to them and the children/families they see. It can be taxing to try to explain what we do over and over again, but throughout the years I’ve learned that sometimes showing others what we do and what we can offer is more effective. Some of my biggest child life advocates were nurses who once thought we did not need to be involved in their patient’s care.

What is your biggest piece of advice for students interested in child life?

If you really want to become a CCLS, be patient. Have plan A and plan B, maybe even a plan C! The field is competitive and can seem impossible to get into, but if you really want it, continue to be patient and keep trying! If you have interviews and do not get offers, follow back up with them and ask what you can work on to become a more competitive candidate. Keep working with children and families in various settings and become involved with ACLP.

Talk with Tara

Tara Luckey is a proud HDFS alum happy to connect with students about child life! She previously was a Certified Child Life Specialist at American Family Children’s Hospital. Contact: tara.loether@gmail.com