If you love working with children, one of the career pathways that would probably interest you is that of a child life specialist. What is it, exactly? In this episode, you will find how such a profession helps kids with their health in ways that may be surprising. Dr. Richard Marn is excited to bring you Katelyn Beyer, an award-winning child life specialist and Child Life Coordinator of NorthShore University Health System in the Chicago metropolitan area. Katelyn is very passionate about her job and that energy reverberates in this whole episode. Listen to this child-friendly episode and find out if such a career path resonates with you as much as it does for her.
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The Child-Friendly Health Professional With Katelyn Beyer, Certified Child Life Specialist
In this episode, we’re going to learn about what a child life specialist and professional are all about. Have you ever heard of what that profession is? I didn’t learn about it until much later in my career. We’re going to talk with a specialist who is excellent at her job. If you love or even like working with children, you should even consider this career or look into it at least because they do help kids in a healthcare setting in ways that may be surprising. With this kid-friendly episode, we’re going to be talking with Katelyn Beyer. She is a child life specialist and the Child Life Coordinator for NorthShore University Health System in and around Chicago. She received a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology at North Park University and obtained her certificate from the University of California Santa Barbara program.
She won an award and scholarship from the Society for Pediatric Sedation and is passionate and excited about her career and her job. Before we jump into this conversation, I want to invite you to check out the new show Instagram account, which is @DrRichardMarn. You can check out some of the posts that we have, see some of the things that I’m doing professionally and personally. Check out some of the inspiring posts that are coming out. If you like what you’re reading, please give us a rating. That would be appreciated. Let’s get into this conversation with Katelyn.
We have Katelyn Beyer with us. Thanks for joining us on this episode. Katelyn is a child life specialist and you’re in Chicago.
Yes. I’m north of Chicago in Evanston, Illinois in Chicagoland.
I’m in New York. You’re a child specialist. I didn’t even know your career existed until I was well into my career as a pediatric anesthesiologist. I was grateful that one of your colleagues was there because it helped the children manage to be in a hospital setting and even to have surgery. When I first met a child life specialist, I was like, “Who’s this person?” You’re not the parent or cousin but you’re in a hospital attire.
I’m so happy you’re coming on. I knew about you because you won a 2020 award and scholarship from the Society of Pediatric Sedation, which we are both a part of. That’s how I came across you and your name. I’m happy that you won that. Congratulations. On top of that, you are a mother yourself, which is great. Congratulations. I was hoping that we could talk about your career and how that helps these kids because it’s an important role that a lot of people don’t know about. I didn’t even know about it until well into my career. Can you tell me what your profession basically does?
As certified child life specialists, we are pediatric healthcare professionals who work together with children and families who come into the hospital for the first time and we’re able to help them navigate the hospital experience for the first time. Many children who enter the hospital never choose to go to the hospital. It’s not planned. A lot of children and families’ parents come in and are scared, not prepared and feeling high levels of stress. We are trained to help them navigate that stress and help them cope through whatever the challenges of hospitalization or illness or whatever they’re going through in order to make it a more positive experience and help them cope through it.
What age range do you take care of children?
My specific self, we take care of infants through teens and sometimes we even get older, young adults who have developmental disabilities. Every age, you name it, we probably care for it.
How do you help these kids through these situations? These children come in for surgery to the hospital or maybe they’re there for an IV placement. The simple things that as a doctor I don’t comprehend what the child is sometimes going through. How do you help these kids through that?
Our background basically has a foundation in child development and so we use those skills to help guide and assess the child’s understanding as they come to the hospital. A lot of the time we use play for the younger children and to assess are they feeling scared about a certain procedure. We welcome them to our playroom upon arrival to see what toys they go to or if they are engaging in conversation with us. We get down at their level and we have a medical play section of our playroom. We lay out some dolls and medical equipment and see what happens. A lot of times, you can see how that child is feeling through their play. That is helpful in understanding how we can help them through their hospital stay.
The child comes on the day of surgery. Do you often meet them before surgery?
Do you help get them used to a hospital setting like you described?
Our hospital itself, our Child Life Program has a pre-surgery tour that children can go on. It’s on our website and they call me or my colleague directly and set up a one-on-one surgery tour. That’s a week before surgery. We show them the playroom, we show them where they walk to the operating room. Obviously, not the operating room.
You’ve got a dry run.
We do that with different procedures at the hospital but the surgery one is definitely one of our favorites and one that helps the parents cope better. It allows the child to see what’s going to happen before it happens to them. They are able to like, “This is where I go and this is where I check-in,” and it helps them. In terms of the day of, we do meet them prior to their surgical procedure. They arrive at the hospital two hours beforehand. We have a 30-minute to 1-hour window of meeting them and assessing their needs. Specifically, if there’s a three-year-old coming in for surgery and a fifteen-year-old. We’re probably going to see the three-year-old, engage with them and see the worries that they’re having first before the teen.
We use play. We invite them to our playroom. I always say like, “I’m a child life specialist. I’m here to make sure that you understand why you’re here,” and also have a little bit of fun to blow some bubbles, play with Play-Doh, that kind of thing to engage them and then teach them the different steps that they’re going to experience for surgery. “First, we’re going to play a little bit and then you’re going to go on a ride on a bed that will take you to a room where you get to meet all of your doctors and nurses that get to take care of you.” We go into teaching them about anesthesia and the sleep medicine that they’re going to get. That’s specifically for a patient coming in for a procedure that day.
You have to learn a lot about different medical procedures. You have to break it down in a language that the child can understand. For example, what do you say when the kid has to come in for an IV? What do you tell them for something as simple as that?
An IV is a common procedure that children get upon arrival at the hospital. A lot of times, children walk into the hospital and you can hear them down the hallway saying, “No shots.” As many people may know, there is a shot required for an IV. The way that we help explain an IV to a child is a lot different than maybe someone saying like, “It’s one poke and it’s going to go in and you’re going to be okay.” We tell them, “You’re at the hospital because your body is feeling sick. We have a special bendy straw that is going to go in your body to give your body water and medicine to help you feel better.” We’re using language and descriptive words that help them, “It’s a straw,” and we carry an IV catheter with the straw on. Most of us carry it on our ID badges so the child can feel that it’s a straw. Even parents think that the needle stays in their arms. If you tell the child there is a small poke, but it’s the straw that stays in and that straw’s job is to give your body medicine through the remainder of your hospitalization. As soon as it comes out, we can let you know and it doesn’t hurt when it comes out.
It must be a little challenging because these kids are nervous. You also have parents that are nervous. You’re also dealing with healthcare professionals like doctors and nurses. Would you say the biggest challenge of your job dealing with all that? Are there other challenges of it that you find? What do you think is the biggest challenge of your profession?
The biggest challenge is the fact that there are a lot of children who are coming in for procedures and prioritizing who gets our services. If three kids are getting an IV at once, I can’t be at all three. Being able to empower the nurses to provide that support that the child needs and not being able to be at all three. Day in and day out challenges fluctuate. My specific team at my hospital work closely together. A procedure will not happen until one of us has met the child. Not 100% of the time but they try to have the child life specialist meet with the child and the parents first. If you have an anxious parent, which the parents are super anxious if the child is, we’re able to go in and create a coping plan so that procedure may be more successful. The child will be more cooperative if they are, know what’s going to happen if we’ve played through the procedure before it’s happened or have something like virtual reality to distract them from the poke so they don’t even have to see or hear anything.
You introduced virtual reality headsets to your institution and that helped lead to you winning that award that we alluded to before. Can you tell me how that helps a kid? First of all, why did you bring it into your hospital? How do these virtual reality headsets help a kid?
Every year we have a few grants that we write and we assess what our program needs for that year or how we can further the services we provide for our children. Back in 2018, virtual reality was new in terms of goggles. You’re going to find them at Best Buy but the ones specifically designed for pediatric patients were new. We received that grant and started implementing it before procedures to help if a child is feeling anxious. Some children enjoy watching procedures or enjoy watching an IV or a shot or a blood draw. It’s their means of coping or it’s their way to go through it. Some are like, “I want nothing to do with it. I want to know what’s happening but I don’t want to see or hear anything.” These virtual reality goggles are designed specifically for pediatric patients who are feeling nervous, scared before a procedure or if they’re experiencing high levels of pain. We’ve also used it for that but our virtual reality goggles have twenty different experiences so you can be swimming with dolphins or visiting the streets of London or flying through Iceland. Having them focus on something else has been proven. We’ve asked after the procedure that a lot of the children don’t even know the poke or feeling the pain is happening because they’re fully engaged in another environment.
Is there a particular story where you think virtual reality helped one of your patients that come to mind? What were they going through at the time?
We have a lot of our ortho patients that experience major surgeries. A lot of post-surgery is a lot of pain management that we have to work together with the patients to overcome. I use virtual reality with those patients a lot because a lot of times, pain is different for everyone and everyone experiences different levels at different times and no pain is the same. Specifically with a patient, he was a sixteen-year-old who had high levels of pain post-surgery.
What kind of surgery did he have?
It was a leg surgery and it was in half. It was intense. We’re trying to help him through the pain because we had medicine on our side. It was still his mind was like, “I had this surgery. I’m in pain all the time and there’s nothing that will help it,” even the highest levels of medicine that we can give him. I was able to use the goggles at certain times of day when we had found him experiencing higher levels of pain and he was able to refocus and distract himself from that pain. In the end, when he was in the wheelchair out of the hospital a couple of days later, he was like, “Thank you for using virtual reality.” That helped the pain and helped distract him from everything he was going through.
How did it feel taking care of him?
It was amazing. I feel like teens are a lot more difficult to get on their side because they’re teens. They’re one of my favorite populations to work with at the hospital. They’re hard but they’re softies too. I feel like a lot of times, even teens that walk in the hospital are like, “I’m coming in for the surgery. I’ll be okay.” A lot of times, they’re some of the most anxious patients. Taking care of him specifically and giving him the tools and skills to independently overcome his pain tolerance and experience with pain post-surgery, with something as simple as a virtual reality device helped him cope and get through the hospital stay. I feel like his day could have been twice as long if he didn’t have those coping skills and distraction skills for his pain levels without that.
I know we talked about some certain scenarios, Katelyn, but what is your typical day like? How does your day progress through? How does it end up?
One of the main reasons I love my job is that no day looks the same. Every day is different depending on our inpatients or outpatients that are coming in for surgery. A day in the life of a child life specialist like me, I go in around 7:00 AM. A lot of child life specialists start at all hours but I’m an early morning traveling specialist. I work normal Monday through Friday, 7:00 to 3:30 hours. I take a look at the list of inpatients because we are a mixture. I work on a unit that serves both inpatients, children who are coming in and seeing lengthy periods of hospitalization or children who are coming in for those days of procedures. They come in, have surgery, go home that day or a couple of days later. I take a look at the list and prioritize my day.
A lot of times, surgeries are early morning, as I’m sure you know because you are an anesthesiologist. They start right at 6:30 AM. I meet the outpatients first and it goes in age order. We see the youngest patients. Infants or toddlers are first for surgery and then it goes up during the day. We were talking about earlier for outpatients, we meet them upon arrival, assess their knowledge, see if they’ve been here before or have had surgery. I teach them about what is going to happen to them that day.
We have an iPad preparation that has pictures of everything that they’re going to experience or see that day. We follow them to the next area which is where they meet the anesthesia team, the doctor, the surgeon and the nurses that will be with them and we’re able to be with them all the way through induction. We develop a coping plan with them and distraction for during their anesthesia induction. We are able to be at the bedside right at their head when they’re falling asleep, which is for children the scariest part of the day. Something as simple as an anesthesia mask is scary for a child if they don’t know the purpose of it. That’s why we introduce that in the playroom to them. Our mask smells like strawberries. We have them smell it and pop bubbles and familiarize them with that medical equipment so that when they see it, they aren’t scared.
That’s a lot of my day in the morning. I would say it’s repetitive in the sense that it’s meet the child, go to surgery with them, meet the next child, educate them. A lot of times, the inpatients obviously are a huge priority as well. I have a colleague that focuses on our surgery patients and then I am always focusing on our inpatients. Any new diagnosis teaching, a child coming in for diabetes or a new Crohn’s diagnosis or that common pediatric diagnosis that a child will not understand. Upon arrival, I focus my day on teaching them and making sure parents understand how they can best support the needs of their child and then making sure the child is normalized to their environment and feels some sense of control during their stay.It’s rewarding to walk every day into your job, knowing that you’re going to make some type of positive impact on a child. Click To Tweet
Katelyn, what kind of misconceptions do people have about your career?
A lot of times a lot of healthcare professionals who see us on a day to day basis, for example, watching me right on a bed with a child blowing bubbles, playing with Play-Doh, getting to know the child and having fun with them using play to build rapport with them. They think that’s what we do every day, every hour. “They’re a child life specialist. They bring toys to their children and make sure they’re happy at all times,” which is a small part of our job. I’ve had many times where I am on my way to help support an end of life situation. A child may have lost a parent or a grandparent and I’m bringing a carton of paint and canvases. I’m in an elevator with a couple of families or professionals and they’re like, “It looks like you’re going to do some painting,” but I’m going to do handprints, legacy building, and memory making for a child.
A lot of times, I feel like the biggest misconception is we do use play as child life specialists to help children feel because that’s the language of a child. The play is much more embedded in our assessment and our interventions to help them meet their psychosocial needs. It’s play but it’s more than that. It’s to educate. We use play to prepare them for procedures. We use play to help them cope and see. Some children don’t have the language to express how they’re feeling about getting a new diagnosis. If we throw out some medical equipment and some dolls, I can see how they’re feeling without them even saying a word. A common misconception is we’re there to blow bubbles and play but we’re helping them cope through some difficult medical experiences that they don’t always have the language for. We meet them where they’re at and help them understand how they can cope with their new illness or diagnosis. We’re able to use different modalities, for example, play or therapeutic expressive activities.
What are some of the favorite parts of your job?
There are many favorite parts.
What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
Everyday walking into the unit and knowing that I’m going to make some type of positive impact on a child or family is rewarding nonetheless. We’re able to meet children at their most vulnerable and teens at their most vulnerable moment and see them overcome these obstacles that they never thought they could overcome at first. A lot of that has to do with obviously working together with doctors and nurses to help them overcome their hospitalization. A lot of kids come in face down, scared to look up and either saying like, “I’m scared,” or crying. Being able to meet them and help them understand, “You are okay, you are safe, you are here and we are going to help. I’m going to be your friend. We’re going to get through this together alongside everyone.” Something simple as seeing them walk in terrified and not wanting to leave, either being stuck in the playroom and saying like, “I don’t want to leave yet,” that’s rewarding in terms of having a child come in with a trauma or a lot of times it’s anxious and an unknown frightening, scary experience. Being able to help them and guide them through that is one of the most rewarding and it happens every day.
Being in a hospital was scary. Kids inherently don’t think of a hospital as a fun place to be. Helping through that transition to come through that on their level is powerful. Is there a least favorite part of your job?
Not really. I love my job. I’m excited I found something that doesn’t feel like work. I feel like I’m able to go in and pour out my heart to these children. The least favorite part of my job is not being able to see everyone, not always being able to see every patient. Not only do we work on our unit but sometimes we have calls from radiology, which is our imaging department or the emergency room has someone coming in and I have 4 or 5 places I need to be at once. If my colleague isn’t there, not being able to help everyone. I feel like a lot of people that go into the child life field, we all want to help everyone and make everything okay. I found that I need to take a step back and know that I can’t please everyone. I can only do my best and if I do my best every day to see everyone I possibly can and help them, that’s all that I can do.
Do you recommend this career for students and what students go into this career?
I recommend this career. I work with some high school students that are looking into it. My husband works for some high school students in the Park Ridge area and a lot of them are searching for what’s next for them. I’m working with seniors and they’ve never heard of this career. If you’re a student out there, have a passion for children and families, and advocating for the needs of children who are going through stressful experiences, I would definitely look into this field. It’s a way that you can help meet the child where they’re at, help them through difficult medical experiences and help them overcome a scary hospital experience and make it positive.
For students that don’t know what they’re doing, I feel like volunteering at a children’s hospital to see if you even would fit in a hospital setting. I feel a lot of times, students are like, “I want to work in a hospital,” and they see blood and they run the other direction. In this field, you are in every procedure that the child will face. If you are a little queasy or if you don’t think that you can watch those difficult medical procedures and be right by the child, I feel like this may not be the field for you because you are going through the hospital with that child. Whatever they experience, you’re going to see day in and day out. It is hard to see children get a new diagnosis that they’re going to have for the rest of their life. It’s definitely not all rainbows and butterflies.
I have seen the impact that our fields can have on a child and a lot of people say like, “How can you do this? How can you go into the hospital and help these pediatric patients suffer?” I always say, “I like to go in knowing that I at least help them instead of not helping them.” If anything, you’re helping them better their experience and develop coping skills for later in life that they didn’t have before. We’re helping alleviate the stresses and fears of the hospital firsthand and then helping them during those challenges that they face during a hospitalization. They leave feeling empowered and more connected and more in control than ever.
What do you think the future outlook is like for your profession?
I returned to work from my maternity leave. I know that Coronavirus has definitely changed a lot in our field because some child life specialists aren’t able to go to the bedside as much for higher risk factors. On a day to day basis, in our child life field or as child life specialists in the hospital setting, you have to use more of our virtual modalities. Zooming for procedure preparations or equipping the parents at the bedside, there is only one now at the bedside to help their child through a procedure if you’re not able to be there.
Where I see child life going in the future, it’s definitely growing in terms of private practice. There are many private practice child life specialists that see a child and family after a traumatic hospital experience or after a trauma or injury to continue that care. As child life specialists, we can’t continue supporting post-hospital stay but we see a lot of child life specialists who are in dental offices, doctor’s offices so not just hospitals but anywhere that a child may experience a stressful experience. We have these private practice child life specialists that are able to help guide patients or children in that sense through their experience as well.
Your profession is competitive. Why do you say that?
A lot of child life specialists get certified. In our certification process, there are many schools around the area. There’s a whole pathway for becoming a child life specialist. I feel like there are not enough jobs. It’s hard to find a job in your city because, depending on where you’re at, you might have to move to get your first job as a child life specialist before finding a job in your hometown. Let’s say there are two child life specialists at my hospital. At neighboring Chicago hospitals, there are maybe 10 to 15 but people stay in this field. Once you’re in it, you’re in it, I would say. Hospitals, they’re seeing the positive impact that child life has had. They are increasing jobs in terms of getting more child life specialists around.
It’s mostly competitive because there are a lot of males and females who are coming into this profession with the same passion, the same experience. As students, going in and taking in the student experience for what it is and learning and seeing, talking to your supervisors and seeing what got them to where they are. While you’re a student, there are a lot of overseas opportunities for working in Africa or Sweden. It’s called Child Life United. Taking experiences as a student so when you’re a professional, you’re seen as more competitive in terms of what you can provide.
How challenging is the job market for child life specialists?
The job market for child life specialists are as a student, you have to go into it once you’re certified. As a child life specialist, you may have to take your first job elsewhere because the hospitals in your area may already be fully staffed and not allowing extra. They don’t have a position for you. Once you have your 2 to 3 years of experience, as a child life specialist, those hospitals are looking for an experienced child life specialist.
How to even get into this career, a lot of people don’t know about it. How did this even come up on your radar?
I was one of those students that did not know about it until after I graduated from college. After my Bachelor’s, so after my four-year college experience.
If you don’t mind me backing up a little bit, what were you thinking about in high school then?
In high school, I wanted to be either a teacher or a social worker or child advocacy. I was all over the place but I went to college to be a teacher. I became passionate about sociology and the groups of people and working with vulnerable populations of children and families. I did some work with a refugee organization in Chicago during my Bachelor’s experience so I knew that I didn’t want to be a teacher. There are too many guidelines for what I wanted to do with my work with children. I decided to change my major to Sociology. During my studies, I was able to work with some refugee children through World Relief and saw the impact of that meeting a child during a stressful time in a new country. I’m helping them assimilate and learn what life is like and helping them through difficult experiences. I knew I wanted to do something in that regard. I first found out about child life through one of my best friends, Liz. She was a nurse at Lurie. She had started working at Lurie as a nurse and she saw child life specialists on a daily basis.
What is Lurie?
Lurie Children’s is one of our major children’s hospitals in Chicago. She saw a child life specialist and she knew that I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to do post-grad. She told me that she thought that I would be good at it and thought I had the right personality. She was like, “Those child life specialists remind me a lot like you.” I Googled and did the old Google Search. I started volunteering as a pediatric volunteer at another children’s hospital at Park Ridge. On my first day as a volunteer, I was able to see the work that child life specialists have. I knew that I had this feeling like this is it. From that day on, I volunteered and I worked full-time. I work from 4:00 to 8:00 PM at the hospital. I work from 7:00 to 3:00. It was through that volunteer experience that I knew that this was what I wanted to do. That’s what led me to pursue this field and going to get my certificate and my field work.
It was after college that you said, “I want to go into this.” How long is schooling for child life services?
For schooling, you need a Bachelor’s or Master’s in either Child Development or Human Services-related fields.
Is this a graduate program?
You don’t need a graduate degree to become a certified Child Life Specialist but there are both Bachelor’s and Master’s programs for Child Life. A few years ago, they were saying you need a Master’s but now you need a Bachelor’s to start out with. The Association of Child Life Professionals requires you to complete ten required courses that cover your common play-based, it’s like a play course. Developmental course, Grief course, there are a lot of courses you have to take. Once you complete the ten and have 100 hours of volunteer work at a pediatric hospital, you can apply for what’s called an internship, which is your main fieldwork experience for a child life specialist. Once you complete the internship which is 600 hours of unpaid experience, you can apply. You sit for an exam and then you’re certified.
Everyone comes from a different background. You have me coming from a sociology background who has also taken these courses. You have an education. A lot of teachers come back to this field and a lot of Psychology, a lot of Child Development majors. It is diverse in terms of where people are coming from, which is unique to child life. If you’re a doctor, you go through a specific required coursework as we do, but we all come from different backgrounds as well, which is unique.
Before we set off, I like to go through some rapid-fire questions. It’s not even related to what we talked about. It’s quick answers, you don’t have to go into great detail. What’s your favorite junk food?
TV shows or movies?If you have a passion for helping children and families, being a child life specialist is definitely a career you’d want to consider. Click To Tweet
Do you currently own any stuffed animals?
As you’ve had a first child, would you want them to be the most popular person in their high school?
How long does it take you to get ready in the morning?
Now that I’m a mom, not long.
If you could ask God one question, what would it be?
I would ask him what other colors there are because there are many other colors that our eyes can’t see. I would like to know in heaven what the other colors will be like.
What’s something you could eat for a week straight?
Tacos, for sure.
If you could push a button and make everyone in the world 7% happier but it would also place a worldwide ban on hair styling products, would you push it?
Final question. If you were stranded on a tropical island, what two things would you want with you?
Probably a knife and an endless supply of tacos.
Where can readers go to reach you and learn more about you?
I have an Instagram account called @EverydayPlay_Childlife. I post some ideas, some interventions for students and traveling specialists in the fields as a means to share what we’re doing. You can find me there. The Northshore University Health System website has information about our program specifically as well as a video regarding how we’ve implemented virtual reality into our services. Those are the two places you can find me.
Katelyn, thank you for joining us. I love your energy and your passion. A lot of people are going to hopefully open their world to this career that you’re doing. What you’re doing is great and helping a lot of kids.
I’d be happy to talk to any student who feels free to reach out to me if any student wants to.
Thank you, Katelyn.
Thank you for having me.
Thank you for reading this episode. I enjoyed talking to Katelyn about her career as a child life specialist. I especially liked how she talked about how there are a lot of different opportunities to work with kids as a child life specialist, not only the inpatient setting but also as an outpatient setting. To learn more about this guest and other past guests or if you’d like to reach out to me, visit HealthCareersWithDrMarn.com or HCWithDrMarn.com. I’ll catch you in the next episode.
- Katelyn Beyer – LinkedIn
- Child Life Program
- Child Life United
- @DrRichardMarn – Instagram
About Katelyn Beyer
As a Certified Child Life Specialist, I provide psychosocial support to hospitalized children and families through assessment, preparation, and education.
I accomplish this through the use of therapeutic/expressive child-led play, procedural/surgery preparation, and developmentally appropriate language to help the child understand a diagnosis/illness and how to ensure they are coping effectively with the stresses, fears, and unknowns that come with hospitalization.
PLAY…UNDERSTAND…COPE…HEAL~THAT’S CHILD LIFE. ♥️