Winter 2009

Tending to Children's Mental and Emotional Development

"Child life has played a central role in Anthony's battle with brain and spinal tumors. His child life specialist has done a great deal to help Anthony [and us] cope with his fears about procedures and hospitalization."
— Robert Fusaro, Anthony's father, January 16, 2008

In the hectic swirl of a busy hospital, it's easy to forget the psychological trauma that hospitalization can inflict on children and their families. Child life specialists are the members of the team charged with remembering. Trained in child development, psychology and education, child life specialists at select hospitals are available to attend to hospitalized children's developmental needs.

Quite often, they improve patient satisfaction by doing such things as helping children and their families prepare for, and debrief after, procedures and coordinating with clinicians to help address patient and family needs.

"Doctors and nurses have to focus on the clinical details, but for children the mental health challenges of hospitalization are real," says Michael Towne, coordinator of the UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital Child Life Department. "We aim to save everyone involved from healing a psychological wound that never had to be there in the first place."

If the hospitalization is traumatic, children can become less trusting, noncompliant with medical treatment or afraid of health care providers. At least equally important, the child's development can be arrested. "That's why it's important, for example, to have a playroom so younger children can continue doing the things they would normally be doing outside a hospital," says Towne. Other programs can include a musician in residence, entertainers, birthday celebrations, creative technology and a school program.

Staying on the Academic Track

Missing school is often of special concern to children and their families. "From the child's perspective, everything can't be too bad if you're expected to be in school," says Towne.

UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital provides one example of how hospitalized schooling can work. Its Marie Wattis School, which is part of the San Francisco Unified School District, functions as a one-room schoolhouse. Teachers at Marie Wattis coordinate closely with the schools where patients are enrolled, and then provide support for everything from kindergarten through AP calculus for hospitalized children and their siblings, regardless of whether they are there for a short time or an extended stay.

In cases where patients can't come to the classroom, teachers come to their bedside. In addition, patients can take advantage of TeachTV, a closed-circuit educational program that runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Enrichment activities include a film curriculum project with the San Francisco Film Society and visitors from the Exploratorium, the de Young Museum and the Asian Art Museum.

When students leave the hospital, a child life program can also provide reentry services to help school communities understand the circumstances and prepare for when the child returns. "We involve the child to understand his or her preference because we know how difficult it can be to come back," says Towne.

For more information, contact Michael Towne at (415) 353-1203.

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