ACLP Lead Fellow

Jessika Boles 1_1

Jessika Boles, PhD, CCLS

Jessika Boles, PhD, CCLS is an assistant professor of practice in the Department of Psychology and Human Development at Vanderbilt University; she also works as a Certified Child Life Specialist at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tennessee. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Religious Studies from Rhodes College, a master’s degree in applied child studies from Vanderbilt University, and both a doctoral degree in Educational Psychology and graduate certificate in Qualitative Research from The University of Memphis. Since 2009, she has worked as a Certified Child Life Specialist for infants, children, adolescents, and young adults with chronic, life-threatening, or terminal illnesses and injuries in oncology and critical care. She also currently leads the CHILL lab at Vanderbilt University where her team studies various dimensions of Children’s Healthcare, Illness, Legacy, and Loss.

Beginning her child life career at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, she was struck by the pervasive and persistent omission of children’s voices in their healthcare experiences, particularly in those nearest to the possibility of loss or death.  While concurrently working as a child life specialist and completing her doctoral degree, Dr. Boles began to assemble a research agenda grounded in subjectivist, post-structural understandings of knowledge that situates learning in socio-cultural contexts such as the hospital, outpatient clinic, community, and family.  Blending traditional and innovative qualitative methods with established developmental theories, her research uses a Certified-Child-Life-Specialist-informed clinical perspective to deconstruct the ways in which children learn about and enact dominant social binaries such as health/illness, life/death, and childhood/adulthood.  To address the problematic theory-to-practice pipeline that dominates most healthcare fields, Dr. Boles’ priority as a researcher is to produce work that challenges paternalist medical narratives by disrupting power hierarchies between patient/provider and researcher/researched, and dismantling social beliefs that challenge children’s abilities to access information about their diagnosis, treatment, and life experiences. As a result, her studies rely upon developmentally appropriate, child-centered, and trauma-informed methods (such as narrative or semi-structured interviews, arts-based activities, and group play interventions) to elicit the pediatric voices typically marginalized by medical research models.

"When conducting research with children and families, I intentionally build in opportunities for participants to make choices about how they would like to participate."

To date, she maintains an active dossier of research and quality improvement projects united in their commitment to break down the discursive barriers that can limit children's understanding of and participation in their healthcare experiences. Dr. Boles’ early work has explored the ways in which children come to understand a cancer diagnosis and treatment while simultaneously navigating changes in school attendance, care routines, and family dynamics.  She is currently involved in tracing the historical and contemporary evolution of legacy as a healthcare concept, synthesizing and analyzing the ways in which healthcare providers, parents/caregivers, and pediatric patients understand and describe legacy in the hospital setting.  In addition, she is working with bereaved parents in the larger community to understand the ways in which they describe, enact, and propagate their infant, child, or adolescent’s legacy post-mortem.
With the support of an incredibly skilled child life team and top-notch graduate students with a diverse array of interests, Dr. Boles is additionally examining the impact of group medical play on children’s fear and anxiety related to surgery, healthcare providers’ perceptions of caring for children with intellectual and developmental disabilities, the impact of COVID-19 on caregiving in families of children with complex care needs, relationships between childhood health experiences and healthcare career paths, the effects of play-based educational interventions on young children’s adherence to eye patching therapy, and the use of a collaborative child life/music therapy intervention to promote attachment and bonding for hospitalized infants and caregivers.  She is also engaged in several projects supporting the history, mission, and vision of the child life profession, such as a scoping review of Child Life Focus content, a comprehensive analysis of child life specialist presence in published peer-reviewed articles, an examination of historical trends in ACLP conference presentation offerings, and an interview-based inquiry into the group play experiences of Certified Child Life Specialists in North America.  In addition, she is currently co-editing a contracted book that will detail research methods for child life specialists – as written by a collection of leading child life scholar/authors. 
Dr. Boles’ extensive roster of involvement and leadership in the Association of Child Life Professionals aligns well with her drive for and commitment to research, as she is a former chair of the Research and Scholarship committee, former executive editor of Child Life Bulletin, former chair of the Academic Review Committee, former ACLP Board Member, and a past co-recipient of the ACLP’s Professional Research Award. Most recently, she was tasked with leading a team of ten child life specialists and graduate students to compose the Value Proposition Statement for Child Life Services, a compilation of several decades of research related to each aspect of the child life profession articulated for an audience of healthcare executives and administrators.  Outside of ACLP, she edits a regular column for Pediatric Nursing, serves as an editorial board member for Journal of Ethnographic and Qualitative Research, occupies an advisory board position for the pediatric division of Cambridge Scholars, and regularly reviews for a variety of peer-reviewed journals related to child development, pediatric healthcare, and psychology.

"With each study, I learn more about ways to best support children and families as they navigate illness, loss."

Clinically, Dr. Boles regularly contributes her time to institutional initiatives for improving bereavement care, increasing patient mobility, and mitigating trauma and distress in pediatric critical care environments. Notably, she has developed a hospital-wide bereavement committee, a sensory-soothing program for children with agitation or delirium, and frequently contributes her expertise to hospital and community initiatives addressing children’s coping and development in a variety of settings and circumstances.  

“Perhaps due to my training as a Certified Child Life Specialist, I view research not only as a tool for identifying population needs and evaluating interventions, but also as a developmental experience for participants that has the capacity to promote meaning-making and cultivate a positive outlook on research participation throughout the lifespan.  Research in this vein can be an instrument of empowerment in the face of the many and dynamic healthcare-related stressors that many of my participant populations are navigating, like childhood cancer, extended hospitalization, or the loss of a child or family member.  I seek and honor children’s assent in any study that I do, and tailor my informed consent discussions based on the child’s developmental level and previous research experiences.  When conducting research with children and families, I intentionally build in opportunities for participants to make choices about how they would like to participate and allot time and space for them to provide feedback on their experiences of participating in the research. With each study, I learn more about ways to best support children and families as they navigate illness, loss, and research, improving my ability to generate research that is culturally humble, trauma informed, and emotionally safe for both participants and research staff.“

About ACLP