The Role of Child Life Services at a Children’s Hospital

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    Paulette Walter, MA, CCLS, of the Child Life Program at Stony Brook Long Island Children's Hospital, explains the role of Child Life services and how its specialists help make children and their families comfortable with their experience during hospital and outpatient visits.

    What is Child Life services?

    The American Academy of Pediatrics calls Child Life "an essential component of quality pediatric healthcare," which is a belief that Stony Brook Children's shares. Child Life services has become a standard in most pediatric hospital settings, and at Stony Brook, the department—staffed by certified child life specialists—typically works with a multidisciplinary patient care team, which may include physicians, nurses, social workers, therapists, counselors, teachers, parents and others to help make the child's hospital visit more comfortable, anxiety-free, child friendly and, in many cases, fun.

    Who are Child Life specialists?

    Child Life specialists are certified healthcare professionals with a strong background in child development and family systems. Their education typically includes an emphasis on human growth and development, education, psychology or a related field of study. They also have years of experience in how children respond to the many aspects of hospitalization. Their goals are to help children become more comfortable by addressing fears, clearing up common misconceptions about medical procedures and hospitalization, and preparing the child for hospital procedures in an age-appropriate manner.

    How do Child Life specialists help?

    Child Life specialists promote effective coping through play, preparation, education and self-expression activities. They provide emotional support for families, and encourage a positive experience for children during hospitalization and outpatient procedures. 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 encourage children, if age allows, and parents to be an active part in their care and to know what is happening on a daily basis. Child Life specialists also help to:

    • Develop specific coping plans catered to each child for procedures such as an IV start, a blood draw, CT scans or other tests
    • Ease a child’s fear and anxiety with therapeutic and recreational play activities to “normalize” the hospital experience. At Stony Brook Children’s we believe that play is an essential, natural part of childhood. Because it facilitates healing, coping, mastery, self-expression, creativity and learning, and is vital to a child’s optimal development, we make it an integral part of our services.
    • Foster an environment that incorporates emotional support—for everyone in the family, including siblings or other children who also may be affected by the child’s illness or trauma.
    • Encourage understanding and cooperation by providing nonmedical preparation and support for children undergoing tests, surgeries and other medical procedures. At Stony Brook Children’s we are able to be with the child during testing procedures.
    • Educate families and children on what to expect using child-friendly tools and age-appropriate language. For example, we use teaching dolls that are anatomically correct, prep books that walk the child and parent through each step of the procedure, and models of equipment, such as a CT scanner, to demystify an upcoming procedure.
    • Recognize different learning styles when providing information. We try to incorporate as many senses as possible to reach different types of learners. We also review the roles of all people involved. For the child, this may mean holding still for a procedure (followed by a reward or recognition for the child).
    • Engage and energize children and families by coordinating special events and activities. At Stony Brook, this has included visits from celebrities and professional athletes, including the Islanders, the Long Island Ducks, the Long Island Rough Riders, local musicians from the Port Jefferson Art Council, and others.
    • Work with children and families during extended hospital stays, such as hematology and oncology.
    • Organize and present preadmission hospital tours.
    • Support families confronting grief and bereavement issues.
    • Connect children and families with additional resources in the community.

    To learn more about Stony Brook Children’s Child Life Program, call (631) 444-3840.

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    All health and health-related information contained in this article is intended to be general and/or educational in nature and should not be used as a substitute for a visit with a healthcare professional for help, diagnosis, guidance, and treatment. The information is intended to offer only general information for individuals to discuss with their healthcare provider. It is not intended to constitute a medical diagnosis or treatment or endorsement of any particular test, treatment, procedure, service, etc. Reliance on information provided is at the user's risk. Your healthcare provider should be consulted regarding matters concerning the medical condition, treatment, and needs of you and your family. Stony Brook University/SUNY is an affirmative action, equal opportunity educator and employer.