March is a month full of celebrations. From St. Patrick’s Day to International Women's Month, it is a month of honor, remembrance and revel.
A particular sector of society that is also celebrated during March is the child life specialist profession.
According to the Association of Child Life Professionals, the child life profession has been around since the 1920s. It was created with the intention to improve health care experiences for children by providing a safe and fun environment during their stay at the hospital.
“Anything that can really decrease the stress, the pain, the sadness, the fears, the questions is what we’re about,” Jenny Chabot, an associate professor of child and family studies, said.
Child life specialists usually work in hospitals and are dedicated to supporting the entire family unit and ensuring each member feels secure and understands what is happening around them.
Chabot said the profession, while not widely known, is vital to make the health care process more personable and considerate.
“When people think of children’s hospitals, they think of the doctor, nurses and medical specialists, but they (child life specialists) are such a critical part of the psychosocial team,” Chabot said. “Who are the people who are helping these patients? Nobody does that better than child life specialists.”
Although arguably valuable to the workforce, this profession does not exist in every children’s hospital. Additionally, the major required to earn prior to entering the workforce is not offered at many universities. Many people have no idea what the profession entails, nor do they know that March is Child Life Month.
Manus Tonery, a freshman studying business, has never heard of a child life specialist.
“I assume it’s a job of some kind,” Tonery said.
Ohio University has the only endorsed program in the state of Ohio as well as the only master’s program in the state.
The child and family studies major offers three concentrations for undergraduate students: child, adult and family services; child life/pediatric health care settings; and family gerontology. Typically, graduates go in either two directions: clinical or nonclinical. The clinical route is working in a traditional hospital setting while, traditionally, the nonclinical route is more geared toward working at a nonprofit like the Ronald McDonald House.
Chabot said the number of enrolled students usually fluctuates, but this year, the program has around 170 undergraduates, and then 15 to 20 students are accepted into the 4+1 program to earn a Master of Science in child and family studies.
Thanks to the unique opportunity OU offers, many students came to the university excited to enroll in the major.
Shannon Melton, a junior studying child and family studies, realized she wanted to be a child life specialist when she began volunteering at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh in 2015. After being assigned to the trauma unit, she met child life specialists who oversaw the volunteers.
“I met one and, at that time, I wanted to become either a nurse or a teacher,” Melton said. “It was the perfect intersection of those two things.”
Melton also said she picked OU specifically for its program. Not only was it the most logical thing to do, she said, but she had heard of the program’s reputation and was attracted to the quality and standing.
Melton is also the president of OU’s Child Life Student Organization, or CLSO. As a club, CLSO prepares and educates aspiring child life specialists by hosting workshops and inviting speakers to deliver lectures. On March 3, members of the club decorated the OU graffiti wall to celebrate Child Life Month and spread more awareness about the major and the profession.
“The more we spread the word about how amazing this position is but also how essential it is, is really important to us,” Chabot, who is also the adviser of CLSO, said.
When it comes to celebrating Child Life Month, Chabot and Melton are on the same page.
“It would be awesome if someday, through people talking about it and having conferences and celebrating Child Life Month for a whole month, every kid could have a child life specialist,” Melton said. “That’s the goal.”