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How can I Become a Child Life Specialist?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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There are several educational steps you must take to become a child life specialist. Generally, the more education you receive, the better. Job availability however may be minimal but your chances of finding opportunities will generally increase if you have other skills to offer, like being able to speak another language fluently, or having experience with children.

Before you begin your educational path in this specialty, you may want to consider a few things. The most important, perhaps is that child life specialists work in high-pressure jobs and often suffer an emotional toll especially when a young patient loses his or her life. Being able to effectively deal with difficult and sad situations is definitely a prerequisite.

Another consideration is location — you will most likely need to live in a fairly large city to find work. Many hospitals do not have child life departments, and unless you can get funding to start one, most available work takes place in major hospitals in large cities.

Once you have determined that you want to become a child life specialist, you will first need to receive a Bachelor’s Degree. Generally, if you pursue an undergraduate degree in child development or in education, you will need to take a lot of additional classes in psychology to fully cover the spectrum of things you will need to know to work at this job. Some universities now offer Child Life programs, which may give you the best training, and the most likely chance at a job once you finish your degree.

As well as education in family counseling, bereavement, child development, family dynamics, and in cultural sociology, you may also want to spend some time studying medical terms. You should have at least a minimal knowledge of medical terms, and perhaps as well, a course designed toward understanding the major illnesses of children. Since parents can become frustrated when they feel they have to explain such matters to a hospital employee, this knowledge can be of great help as you prepare to become a child life specialist.

While attending school, you might also consider either a volunteer or paid position working with children. Volunteering at a center or camp that focuses on children with major illnesses should help develop your career path. Most states have mandated programs for pre-school aged children with significant learning disabilities or illness who qualify for free pre-school and services. Often these schools, called SELPA in California, are happy to hire assistants, though the hours may conflict with your school hours.

Once you have attained the classroom requirements, you will need to complete a minimum of 480 hours towards an internship with a child life program. This is a great opportunity that can help you make the connections necessary to obtain a job in this field. It's important to note, however, that these positions are frequently unpaid or of low pay.

Most states in the US require certification in order to work as a child life specialist. This certification will include mandatory fingerprinting and background checks. Some programs may also request a drug test or psychological evaluation. Certification may require some 4,000 hours of supervised experience in the field before you can sit for an examination. Check state laws for specific guidelines as these may vary. Getting certified in several states may increase your chances of employment. After becoming a certified child life specialist, continuing education may be required to maintain certification.

Practical Adult Insights is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Practical Adult Insights contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By bettyboop16 — On Jul 05, 2010

@Octave56 - Wow, your niece sounds like a hero. I once volunteered as a candy striper during a summer when I was in high school. The sick little kids were the worst - they broke my heart. I think it’s wonderful what your niece does.

Back in those days when I volunteered, there were no jobs like that in the hospital. Some of the scared kids sure could have used that help. There were a few nurses who were really good with kids, but not very many - and they had so many other things they had to do that they didn’t have the necessary time to spend on one child, or helping one family cope.

By octave56 — On Jul 05, 2010

My niece became a child life specialist. It took her years of hard work, but she loves every minute. Her research of the job market before college showed that she needed a bachelor’s degree, so she got a degree in child development with a minor in psychology.

She was lucky enough to start an internship while in college, which not only helped in her qualifications, but allowed her to relate what she was learning in college directly to what she’d do in her career. It also let her spend time working with sick and dying children to make sure she could handle it.

She spends her days making dying children happy, comfortable and less frightened. She has opportunities every day to make real differences in people’s lives - far more than I do in my job.

By broadanon — On Jul 02, 2010

Obviously you don't have the ability to think logically. Kids are our future! However, if we waste all our resources on useless pretentious jobs such as 'child life specialists,' we are creating a pretty bleak future for these kids.

Here's an interesting fact, when I was in high school twelve years ago I used to volunteer at a suicide help hotline center. At these centers, there were no 'Suicide Prevention Specialists.' They would use existing volunteers to train new volunteers, who would then handle all the phone calls and talk to the really distraught people who would call in during the late night on the verge to commit suicide and try to help them.

Now think about this for a minute: Many of these people were on the verge of committing suicide! However, were we creating useless 'specialist' jobs to talk to these people and calm them down?? The answer is no! Why not? If good, honest volunteers can talk someone down from committing suicide, why are they not capable of playing with kids with dolls, explaining to them medical procedures and comforting families, etc.?

The staff at this center respected the volunteers and the volunteers did a great job! Instead what do these child life specialists do? They treat volunteers like crap to raise their self-esteem (as I mentioned before most have a lower self esteem due to being at the lower rung of the hospital ladder compared to nurses and doctors.) I know two other volunteers and one staff member who had to quit because of how these child life specialists treated them. Instead of building a better sense of community, creation of these types of jobs does exactly the opposite and this is not something this country and the world needs!

What else do these specialists do? Distraction? Give me a break. Please don't even get me started with this! I had to go to the Emergency Department earlier this year with my one year old niece and sister in law to their local hospital. There were no child life specialists. As the doctor started checking my niece, who of course started crying at being poked, my sister in law pulled out her keys and started shaking them and asking my niece in a soothing voice to 'look at the keys, look at the keys.' And my niece stopped crying!

Are you seriously telling me that good, honest volunteers, who care about the community and can talk an emotional person down from committing suicide can't distract a child?

Also, the money spent on these child life specialists could be spent on much better things, such as health care for the poor, research, much needed engineering, or how about this for example, helping the completely poor, homeless, and sick children in Haiti who have lost everything.

Instead of making our country and the world a better place through real engineering and medicine, we in America are creating useless easy degrees like psychology.

This is a serious fact. Just look up the low percentage of Americans who are excelling in math and science graduating from high school and college. Compared to other countries, America is falling way behind!

I can't tell you how many people I knew in college who majored in completely useless majors or subspecialties such as psychology, education, communication, etc. and are now doing something completely ridiculous for jobs, such as loading trucks, or being an invaluable 'specialist' somewhere.

They have told me themselves that psychology is a "useless" major. Then the system, of course, has to create jobs for these people no matter how ridiculous it might be, because they have a college degree (which in actuality may be completely useless!)

Again, I am only mentioning all this not to insult anyone, but to hopefully raise more awareness on the issues with the system that has developed in America. The problem is not underlying with the child life specialists alone but with the entire medical system, and furthermore with American consumerism in general. The medical system is set up in a way where doctors develop a high ego because being a 'Doctor' is considered top respect and a huge achievement (which in actuality it is not.)

The medical schools keep a tight lid on the graduating number of doctors to keep being a doctor a 'safe profession' (how many doctors do you see going to the unemployment office?) There are also other glorified professions such as the majority of the MBA degrees that are nothing but uselessness that any self propelling entrepreneur can learn and do on his own (Just look at the world's richest business man, most of them don't even have a college degree!)

Unfortunately, the MBA is also making someone look good more so than their actual value, hence the need for more bailouts in the future as people are not doing real engineering and science. However this will not last very long, as people in America are getting lazier and fatter and we have stopped focusing on real innovative careers such as science and engineering (this is why majority of engineers are now 'imported' from China and India.)

However, this will lead to further population growth at an explosive rate, more competition, socialized medicine, more bailouts, etc. etc. Instead Americans need to be an example for the world, learn to challenge themselves more intellectually and physically, and start majoring in more useful careers such as science, math and engineering to develop the future instead of this type of ridiculousness!

By anon92923 — On Jul 01, 2010

to the oh-so-cheery broadanon: "What we do need is more people working... to develop the future." These kids *are* the future.

By broadanon — On May 25, 2010

You said, "they all have high self esteem."

This is only because you haven't seem them from the other side.

Fact of the matter is, these people are working in a hospital setting, which in America unfortunately establishes a hierarchial structure, with the doctors being on top because they spent all the time and effort to go to medical school, the nurses after them, and these 'specialists' at the bottom. So in actuality this hierarchial system causes them to be more self aware and have a lower self esteem (just ask them honestly if you dare and they know they are on the bottom rung of the ladder!)

You said, "How about you stop griping about them and become one to see how hard it really is on a person mentally and emotionally."

That's exactly what I have done: their job! When I and others have volunteered at the hospital for over four years. And that is exactly why they didn't like me and other volunteers, because they felt we were taking away their jobs! At any point if they felt their jobs threatened by any volunteer or staff member, they simply tried to find ways to make that person quit (it's the same as the UAW in the Automotive industry, and what really killed the automotive industry!)

The reason for their angst is simply because the system is structured this way, to create low self esteem.

Here's an honest question for you: Is there really a need for a four year college degree and some type of 'crafted' certification (which by the way I am sure someone sitting at home is collecting quite some money from,) to do this job, sit there and play with the kids with dolls, etc.?

Or could the hospitals hire a nursing assistant for $10/hour instead of paying someone over $40K-$60K to do the same thing?

Face the real facts: the 'Child life specialists' are nothing but a marketing ploy for the competing hospitals to try and make more money!

It's a way to advertise their facilities as being better so a person will go to their hospital instead of a competing hospital.

Like I mentioned before, unfortunately, this is why health care reform is needed in this country -- because medicine is turning into a big business!

In the short term, these jobs can make people feel more valuable and better about what they do. However, the real fact is that this is simply a wasteful product of american consumerism capitalism. Instead of promoting more parental and community awareness of how to raise children, help the sick children in communities, the American university and medical system is creating more useless jobs out of it!

The universities create more psychology based programs because it is a much easier field to study and go into (compared to real fields such as engineering or medicine, what do you do with a bachelors degree in psychology? nothing!) and the universities want the money.

This is exactly the situation and greed which caused the housing bubble and led to the banking bailouts, which killed the auto industry and the auto bailouts, and it's what's killing health care system now and needs health care reform.

And the other fact I already mentioned is that no other country (including western countries such as England, Germany, etc,) have jobs such as child life specialists!

It's not because they are evil and don't care about sick kids, it's simply because they realize that you don't need a four year college degree and useless certification to do this!

Again, I do agree with you there are some very nice child life specialists who are wonderful at caring for people in general, but do we need to change the system so they get better positions (such as pediatric nurses) instead of creating these titles such as 'specialists' and useless certifications to do something any normal, willing, and caring person can do.

Keep in mind, just because the system is doesn't mean that it's the way it should be. That's what people said 50 and 150 years ago about segregation and slavery! The tendency of the system will be such that jobs like this will automatically be more and more phased out in the future. However, the problem is people like these will do incredibly stupid things to try and keep their jobs and wasteful lifestyles.

I am only mentioning all this so people looking to go into these types of profession realize how they are part of and affect the overall system! What we don't need in this country is college graduates going into ridiculous fields such as this. What we do need is more people working and studying hard in science, engineering, and medicine to develop the future.

It's a lot of work, I know, and unfortunately people often want to take the easy way rather than the more difficult road.

By anon86098 — On May 23, 2010

to broadanon: Child life specialists are here to help the kids and the families cope with being in the hospital; they are there to make the kids feel more at home.

Clearly, you have something against them and what it is I really don't care, but all the kids and families whom I've known who have gone into the hospital for and extended period of time have all been very happy with them, and all the kids have said about how bored they were until the child life people have come in and done fun games with them.

I personally know a child life person and she is one of the nicest people I know and she is so nice to all the kids and families and whom ever she works with. So clearly, child life really does work because all those kids whom I talked about before have had surgery done and they were all scared because they didn't know what to expect. Then the child life people came in and talked to them about it. Some of the child life people even brought in dolls so the kids could do the surgery themselves to see what the doctor would be doing them the next day or a couple days from now.

And no, they do not have low self esteem as you said before. they all have very high self esteem. if they didn't, then why would they be helping and being very patient with all the families.

And furthermore you're just upset because your getting bossed around by them because you volunteer. Well, they need the help. They can't do it alone so when they ask for the help of the volunteers, they expect you to volunteer because that is what you are there for in the first place.

They see kids who have life threatening sickness and they get attached to the kids and then they see that kid die how would that make you feel. How about you stop griping about them and become one to see how hard it really is on a person mentally and emotionally.

By broadanon — On May 20, 2010

I am not disagreeing with you. There are a few wonderful child life specialists who are very good about caring for children and people in general. My comments below were not meant to degrade them; they are simply based on my experiences from being a hospital volunteer for the last four years.

Also, they are mostly copied and pasted comments from actual other individuals in the health care industry.

Members of the child life staff at the children's hospital where I have volunteered for the last five years have been the most ignorant and pretentious people I have ever met. Many of them simply cared about raising their self esteem by bossing volunteers around, and try to look good in order to try and find some doctor to date.

I personally know of two other volunteers and one staff member over the last five years who have quit at the children's hospital because of how these so called child life specialists with low self esteem treated them.

They treat volunteers like slaves without any respect, in order to make themselves feel superior about their jobs and raise their self esteem. And when they ran out of options, it seems they spend an incredible amount of time to and try to convince the nurses to do the same (the nurses had a hard time doing so, and would usually feel bad and be nice to volunteers afterward).

Many of these so-called child life specialists (not all,) have bachelors degrees in psychology, early childhood education, or yadayadayada yada. However, do their jobs really require any of these four year degrees? No! Technically, pediatric nurses or nursing assistants are more than capable of doing the same thing, and also good honest volunteers!

This is the reason why health care is becoming so expensive in this country. Because we feel that caring for people should be a dedicated profession rather than a public responsibility owned by everyone. And now we need a health care reform!

It's people like these who drive away good and honest volunteers because they feel threatened that their jobs are being taken away (I had to quit volunteering from the hospital because of them.) What's worse, they destroy any sense of community that people try to build and it's what is causing the downturn of this society by enforcing greediness.

Why should everyone volunteer to help the community and sick children, and learn more about raising kids when you can pay someone $40-60K/year to do the same, right?

Like I mentioned before, no other country has a job called a child life specialist; they simply use volunteers or pediatric nurses. America has the resources to support these types of jobs, but for how long?

What's worse, in order to maintain these useless jobs and our wasteful lifestyle, we will start invading other countries for oil. Yes, is this really the way to move the world forward?

Again, these are just mine and other's thoughts based on our own personal experiences with these people.

By anon85070 — On May 18, 2010

when i was in the hospital at age six being diagnosed with type one diabetes child life specialists were the only thing i had to look forward to. it inspired me to become one, that's for sure. child life specialists are there to give support to suffering families and try to guide children through a new or continuing journey that they have to make because of whatever reason.

they aren't there to babysit, though that might look like what they are doing. it takes great mental strength, as the article mentioned. it also takes patience, positivity, and kindness for all people.

people like these must really love what they do, or they can't be good at their jobs. to all the child life specialists at OSF, thank you so very very much.

By anon55291 — On Dec 06, 2009

does anyone know any good schools that offer child life in south florida -- more like south of fort lauderdale?

By anon50672 — On Oct 30, 2009

purdue university and the university of akron are both schools in the mid west that offer child life majors.

By anon48882 — On Oct 15, 2009

Certification requires at least 480 hours of supervised work (usually an internship), not 4000. And it's a national certification. There are no individual state certifications. Fingerprinting may be required by a hospital but certification requires 480 hours of experience under a certified child life specialist and passing the exam.

By anon21133 — On Nov 10, 2008

I heard about the wku program too. It's new.

By anon16123 — On Jul 29, 2008

To LadyMindo- Western Kentucky University, in Bowling Green, KY has a child life specialist program. I've heard wonderful things about it!

By LadyMindo — On Jun 27, 2008

does anyone know any schools that offer Child Life programs in the mid west? please and thank you.

By anon9423 — On Mar 05, 2008

My experience is that all hospitals require certification. And, the only time backgrounds or references are checked is either at volunteer or work experience, not for certification; certification is all knowledge-based.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Practical Adult Insights contributor...
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