Child Life Specialists Help Kids With Serious Illness Build Resilience
Baltimore – Kayleigh Koehler was working part-time at a bounce house when she found her calling.
"A 4-year-old boy fell and hit his head," Koehler recalls with clarity. "He immediately began throwing up, so we called 911."
When paramedics arrived, the boy recoiled and began to cry. His father was overwhelmed, answering questions and trying to call his wife to let her know what was happening. The paramedics tried talking to the little boy, but he was visibly scared and resistant to follow commands.
"I noticed the boy had Batman socks on, so I knelt to his level and started talking about superheroes," says Koehler. Through conversation and play, she was able to help the boy understand what was happening and get the paramedics to explain what they were going to do before doing it. As a result, the child relaxed, and allowed the paramedics to take his vitals and give him the care he needed.
Today, Koehler is one of seven certified child life specialists at the University of Maryland Children's Hospital (UMCH). The profession is growing to become an essential part of children's medical teams across Maryland.
What Is a Child Life Specialist?
A child life specialist is a professional who is trained to work with children in a medical environment. They help ease children's fear and anxiety by normalizing the hospital experience. They do this through therapeutic play, developmentally appropriate education and emotional support. Child life specialists have bachelor's or master's degrees in the areas of child life, child health, child development, family studies or recreation therapy. They work closely with the medical team to address the developmental and psychosocial needs of children and families. At UMCH, child life specialists are wherever kids are receiving care, including the pediatric inpatient units, intensive care, ER and hematology/oncology center.
The Healing Power of Play
Since play is an important part of children's lives, child life specialists use play in many ways to help children cope. The play room and teen room are where children and teens can go to relax, play and enjoy the spaces, which are "ouch-free zones" with no medical procedures allowed. Therapeutic play is used to help children manage pain, emotional stress, meet treatment goals and teach new skills. Medical play involves using real or pretend medical equipment and supplies to help familiarize children with healthcare environments or prepare them for a surgery so they know what to expect. Child life specialists provide education and support to parents and siblings. They also coordinate numerous activities, events and celebrations for pediatric patients and their siblings throughout the year.
Benefits of a Child Life Program
Besides the invaluable benefit it has on children and families, a child life program also benefits hospitals and other healthcare settings. Child life specialists help reduce the need for sedation and other pain management therapies in children, lowering medical costs. Child life specialists help children be more accepting of medical treatments, allowing for great staff efficiency. They promote a culture of patient- and family-centered care as well as improve patient and employee satisfaction.
Currently, there are 10 child life programs in Maryland, with more in development. As the profession grows, coursework and training requirements for child life specialists are becoming more rigorous. In 2019, the number of required clinical internship hours will increase from 480 to 600 hours. UMCH initiated a unique child life scholar program in fall 2017. "The program provides 600 hours of field learning experience to child life master's degree candidates from Towson University in exchange for a $5,000 education stipend," says Shannon Joslin, UMCH's child life manager.
In Their Own Words
Child life specialists share what it's like and why they chose this profession.
Growing up, I always knew that I wanted to work with children. I had cancer as a child, so I was in and out of the hospital. In high school, a family friend introduced me to the idea of becoming a child life specialist. After doing some research, I knew that it was the career for me. Whether it's giving a toy to aid in normalizing the hospital environment, or helping a child better understand what will happen during a procedure and talk about coping techniques, it means so much to me to support children and help reduce the stress associated with a hospitalization. As a child, I do not remember meeting a child life specialist, but I still have a cloth doll dressed in a hospital gown with a central line placement. If I were to guess, somewhere along the way, a child life specialist must have prepared me and my family.
- Elizabeth Connelly
Child Life Specialist for General Pediatrics
Everyone has a niche, and mine is working with kids who have illnesses. The most rewarding part of working in child life is seeing how resilient kids and families are during crisis moments in their lives. I'm very fortunate to work with a phenomenal hematology/oncology team, where we care for kids with cancer, sickle cell and other serious illnesses. We provide a family environment where you aren't just a number. We greet you by your name, we know you love Peppa the Pig and your favorite color is orange. My role is to figure out how we can make this easier for the child. I see the kids from the time they're diagnosed throughout their health journey, and then I follow up with them when they go back to their regular lives – back to school, back to girl scouts, soccer and playing piano.
- Becky Halagarda
Child Life Specialist for Hematology/Oncology Center
I knew that I always wanted a career in healthcare, and I love working with children. I have been practicing for 11 years, and every day is new and different. I have the ability to bring a sense of calmness in the midst of chaos for children and their families. I often see a child's fear replaced with relief after providing procedural preparation for an upcoming medical procedure. I see joy in the midst of illness when I engage children in a play activity. I see a parent relieved when I provide distraction and support during a procedure when the parent may be struggling to find the energy to help their child cope. I am in a career where I have the ability to see the impact that my work enables on a daily basis. It is such a rewarding career.
- Molly Baron
Child Life Specialist for General Pediatrics
For more information about the child life program at UMCH, please call 410-328-7440.
About the University of Maryland Children's Hospital
The University of Maryland Children's Hospital at the University of Maryland Medical Center is recognized throughout Maryland and the mid-Atlantic region as a resource for critically and chronically ill children. UMCH physicians and staff excel in combining state-of-the-art medicine with family-centered care. More than 100 physicians specialize in understanding how to treat conditions and diseases in children, including congenital heart conditions, asthma, epilepsy and gastrointestinal disorders. The Drs. Rouben and Violet Jiji Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) provides the highest level of care to the tiniest newborns.