Child Life Specialists Help Kids During Hospitalization
By Renee Williams
“I originally wanted to be a pediatrician but I accidentally caused an explosion in my Organic Chemistry lab and decided that was not for me,” says Kimberly Eury Allen, Child Life Specialist at Children’s Hospital of Georgia. “So I went to the large wall of careers in the guidance area of my undergraduate college and found a profession that works with children in a hospital setting…Child Life. I completed an internship and have now been in the field as a practicing Child Life Specialist for over 30 years. I love it and I have never looked back.”
About Child Life
In the early ‘60s, Emma Plank was a pioneer in the field of Child Life and significantly influenced the profession by humanizing healthcare environments with a deep grounding in child development and child psychology.
Prior to the ‘60s, it was not uncommon for parents to be excluded from the pediatric wards of hospitals except for brief visits. Through the study of Child Life, medical professionals began to include the role of the family and used play therapy to help children navigate the emotionally and physically demanding process of coping with hospitalization.
Who Are Child Life Specialists?
Specially trained in child development, Child Life Specialists provide developmentally appropriate care to educate, prepare and support children through difficult tests, procedures and changes within their families due to chronic or acute illness, treatment and recovery.
Through one-on-one interaction, Child Life Specialists help children deal with the emotional issues and uncertainties that arise from their medical conditions. “Those who choose the career of Child Life Specialists are of varied life experiences and backgrounds,” says Allen. “Some are inspired by a personal brush with healthcare while others want to help children understand the complex world of the hospital. All must be versed in Child Development and understand the medical issues that patients encounter. Flexibility is key in that no two days are the same.”
What Do Child Life Specialist Do?
As part of the health care team, Child Life Specialists advocate for the special needs of children, include the role of family to focus on patient and family centered care and incorporate play therapy into treatment plans.
Allen, who is also director at Camp Rainbow explains, “As a Child Life Specialist, I assess a child’s developmental level and understanding of the complex medical experience and treatment and individualize my interventions according to the patient needs. I look to the child for cues as to how they are understanding a procedure or treatment and help them understand what is going to happen. I take the complex medical world and help translate that into a language that a child can understand.”
Some common Child Life interventions include: encouraging parent presence and participation in care, communicating frequently with patients, advocating for pain management, providing choices when appropriate, being realistic and truthful with children and providing age-appropriate activities that foster a sense of well being. Whether it is a visit from Santa, sharing music, favorite toys or encouraging words, Child Life Specialists provide many therapeutic interventions that are critical in the healing process. Child Life Specialists work to promote growth, development and feelings of success and fulfillment.
Where Do Child Life Specialists Work?
Although Child Life Specialists typically function in the hospital setting, their skills and training are often applied to support children and families in other settings such as hospice, dental care, schools, specialized camps, funeral homes or wherever children experience stress or trauma.
Here in Augusta, the Children’s Hospital of Georgia employs Child Life Specialists and provides a relaxing and welcoming environment for patients and families. Incorporating elements of nature and technology, the facility has five levels that emphasize freedom and family togetherness.
Some designs include an archeological dig with nooks and crannies for exploration, dinosaur fossils and other novelties. There is also a shallow stream running through the playscape that is elevated so kids in wheelchairs can roll right up to it.
One of the first things likely to catch your eye at Children’s Hospital of Georgia is the video aquarium, a six-foot high and 26-foot long structure with moving images of underwater scenes. The aquarium serves to calm and inform children. There are also interactive games mounted on the walls and a clear floor through which you can see the stream that runs from the playscape to the lobby.
There is also an outdoor dining area and a family rooftop garden equipped with oxygen, air and suction so all children, including those with ventilators and tracheotomies, can easily and safely visit the outdoors. For older children, there are separate activity rooms with a stereo, game table, lounging chairs and a big-screen television.
Hospitalization can be a confusing and stressful experience for children, adolescents and their families. It is not intuitive for parents to know how to cope with their child’s hospitalization so learning how to interact with a child and medical professionals when hospitalization occurs benefits everyone. It is very common for young people and their families to have many questions when they are scheduled for surgery or hospitalization. Parents play an important role in helping children cope with hospitalization. When children are given opportunities to cope successfully with healthcare experiences, this success often leads to a more positive experience.
Child Life Specialists are breaking through barriers every day to make the profession known to coworkers and community members. New and alternative ways continue to arise to help children cope with many different types of challenges that are associated with hospitalization. More medical professionals are learning and acquiring “child-friendly language” and are using the vocabulary to effectively communicate with children and their families during hospitalization. Today, hospitals acknowledge the role of the family and play therapy and provide a child-friendly environment to facilitate the process of treatment.
“As a Child Life Specialist, I focus on the child’s perspective and advocate for them from a child-development point of view,” Allen concludes. “I help them understand their disease process and aid in their healing. I ‘play with a purpose’ in order to increase their coping with some really hard experiences.”
For more information or questions about donations, call the Child & Adolescent Life Department at 706-721-5503.
Diana Renee Williams is an accomplished freelancer, Huffington Post contributor and mother of two. She is a music lover, travel enthusiast and super soul spirit junkie. Prior to freelancing, she worked as a court appointed special advocate and domestic relations mediator focusing on her passion of service to the community.
This article appears in the Dec-Jan 2017 issue of Augusta Family Magazine.
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