What is a Child Life Specialist?

helping children and their families understand and copeChild life specialists are trained professionals with expertise in helping children and their families understand and cope with a child's illness or injury and related medical treatment. They provide emotional support for families, and encourage optimum development of children facing challenges related to their health. With a strong background in child development and family systems, child life specialists promote effective coping through play, preparation, education and self-expression activities.

Because they understand that a child’s well-being 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. 

Child life specialists have earned a minimum bachelor’s or master’s degree, with an educational emphasis on human growth and development, education, psychology or a related field of study. They adhere to a code of ethics and standards established by the Child Life Council. All Certified Child Life Specialists must complete a supervised 480-hour clinical internship, pass a national examination and adhere to a minimum standard for continued professional development in order to maintain their certification. 

Child life specialists help parents:child life specialist and patient

  • Understand their child's diagnosis
  • Handle their concerns and worries over their child’s health
  • Plan for hospital stays, treatments and surgeries.
  • Use developmentally appropriate language when talking with their child
  • Understand their child's behavior and reactions  

Child life specialists help young patients and their siblings:

  • Process the emotions they are experiencing
  • Regain the sense of control they have lost
  • Express feelings using therapeutic outlets like art, music, and story
  • Use toys, dolls and pictures to engage in therapeutic, child-directed play
  • Prepare siblings for visiting their brother or sister in the hospital

Source: The Child Life Council

Meet our child life specialist

Mary Wallace, CCLS

Mary Wallace, CCLS, the child life specialist for the Hoops Family Children’s Hospital, works with patients in the Pediatric Unit and the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. She previously worked at Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah, Georgia, and she completed her internship at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, DC.

“Both children and parents have fears and anxieties about being in the hospital,” Wallace said. “I teach the parents about their child’s condition and treatment, which helps give them a sense of control. I also work with siblings so they have a better understanding of why their brother or sister is in the hospital and ways that they can support and care for him or her.”

“Even more important is the time I spend time with the child who is the patient, talking about what is going to happen, and letting him or her handle some of the equipment that may be used so that it becomes familiar,” she continued. “I encourage normal activities as much as possible, including playing games and interacting with peers. My goal is to address the child’s fears and uncertainty so that the hospital stay will be less traumatic.”


  • Last updated: 03/25/2013
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