Child Life Specialists

Home Our Services Inpatient Services Child Life Specialists

What are child life specialists?

At Ranken Jordan, certified child life specialists work closely with physicians, nurses, and therapists to help children of every age cope with hospitalization, procedures, traumatic and stressful events, and pain.


Child life specialists have a special understanding of child development and health care so they can best educate and prepare patients for medical experiences and procedures.


These child development experts are increasingly moving outside hospital walls to alternative settings such as schools, grief camps, and dentist offices, among other settings.


They also work in crisis intervention centers to prepare children for interviews in abuse situations. They even work with children of adult patients in some hospitals.


Their rigorous education and training includes a bachelor’s degree in child life or a child development-related field, along with hundreds of hours of volunteer and internship experience in hospital and community settings. After graduation, students must pass a certification exam. Some child life specialists pursue advanced degrees as the field continues to grow.


Child Life Specialists maintain their certification through continuing education.


“We’re always growing and evolving and stay up to date with best practices,” says Katie Noll, CCLS, a child life specialist and grief support specialist at Ranken Jordan.

How does child life help the child and family most?

Child life is a free service at Ranken Jordan available to every child and family. The team provides support to patients, siblings, and other family members during stressful times.


Through developmental and/or medical play, child life specialists help children understand and prepare for a procedure so they know what to expect and feel more secure in an unfamiliar environment.


“Children gain trust and express themselves through play,” says Megan Cassani, CCLS, patient and family engagement liaison and child life specialist at Ranken Jordan. “It’s play with purpose. We set goals for play sessions similar to other therapies. We share a goal and purpose behind each intervention we use.”


“Play is child’s work,” adds Bridget Nesbitt, CCLS, a child life specialist at Ranken Jordan. “It’s how they understand the world. It’s also a quick way to get inside a child’s mind. We use play to help children express their feelings about their experiences, fears or concerns. “


Child life specialists also serve as advocates for children’s needs to help them have a voice, Katie says. “Doctors and nurses focus on caring for the illness or injury. As child life specialists, we’re child- and family-focused. We make sure we advocate for them.”


Megan agrees. “We look at illness through a different lens. Sometimes after an illness or injury, a child’s life may be different. So we look at how to adapt their play, how to help them cope, show them how they can go back to school, help them understand what is going on with their body, and educate siblings about how life may look different at home. All patients and caregivers can benefit from child life services.”


Child life reduces the emotional trauma from procedures and increases cooperation in the present and in the future.


Research shows when child life specialists are involved, children require less pain medication, and less sedation is needed for procedures such as MRIs. Child life involvement also results in less frequent use of restraints and less tearfulness.


At Ranken Jordan, child life also offers support resources for siblings and caregivers. This includes caregiver socials every Monday, with crafts, coffee, snacks, and conversation. These socials also offer respite and support for caregivers.


“At the bedside, we try to be a positive presence where caregivers don’t have to talk about medical things and can focus on other aspects of life,” Bridget says. “We can lend an ear to caregivers so they feel heard and seen.”


In addition, Child life facilitates groups for families coping with a traumatic brain injury and a grief support group.


A thoughtfully designed sibling program addresses the special needs of patients’ siblings who sometimes feel left out. Child life specialists help siblings with coping skills and to process feelings, while also explaining the diagnosis and what life may look like at home with various medical equipment.


“We have even developed a program so siblings receive packages in the mail just for them so they feel special and included,” Megan explains. “Often siblings feel left out because so much energy is directed toward the ill child.”

How does child life work with kids of all ages?

Despite the word child in the title, child life specialists help all ages, from infants to teens.


“Adaptability is important because you talk differently to a 3-year-old than you would a 17-year-old,” Katie says. “We meet kids where they’re at.”


Teens may hesitate to ask for help. But child life specialists know how to overcome those barriers. “For older teens, we tell them what we offer and give them choices,” Bridget says. “When introduced to teens, we may tell them what other teens found helpful and offer to help them develop questions for their doctor.”


Bridget emphasizes that all patients and families can benefit from child life specialists even if kids are not displaying anxiety. “We can be used as a preventive service. But just because kids aren’t crying doesn’t mean they’re coping. They are good at hiding it.”


Katie agrees. “Even if you think your child is doing OK, we’re happy to check in to provide a normalization experience or simply offer caregiver respite.”

How does child life work with the health care team?

Education is at the heart of child life. Child life specialists advocate for the profession as they educate their health care colleagues about how to explain things in certain ways to help kids understand and cope better.


“When a nurse calls for a child life specialist to help with a procedure, it shows a clear understanding of what we do and the benefits,” Bridget says. “The team is able to see in the moment how much better a child does when we are there. We’re here to help the kids and the team and help procedures go smoothly while reducing trauma for kids. We all share a goal and purpose.”


Communication with other health care team members is vital, Megan adds. “We attend lots of meetings and care conferences so we have the information we need about each child and can share our assessments and feedback. If a child struggles with therapy sessions, or they are having anxiety, then it’s an ideal time to consult with a child life specialist for help.”


A significant part of what child life does is to create individualized coping plans that are shared with all health care team members. These plans outline the most effective coping techniques for each child.


Child life also offers non-invasive, drug-free pain management techniques for children using distraction and tools as well as individualized comfort positions. Comfort positions are secure hugging holds that help children feel safe and secure during medical procedures while minimizing trauma.

What are some misconceptions about child life?

Adults often underestimate children’s ability to cope, Katie says. “Sometimes, adults believe in keeping things from kids that they think may be too hard to handle. But we know kids do better with the truth and simple, honest explanations. Child life specialists have ways of breaking down information and explaining difficult things so even kids as young as 3 can understand. Withholding information causes kids to spend emotional energy trying to figure out what’s wrong.”


Because child life specialists have expertise in child development, they can prevent stress and fear with careful word choices and explanations. “For example, kids ages 3-9 are literal, concrete thinkers,” Katie says. “When they hear that they will be put on a stretcher, they think they will literally be stretched. So we talk with kids and provide age-appropriate information to explain procedures or illnesses to let them know what to expect and to provide them a sense of control.”

What's special about child life specialists at Ranken Jordan?

Normalization is an important component of child life. “We offer more opportunities to engage in play or socialize with other kids at Ranken Jordan through music therapy, recreation therapy, the OZ early childhood development program, and more,” Bridget says. “At acute care hospitals, it’s about saving their lives. But at Ranken Jordan, it’s about getting kids back to life. So we get them out of their bed or room more often. We can even take the bed outside.”


The length of stay at Ranken Jordan makes child life even more important but also affords more time to make a difference for children.


“At Ranken Jordan, kids stay longer so we have an opportunity to build relationships over a broader span of time,” Megan says. “We can cover a little information at a time, which gives us the chance to revisit information when kids are ready, rather than cramming everything in two days. We don’t have to force rapport so we can take the time do quality child life interventions.”

Contact Us

To learn more about how children benefit from Child Life Specialists, please contact us at (314) 872-6449.