Child Life Specialist

Additionally, child life specialists teach children about health issues affecting them, explain the procedures that the child will go through, and distract them during a procedure. The duties of child life specialists change daily. They are different from many other healthcare providers as their work involves focusing on the psychosocial needs of the patient, including emotional, social, and mental needs.

Child life specialists have completed clinical training, must hold a minimum bachelor’s or master’s degree, and typically are certified through The Association of Child Life Professionals.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics classifies child life specialists as healthcare social workers in hospitals. Between 2022 and 2032, there is expected to be a 10 percent increase in jobs for healthcare social workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2023). Healthcare social workers earn $62,760 per year on average (BLS May 2022).

Continue reading to learn more about the career of a child life specialist. Below are profiles on top programs, a list of job duties, and an overview of licensing options and requirements.

Child Life Specialist Specializations & Degree Types

Having earned a minimum bachelor’s or master’s degree, with an educational emphasis on development and human growth, psychology, education, or a related field of study, child life specialists may work with a wide range of patients, or they may work in a particular department where they focus on working with outpatient emergency department patients, surgery patients, cardiac patients, or a patient population with a specific medical diagnosis.

Admissions Requirements for Child Life Specialist Programs

Aspiring bachelor’s and master’s degree students have varied requirements. As already mentioned above, the minimum degree required to become a child life specialist is a bachelor’s degree in child life studies or a related field such as child and family studies, child development, psychology, or early childhood education, and students need a high school diploma for this degree. Those looking for master’s degrees must have a bachelor’s degree.

Notably, those looking to become certified child life specialists must fulfill two academic requirements: a bachelor’s degree and coursework. Coursework has two options:

  • Option 1: Graduation from an ACLP-endorsed child life academic program
  • Option 2: Completing 10 college courses in specific content areas, including child life content taught by a Certified Child Life Specialist

Previous experience working with children and a 600-hour child life specialist internship is also required for this certification.

Child Life Specialist Program Accreditation

The Certified Child Life Specialist (CCLS) credential is the exclusive child life certification issued by the Child Life Certification Commission, a subsidiary of the Association of Child Life Professionals. This credential does not require any specific programmatic accreditation.

However, students must look for institutional accreditation. Every institution should have general accreditation from a national organization recognized by the Council for Higher Education CHEA. The school overall should hold accreditation from one of the following regional accreditation agencies:

  • Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) Western Association of Schools and Colleges
  • Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
  • Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
  • New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE)
  • Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
  • Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC)

On-Campus Child Life Specialist Degree Programs

Central Washington University

Central Washington University has an ACLP-endorsed bachelor of science program in child development and family science, specializing in child life. Providing students with the necessary skills and knowledge to pursue certification as child life specialists and work in healthcare settings, this specialization focuses on the developmental and emotional needs of families and children during challenging and stressful times. Through practical experiences and coursework, graduates in this program will be prepared to pursue graduate studies and prepare for certification as certified child life specialists.

This program’s curriculum meets the ACLP recommendations and includes various courses taught by certified child life specialists. Students in specialization must complete a practicum experience that includes 360 hours (12 credits) of field-related service within the community.

Made up of 97 credits, the program includes courses such as adolescence and emerging adulthood; supporting families with children with disabilities; therapeutic play; coping with grief and loss; advanced concepts in child development; pediatric diagnoses and medical terminology; theories in child development; and attachment theory and practice, among others.

Graduates will be able to take up roles such as child life specialists, child life assistants, and child life coordinators.

  • Location: Ellensburg, WA
  • Accreditation: Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Four years
  • Estimated Tuition: In-state ($7,021 per year); out-of-state ($24,600 per year)

Louisiana Tech University

Louisiana Tech University’s College of Applied & Natural Sciences offers a bachelor of science program in human development and family science designed for those passionate about improving the lives of youth, families, and children. The program has a concentration in child life that prepares graduates to become child life specialists. This concentration provides a solid undergraduate foundation for graduates pursuing internships and becoming eligible for the certified child life specialist credential and working with families and children in medical settings.

This 120-credit program includes courses such as diagnoses impacting children; introduction to child life; infant and toddler development; early childhood development; issues in middle childhood and adolescence; grieving and loss in the family; child life clinical interventions; developmental and therapeutic play; and introduction to medical terminology.

All students in this concentration will be required to complete a minimum of 240 clock-hours of supervised field experience before graduation.

  • Location: Ruston, LA
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC); American Association for Family and Consumer Sciences
  • Expected Time to Completion: Four years
  • Estimated Tuition: $662 per credit

Tennessee Tech University

Tennessee Tech University’s School of Human Ecology offers a bachelor of science program in human ecology with a concentration in child life. Endorsed by the ACLP, the child life program at Tennessee Tech meets the coursework requirements to establish eligibility for the Child Life Certification Examination upon graduation.

Comprising 120 credits, the program includes courses such as children with special needs; lifespan development; connections in human ecology; children in healthcare; family stress management; child life intervention strategies; parent-child relationships; and foundations of play.

A certified child life specialist must directly supervise students taking the child life clinical experience (internship) course. To pass this course, students must earn minimal entry-level competence during the internship experience.

  • Location: Cookeville, TN
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Four years
  • Estimated Tuition: In-state ($5,415 per semester); out-of-state ($7,515 per semester)

University of Georgia

The University of Georgia offers a master of science program in child life, preparing graduates to support the emotional and social needs of families and children in healthcare settings. Combining coursework in family science and human development with specific classes related to the issues in child life, this on-campus program’s curriculum includes opportunities to apply research and theory in hospitals or other healthcare settings.

Preparing students for the child life internship and the child life certification examination, the curriculum includes courses such as theories of family systems; psychosocial care of the hospitalized child and the family; grief, loss, and bereavement across the lifespan; advanced child development; child life interventions for children and families in healthcare settings; therapeutic benefits of play; and medical terminology for the child life profession.

After completing the coursework, students will be required to complete a child life internship. Students cannot complete the coursework or assistantship responsibilities while on internship. Notably, those who have not already completed a child life practicum before enrolling will be required to participate in a semester of practicum as a part of their required coursework.

Applicants to the program must have a bachelor’s degree in HDFS or a related area. Students who have a solid background in child development and substantial experience working directly with families and children will be considered strong candidates for this program.

Graduates can take positions within various pediatric hospice settings, hospitals, and other family or child support organizations. Some of the rules they can take include child life specialists, extension agents, community-physician liaisons, hospice specialists, and national outreach coordinators for local hospitals, to name a few.

  • Location: Athens, GA
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Two years
  • Estimated Tuition: In-state (1 to 11 credits: $370 per credit; 12 or more credits: $4,439); out-of-state (1 to 11 credits: $1,050 per credit; 12 or more credits: $12,593)

Erikson Institute

Erikson Institute offers a master’s in child development with a concentration in child life. Graduates of this program will be prepared to become certified child life specialists who can use their Erikson-acquired knowledge and skills to advocate for families and children in healthcare settings as they cope with acute and chronic illnesses, trauma, or injury. They will be able to help children understand their complex healthcare challenges and minimize the stresses brought on by the hospitalization experience and medical procedures.

Students in this 40-credit program complete a two-semester internship with a minimum of 600 hours under the supervision of a certified child life specialist. The curriculum includes courses such as child life in healthcare settings: history, theory, research, scope, methods and professional issues; ethics in the pediatric healthcare setting; therapeutic play in pediatric healthcare settings; medical terminology and human physiology; grief and loss in children and families; and assessment in pediatric child care settings.

Applicants to the child life concentration are expected to have a minimum of 100 hours of experience working in hospital settings, preferably under the supervision of a certified child life specialist, as well as a minimum of 100 hours of hands-on experience working with children in non-medical settings such as after school or child care programs. To be considered, they must hold a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution with a minimum GPA of 2.75 or higher.

  • Location: Chicago, IL
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Both two-year and three-year options are available
  • Estimated Tuition: $1,157 per credit

Online or Hybrid Child Life Specialist Degree Programs

University of Alabama

The University of Alabama offers an online bachelor of science program in human development and family studies with a concentration in child life, preparing students to become experts in the development and growth of both hospitalized and healthy children. The university prides itself on being one of the first universities in the country to offer a degree with a concentration in child life completely online.

The program comprises 120 credits and allows students to participate in several laboratory and practical experiences with children. The curriculum includes courses such as parent and family development; adolescence; introduction to child life; play in child development; cultural influences on children, youth, and families; hospitalized children and youth; loss and bereavement; and medical ethics. Notably, all courses are offered online except human anatomy and physiology I and human anatomy and physiology II. These courses can be taken on campus or transferred from another institution.

After completing the coursework, students will be ready to apply and compete for child life internships. It is however important to note that it is the student’s responsibility to obtain an internship site through the application process.

  • Location: Tuscaloosa, AL
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Four years
  • Estimated Tuition: $385 per credit

Arizona State University

Arizona State University offers an online bachelor of science program in family and human development, preparing graduates to provide key human services for those who need them most. Students in this program will develop practical skills and theoretical knowledge that will help them promote healthy family relationships and human development.

Although the certified child life specialist designation cannot be earned at Arizona State University, students in this program can take classes that will help them complete the required coursework portion of the CCLS certification. Also, this program does not offer the 600-hour internship requirement to be eligible for the CCLS exam.

The program’s curriculum explores the theoretical, academic, and historical frameworks that explain family behavior and human development. Courses in this program emphasize the well-being of youth, adults, and children, both individually and in families.

Made up of 120 credits, the program includes courses such as careers in family and human development; modern family relationships; family ethnic and cultural diversity; human development; personal growth and relationships; infant and toddler development in the family; and childhood disorders and family functioning.

  • Location: Tempe, AZ
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Four years
  • Estimated Tuition: $634 per credit

University of Minnesota

The University of Minnesota offers an online master of science program in applied child and adolescent development with a concentration in child life. Endorsed by the Association of Child Life Professionals (ACLP), this graduate program prepares students to work as child life specialists in various healthcare settings, providing them with a solid foundation in applied research methods, child life practice, and child development. This program has been developed to align with ACLP’s best practice recommendations.

To graduate, students must complete a 600-hour clinical internship within two years of coursework completion. This internship is integrated into the program’s curriculum, allowing students to continue receiving support from the university’s student services team as they fulfill the internship requirements. Students residing in the Twin Cities may qualify for an internship position at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital. At the same time, those studying outside will work with a child life coordinator to identify and apply for internships that are accessible to them. Those who already are certified child life specialists, won’t be required to complete an internship.

The curriculum includes courses such as advanced developmental psychology; cognitive and biological development; social and emotional development; research methods in applied child and adolescent development; child life theory, practice, and program development; developmental perspectives on illness and injury in healthcare; therapeutic play in child life practice; and childhood death and bereavement.

  • Location: Minneapolis, MN
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Two years
  • Estimated Tuition: $1,593 per credit

Bank Street College of Education

Bank Street College of Education also has an online ACLP-endorsed master of science program in child life. Students in this program learn to support youth, children, and their families who are experiencing trauma, surgery, illness, disabilities, and injuries, in community and healthcare settings. Graduates will learn to be advocates as they provide family-centered care in various settings.

The program’s fieldwork and coursework prepare students to provide therapeutic play opportunities in community and healthcare settings and help them develop strategies for minimizing anxiety and stress during stressful events.

Made up of 42 credits, the program includes courses such as child development; medical aspects of illness: a child life perspective; child life in the healthcare setting: a family-centered care approach; development: adolescence through emerging adulthood; therapeutic play techniques for child life specialists; loss in children’s lives: implications for schools, hospitals, and home; child life leadership and program development; and research for child life specialists.

Upon successful completion, graduates will have satisfied the internship and course requirements and will be prepared to take the certification examination administered by the Association of Child Life Professionals.

  • Location: New York, NY
  • Accreditation: Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Two years
  • Estimated Tuition: $1,814 per credit

Azusa Pacific University

In Azusa Pacific University’s master of science in child life program students can choose between online and in-person study. Students in this program will be prepared to confidently meet the certification requirements for becoming certified child life specialists. In addition to coursework, students will gain hands-on experience with a 120-hour practicum and a 600-hour hospital internship. Graduates will be ready to work as allied health professionals with expertise in helping families and their children navigate challenging and traumatic experiences.

Consisting of 42 credits, the program includes courses such as advanced child development; applied child development and medical terminology; family systems theory and applications; theories and practices of grief and loss; introduction to child life; therapeutic interventions and play-based techniques; coping strategies for children experiencing stress and trauma; adolescent development and interventions; and supporting children with special needs in the healthcare system.

Azusa Pacific University also has a 30-credit advanced standing option for certified child life specialists who have a BS or BA degree, as well as those who have successfully completed the 600 required child life internship hours.

  • Location: Azusa, CA
  • Accreditation: WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Two years
  • Estimated Tuition: $790 per credit

How Long Does it Take to Become a Child Life Specialist?

After completing a four-year bachelor’s degree program, students must complete 600 hours of a supervised internship to qualify for the CCLS certification. This process should take around one or two months to submit all the necessary paperwork and make the testing arrangements. The certification exam takes around four hours to complete. Considering all this, students can expect to become fully qualified child life specialists in about five years.

However, if a child life specialist pursues a master’s degree, completing the necessary education can take seven or more years.

How To Become a Child Life Specialist – Step-by-Step Guide

Step 1: Graduating from High School or Complete a GED

Graduating from high school or obtaining a GED is the first step toward becoming a child life specialist. Students who wish to pursue this career should take science, math, and health courses to prepare them for further studies. Advanced Placement (AP) courses and tests are also helpful, allowing students to complete college credit while in high school.

Step 2: Completing a Bachelor’s Degree

Becoming child life specialists begins with a bachelor’s degree, preferably in family studies and human development, family and child studies, or any other related field. However, there is no specific bachelor’s required for certification. An undergraduate degree typically includes about 120 credits and takes around four years to complete. Depending on the degree program, the coursework may include a practicum and students may also need to complete an internship.

Step 3: Earning Professional Certification

To become Certified Child Life Specialists, students must complete certification requirements set by the Association of Child Life Professionals (ACLP). Employers mostly require child life specialists to hold certification as this is the only credential in the field.

To sit for this certification examination, candidates must submit the following documentation:

  • Completing a bachelor’s degree in any field from an accredited college or university
  • Completing an ACLP-endorsed child life educational program or ten college courses in relevant content areas specified by ACLP
  • Completing a 600-hour supervised clinical internship

Eligible students can then pass the child life professional certification examination to become certified.

Step 4: Getting Practical Experience

It is highly advisable to have experience working with children for those who plan to become child life specialists. In addition to the ACLP-required internship, gaining real-world experience in the field is highly recommended. Candidates can do this by volunteering in organizations serving their community’s children.

Step 5: Finding Jobs

After completing all the above-mentioned steps, candidates will be ready to start applying for jobs in community settings and hospitals.

What Do Child Life Specialists Do?

The responsibilities and roles of child life specialists include:

  • Support families and children by helping them better understand the processes, procedures, or other elements of their medical experience
  • Advocate for the special needs of families and children
  • Provide support, guidance, and information to family members and parents
  • Develop age-appropriate strategies for minimizing trauma and increasing understanding of a medical diagnosis through treatment plans using education, therapeutic play, and activities that promote development and growth
  • Help families and children cope and proceed with medical situations
  • Collaborate with healthcare teams to manage and coordinate care
  • Present learning opportunities to members of healthcare teams
  • Coordinate student education
  • Maintain therapeutic supplies and activity spaces

Highly involved with patient care and working with families and children, child life specialists also commonly work with chaplains, social workers, doctors, nurses, and other members of the healthcare staff.

Child Life Specialist Certifications & Licensure

Child Life Specialists are certified through the Association of Child Life Professionals (ACLP). To become certified child life specialists (CCLS), students must complete the certification requirements set by the Association of Child Life Professionals (ACLP). As noted above, employers mostly require specialists to hold this certification. This credential validates to employers that these certified professionals have extensive knowledge and mastery of child life concepts.

To sit for the CCLS certification exam, candidates must submit the following documentation:

  • A bachelor’s degree in any field from an accredited college or university
  • A complete ACLP-endorsed child life educational program or ten college courses in relevant content areas specified by ACLP
  • Completing a 600-hour supervised clinical internship

After establishing eligibility, candidates can pass the child life professional certification examination to become certified.

How Much Do Child Life Specialists Make?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics classifies child life specialists as healthcare social workers in hospitals. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2022), there were 182,420 healthcare social workers in the United States, who earned $62,760 per year on average. Here are the salary percentiles—the latest data available as of December 2023:

  • 10th percentile: $38,520
  • 25th percentile: $47,510
  • 50th percentile (median): $60,280
  • 75th percentile: $75,390
  • 90th percentile: $87,830

Child Life Specialist Career Alternatives

Here are some alternatives to a career as a child life specialist.

Become a Social Worker

Social workers are front-line servants who help families, individuals, and groups prevent and cope with problems in their everyday lives. Clinical social workers treat and diagnose behavioral, emotional, and mental problems. These professionals typically need a bachelor’s or master’s degree in social work from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.

  • Typical Education: A bachelor’s or master’s degree in social work
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: Association of Social Work Boards

Become a Child (Pediatric) Psychologist

A child psychologist provides interventions for children with learning disabilities and helps children develop social skills, improve peer relationships, and teach effective coping strategies to manage stress and build resilience. Aspiring professionals must earn a bachelor’s degree followed by a PhD in psychology or a PsyD.

  • Typical Education: A PhD in psychology or a PsyD
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: American Board of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology

Become a Mental Health Counselor

Mental health counselors advise families, individuals, groups, and couples. Working with specific populations, such as older adults or children, mental health counselors treat clients who have a variety of conditions, including depression, anxiety, stress, and grief. They also help with relationship and emotional health problems. These professionals typically need a master’s degree and an internship. In addition, some counselors must be licensed.

  • Typical Education: A master’s degree and an internship
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC)
Farheen Gani

Farheen Gani

Writer

Farheen Gani is a writer and research expert in healthcare degrees. She has written about healthcare career scholarships, audiologists, speech-language pathologists, and reproductive health specialists, among other topics, since 2019. She writes about healthcare, technology, education, and marketing. Her work has appeared on websites such as Tech in Asia and Foundr, as well as top SaaS blogs such as Zapier and InVision. You can connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter (@FarheenGani).

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