Child Life Specialist
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A child life specialist is a healthcare provider who works with children during illness, injury, or hospitalization. They help ensure that children and their families have the best possible experience in the hospital. Child life specialists are educated and clinically trained in the developmental impact of illness and injury and use play, education, and other techniques to help reduce children’s fear, anxiety, and pain.
An example of a work environment for child life specialists is the MR-I Can Do It program at the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan. It features an aquatic-themed MRI machine that gamifies a claustrophobic medical procedure to help children stay still so that technicians get the most accurate imaging results.
A child life specialist balances mental and physical health while working alongside children and their families. Child life specialists can meet with patients and families before scheduled surgeries or procedures to provide developmentally appropriate information about what will happen during the medical experience. They also offer emotional support for children and their families throughout the process and, if needed, grief and bereavement care.
In addition to providing emotional support, child life specialists also provide educational materials on health topics such as nutrition, hygiene, safety, growth & development, coping skills & stress management. They also offer therapeutic activities such as art therapy, music therapy, pet therapy, and distraction techniques.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not track occupational data for this profession, but the closest equivalent is a social worker. The BLS (2022) predicts that there will be a 9 percent increase in demand for social workers from 2021 to 2031.
Read on to learn more about how to pursue a career as a child life specialist, including a step-by-step guide, salary, and daily responsibilities.
How to Become a Child Life Specialist
There are several pathways to becoming a child life specialist, but the following guide clarifies the education, training, and certification needed to become a child life specialist.
Step 1: Earn a high school diploma or GRE (four years)
High school students interested in working with children in healthcare settings should take biology, sociology, and psychology classes to provide a solid foundation. Volunteer work in early childhood education or a pediatric healthcare setting will also offer helpful insights into the inner workings of children and families experiencing a health crisis.
Step 2: Each a bachelor’s degree (four years)
Most employers require child life specialists to have at least a bachelor’s degree or ten undergraduate-level classes in child life development to be eligible for certification by the Association of Child Life Professionals (ACLP).
Here are examples of four early childhood education or related undergraduate programs. Please note that the Association of Child Life Professionals (ACLP) lists selected endorsed programs. Completing an ACLP-endorsed program is not a requirement for certification eligibility, but it will eliminate a coursework audit to apply for the exam.
University of Arizona – Online BA in Child Development
The University of Arizona provides students with a comprehensive bachelor of arts education that equips them to thrive in the field of child life specialists and related professions like special education and teaching. The program consists of three components: general education, major credit requirements, and electives.
Students are introduced to essential knowledge for success through core courses covering math, language, science, etc. Elective classes offer additional growth as staff/faculty can support specific student interests by recommending individualized pathways for students’ interests.
- Location: Tucson, AZ
- Duration: Four years
- Accreditation: WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC)
- Tuition: $510 per credit
Texas Tech University – On-Campus BS in Early Childhood Education
The University of Texas Tech offers a unique bachelor of science program combining traditional education with real-world experience. With an emphasis on pre-K to sixth-grade learning, students can develop the skills and knowledge needed for successful teaching positions in Texas.
This invaluable training includes lab work focused on developing educational environments and actual field placements at local schools, giving aspiring teachers and child life specialists unparalleled insight into this challenging but rewarding profession.
- Location: Lubbock, TX
- Duration: Four years
- Accreditation: Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP); Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
- Tuition: $415 per credit
University of Washington – Online BA in Early Care & Education
At the University of Washington, students in the online bachelor of arts early care and education degree completion program can access high-quality academic and practical training experience. Through courses on equity in care and development, curriculum creation, senior projects, disabilities awareness – or any combination thereof – individuals can obtain 45 credits before enrollment with credit earned either at UW or other transfer-compatible institutions.
- Location: Seattle, WA
- Duration: Two to three years
- Accreditation: Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
- Tuition: $231 per credit
University of Alabama – Online BS in Early Childhood Education
The University of Alabama offers an online bachelor of science program in early childhood education, covering 120 credit hours to give students the most thorough learning experience. Courses include life span human development, foundations of education, and educational statistics delivered though the flexible curricular design for those already working in or adjacent fields related to this field.
In addition, a six-credit internship requirement guarantees that face-to-face practical experiences back up theoretical training from on-campus Child Development Research Center (CDRC) classes: a 64,000-square-foot facility with teaching and research classrooms, observation booths, and a research playground.
- Location: Tuscaloosa, AL
- Duration: Three to four years
- Tuition: $385 per credit hour
Please see our list of online bachelor’s degree programs in psychology for more four-year degree options.
Step 3: Gain practical experience (timeline varies)
While obtaining a degree, students should know that schoolwork is not the only necessary part of finding a job. Networking, testing curriculums, and asking for advice from staff and faculty will significantly increase the chances of future success.
At places like the University of Alabama, facilities are on campus to test and research in person, which can be a vital experience for prospective workers. Additionally, volunteer or part-time work at a school or hospital will be valuable for resume-building and lived experience. Finally, having references from those places and having your own experience will help in the job interviewing process later.
Step 4: Complete an ACLP eligibility assessment (timeline varies)
Those who did not attend an ACLP-endorsed undergraduate program must have their educational qualifications assessed by ACLP before taking the certification exam. To qualify, courses must be completed with a grade. The fee for this step is $80.
Step 5: Complete a 600-hour clinical internship (timeline varies)
Applying to an ACLP-endorsed internship is the best way to gain all the theoretical and practical experience necessary for certification eligibility. Clinical internships are experiential and focus on developing independent skills in children.
Step 6: Take the ACLP certification exam (timeline varies)
Hospitals may hire a new child life specialist before sitting for the certification exam, provided all eligibility requirements are met.
The ACLP Child Life Specialist certification exam has several eligibility requirements. These include earning a bachelor’s degree in any field of study before registration and completing specialized coursework and a 600-hour clinical internship supervised by certified childhood life specialists.
What Do Child Life Specialists Do?
Child life specialists help children and their families cope with traumatic medical experiences. Daily responsibilities include but are not limited to the following:
- Assist with healthcare decisions for families
- Give guidance to families about coping with the emotional aspects of the medical experience
- Perform developmentally appropriate play activities for children
- Provide emotional support to children and their families during medical experiences
How Much Do Child Life Specialists Make?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, child life specialists are classified as social workers. Specifically, the BLS shows the average yearly salary for healthcare social workers is significantly higher at $60,840 (BLS May 2021).
Salary amounts depend on factors such as education, experience, and cost of living in a particular area. Here are the salary percentiles for social workers based on 2021 data from the BLS:
- Average annual salary (mean): $63,010
- 10th percentile: $36,780
- 25th percentile: $46,340
- 50th percentile (median): $61,190
- 75th percentile: $80,040
- 90th percentile: $93,540
Data from Salary.com (March 2023) shows that child life specialists earn an average annual salary of $57,726, with the 10th percentile earning $46,032 (or less) and the 90th percentile earning $71,065 (or more).
Child Life Specialist Associations & Resources
To learn more about education, certification, and professional organizations for child life specialists, here are some helpful resources:
- Association of Child Life Professionals (ACLP): Professional development and advocacy organization for child life specialists
- Child Life Council: Certifying body for becoming a Certified Child Life Specialist
- edX: A free, massive open online course (MOOC) titled: Handling Children in a Healthcare Setting, published by the National University of Singapore
- World Health Organization: A PDF pocket book for child life specialists to reference when working with families confronting common childhood illnesses
- Kids Health: A bilingual website of resources focused on the physical, emotional, and social health of children and families, available in English and Spanish