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What is a Child Life Specialist?

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Featured Speaker

Sherisse Wormell, M.S,. CCLS

Child Life staff helps normalize the hospital environment, providing psychosocial support and educational programs for infants, children, adolescents, and their families in order to minimize the stress and anxiety related to hospitalization.

Sherisse Wormell, Child Life Supervisor at The Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital, the only children’s hospital in Maine, will talk about the important role the Child Life Specialists play in a child’s visit by providing diversional and developmental play opportunities and assisting in preparing patients for upcoming surgery and medical procedures.

Child Life Specialists hold a minimum of a bachelor's level degree in Child Life or a related field.

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Melanie Cole (Host):  Child life staff helps normalize the hospital environment providing psychosocial support and educational programs for infants, children, adolescents, and their families in order to minimize the stress and anxiety related to hospitalization that must be very scary for children and their families when a child has to go into the hospital. My guest today is Sherisse Wormell. She is child life supervisor at the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital in Portland, Maine. Welcome to the show, Sherisse. Tell us a little bit about what you do. What is child life specialists, and why is it so important? 

Sherisse Wormell (Guest):  Well, thanks for having me, Melanie. A child life specialist really tries to help minimize the stress and anxiety for children in the hospital, and we also try and normalize the environment as much as we can in such an abnormal place for kids. 

Melanie:  Okay, so it’s really scary if a child is going into the hospital. What do you do for children if they have to go into the hospital? Start from the beginning if they have to have hernia surgery or God forbid, cancer treatment, what is it you actually do? 

Sherisse:  When a child is first admitted, we go in and introduce ourselves to the patient and the family, and we try and assess whether or not that child really has an understanding of why they’re being admitted to the hospital. A lot of it depends on the age of the child and how we might interact with them. For a younger child, we really try and get them to understand that we’re a safe person. We’re not someone that’s going to go in and give them a shot or do anything that might be scary to them. We try and build that friendship and relationship with them. We may start off by bringing them age-appropriate toys or activities, so it might be arts and crafts or, for a younger child, it might be toys that they can play with in their bed. For an older child, it might be a movie, or we even have video games that the kids can play here. It’s really trying to break down that barrier of that fear and anxiety of who am I and what are we there to do. And so once they realize that okay, this is a person that I can trust and that I know is here to support me, then we really can start talking to them about what do you think is the reason why you’re coming into the hospital. If we know that that child is scheduled for a test or for surgery, then we will take the next step on figuring out how to help prepare that child based on their age and their abilities to handle information and also the stress level that they have—can they tolerate a lot of information, or do we need to really be quick and to the point, or do we really need to focus more on a play activity to educate them? Or for an older child, we really can do more talking and more visual aids with them.  

Melanie:  How do you get children to really express their feelings throughout their stay? If they’re younger children and they don’t necessarily understand, what do you do? You start and play to sort of figure out how they’re feeling about this, what their stress level is? 

Sherisse:  We do. We do something called medical play a lot of times, and that’s basically, in a nutshell, where you play doctor with them. We bring in some toy medical equipment, and depending on what that child is going to have -- so if they’re going to have an IV placed, we might bring in equipment that they might see when they have an IV. Or if they’re going in for surgery, we might bring in a different equipment that they’re going to experience. Whether it’s the anesthesia mask that’s going to go on their face or the little stickers called cardiac leads that are going to be placed on their chest, things like that, we’ll play it out on a doll or stuffed animal, and we’ll kind of role play. This allows them to feel that it is a safe play experience and not directed to them, but it allows us to do the teaching with them and play it out. It allows them to really touch and feel the equipment and understand what it’s for, understand that there are things that they don’t necessarily have to be scared of. Because the biggest fear for the kids is something’s going to hurt or something’s going to be really scary for them. We can take away some of those fears that they have of certain things. Oftentimes, one can educate the child, get them familiar with what they’re going to experience, and that anxiety level really goes down and it allows them to feel more comfortable with what they’re going to experience in the hospital. 

Melanie:  What about normalizing the environment? How do you do that? How really do you normalize a hospital environment? 

Sherisse:  I know. It’s very challenging in this setting, but play is really what children do naturally. It’s what every child does. Even as adults, we play as a form of entertainment, as a form for relaxation. We play, we go out to dinner, or we may get together with friends. And so, for kids, play is coloring or it might be playing a board game or it might be playing video games or it might be getting together in a group and doing a group activity. We try and incorporate all of those things into a child’s day. If a child is physically unable to come down to the playroom, we oftentimes have a scheduled activity going on in our playroom. So a lot of times, it’s a craft project, or around this time, for example, it’s Valentine’s Day coming up so we might have Valentine’s activities going on. We also have special visitors that might come into the hospital, and they might provide some special fun activities. It’s really creating a sense of fun and really getting kids to engage in those activities that kind of take their mind away from the medical side of it. It’s really focusing on a child being a child. 

Melanie:  That’s so important, and what an amazing job that you have. It must be so rewarding. How do you, Sherisse, work with the families in addition with the children to de-stress? The parents must be going crazy when their children have to be in the hospital. 

Sherisse:  It is a very stressful time for parents. Even with the simplest thing. It’s never easy to have a child that is sick and especially when you don’t really know what’s going on and it’s out of your control. I think when we can decrease the child’s level of stress and a parent can see that a child is actually having fun and is doing some normalized activities, that really does decrease a parent’s stress. We also really lend some emotional support to parents. We ask them how they’re doing, how do they feel their child is doing, what can we do to help their child feel more comfortable with what’s happening. Or we may ask a parent if it’s a child, let’s say, that’s newly diagnosed with diabetes, we may ask questions such as how do they do when they go to the doctor and have to have their immunizations or have to have blood drawn or those types of things. We kind of work with them to get a basic idea of their previous experiences, and based on their answer, talk to them about here are some helpful tips. Here’s what might be helpful. Why don’t we try some of these things while your child is here, and we can kind of give you some tools to help you once you go home? Because it’s going to be something that a child is going to have to do potentially for the rest of their life , dealing with diabetes and having to give themselves insulin injections or checking their blood sugars. It’s really just engaging in conversation with parents and really getting a feel and a sense for where they’re at and how they feel their child is doing and what can we do to help them. We also do a lot of activities for parents, too. For example, we have some wonderful volunteers that come in and do some relaxation with parents. We also have a volunteer that comes in and does yoga. We have some great resources that we try to really pull in, not only for our kids but also for parents. Because similar to what I said, if a child is more calm, then it helps the parents. Well, it works the same way, too. If we can decrease the stress that parents feel, kids feed off their parents. So if a parent is anxious, then a child knows something is wrong. If we can decrease the stress of a parent and the parent is calm and can focus on helping their child, then the child benefits as well. 

Melanie:  In just the last minute, Sherisse, tell parents listening and people why they should use a child life specialist at Maine Medical Center, why it’s so important. And we really applaud the work that you do. 

Sherisse:  Well, thank you. I appreciate it. I would say that we’re really there to help support them. We know it’s not easy to have a child in the hospital, and we want to make sure that they have all the necessary tools to really make their child’s hospitalization successful. And we want to be able to be that adjunct service for them to really help them and give them the tools they need to really help their child best. 

Melanie:  Thank you so much, Sherisse. You are listening to MMC Radio. For more information, you can go to That’s, This is Melanie Cole. Thanks so much for listening.