What is a child life specialist?

Getting a life-changing diagnosis, such as cancer, can create fear, uncertainty and stress for a child and his or her family. Child life specialists are professionals who provide emotional support, education and help children and their families build resiliency while getting medical treatment.

Child life specialists have specialty training in child development, psychology and counseling to help families during a hospital stay. Norton Children’s Hospital, Norton Children’s Medical Center and Norton Women’s & Children’s Hospital have child life specialists available to help children and families. The Children’s Hospital Foundation funds all child life services.

What does a child life specialist do?

Infants, children and teens have different levels of understanding. Child life specialists explain what’s happening to the child in a way that makes sense for the child’s age and level of understanding. These specialists explain diagnoses and any needed tests and procedures, skipping the medical jargon and using tools that will help even the youngest patients understand their care.

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Tests and procedures can seem scary, painful or traumatic to a child. An imaging test such as a computed tomography (CT) scan, can be challenging for a child — sitting still or feeling scared about being in a small space. Another big part of a child life specialist’s role is providing support for children during such procedures. Child life specialists talk with children about their fears and concerns and provide support — helping the child conquer his or her fears, and helping providers get the information they need to treat the child.

Helping kids be kids

Child life specialists also help kids be kids. Getting a diagnosis such as cancer can mean a lot of time away from school, friends and activities. Child life specialists help children stay on track with their social and emotional development while in the hospital. Child life therapists plan activities and encourage play to make sure kids can have the breaks they need. Norton Children’s Hospital has playrooms that offer space for kids to get away — no medical procedures are allowed. Children who can’t leave their rooms can have toys brought to them from the playroom. Teens have access to video games, computers, arts, crafts and age-appropriate magazines and books. Child life specialists encourage communication and understand teens’ need for independence and privacy.

“Kids are so strong and resilient in the face of serious medical issues,” said Taryn Johnson, certified child life specialist with Norton Children’s Cancer Institute, affiliated with University of Louisville. “Most people picture a pediatric oncology unit to be full of kids who cannot get out of bed, but on 7 West they are often found playing in the playroom, riding bikes around the unit and being normal kids with smiles on their faces despite the sickness, pain and challenges they endure on a daily basis.”

Some of Taryn’s favorite memories on 7 West are the celebrations after a child finishes treatment, called “end of chemo” parties.

“One child attended an end of chemo party the week she was diagnosed (which often happens),” Taryn said. “From that day on, she began talking about her plans for her end of chemo party and how she would like the Chick-fil-A cow to be present as it was at that first party she attended. Over two years later she finished treatment and her parents called to schedule her party. Her party had been a goal that helped her throughout treatment, so it all came full circle when we were able to celebrate her own end of chemo with the Chick-fil-A cow present!”


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