Linsey Hammon, MS, CCLS, GC-C, RWWP
Over the last decade, the child life profession has seen many changes and updates to processes and standards that affect student programming. In response to these changes, a cooperative group of child life professionals across Texas and Oklahoma have forged the Child Life Student Coordinator and Educator Think Tank, simply known as “Think Tank”. As a group, we are committed to improving processes for child life students, establishing cross-organizational collaboration,bringing clinicians and academicians together on mutually-beneficial task forces, promoting shared processes, and developing educational events for students. I am confident the Think Tank model can be replicated in other geographical areas to problem-solve aspects of the internship crisis and bring about collaborative solutions. I hope the following review of what we achieved in our region inspires others to increase collaboration and develop similar groups.
THE HISTORY – LEARNING TO TRUST
It was early 2011, and I had transitioned into my position as the first child life educator at our hospital less than a year earlier. As part of overseeing the well-established child life practicum and internship programs, I met weekly with the internship coordinators to plan and problem-solve various details of application review, interview strategy, assignment development, rotation supervision, and more. I kept thinking, “I wonder how other programs handle this?” I quickly realized that reaching out to other programs directly was the best way to answer my questions.
I wanted to bring the group of decision-makers and content experts together for a conversation about student programming across Texas. I called it a “think tank” because I envisioned a group of professionals discussing relevant topics, generating new ideas, and supporting one another. I did not want to lead a meeting; I wanted to facilitate a discussion. While there were no predetermined outcomes, I identified three goals: rapport building, professional connection, and healthy discussion.
Texas is a large state, and while it was relatively easy to think of the well-known hospitals with established child life student programs, I wanted to include as many programs of varying sizes and specialties as possible. I invested hours on the Child Life Council website locating contact information for Texas child life programs that reported offering either a child life practicum or an internship. I identified 14 programs, and I emailed them all a save-the-date and registration information.
At this point in time, apart from CLC work, child life specialists weren’t often collaborating outside of their own organizations. Hospitals compete for patients and strive to position themselves as “the best” at what helps them grow their patient volume. The same was often true of child life programs,especially if they shared a geographic area; the competition and division spilled over into student programming. Many invitees sent me emails with questions such as “what’s the point of this?” and“who’s invited?” One program director replied that she was not allowing the student coordinators to attend but that she would come herself to assess what I was up to. Essentially, we didn’t trust one another very much. Still, ten programs sent at least one representative to the inaugural Think Tank.Student coordinators, and one director, from child life programs across north, central, and southeast Texas cautiously came together and agreed to try.
The initial Think Tank was held May 4, 2011, in Fort Worth, Texas. There was no agenda, but we discussed internship for the first half of the day and practicum during the afternoon. I remember hoping that no one would show up thinking they knew everything and had all the answers. By mid-morning, I had dismissed this concern. Following introductions, we eased into our discussion, and something beautiful happened. People talked, they engaged, they shared, they were transparent, they offered ideas, they brainstormed - it was amazing. Because meeting spaces were limited since I had planned things on such short notice, we changed rooms part way through the day and ate box lunches on the floor of a playroom, but it didn’t matter. We connected and laughed and learned to trust one another.
At the end of the day, we agreed on three critical things: (1) we would share our student documents (i.e., interview questions, assignments, rubrics) with each other, (2) we would contact each other when we had program-specific questions or needed another perspective, and (3) the next Think Tank would take place that October in Houston.
THE PRESENT – REAPING THE BENEFITS
First, we communicate regularly and transparently. The Think Tank continues to meet twice each year, in-person the day before the Southern Association of Child Life Professionals (SACLP) annual conference and virtually each April. During spring 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic, the Think Tank met virtually six times to support and learn from each other, find alternate placements for child life students, and assist academic participants to better support and educate their students.Because we have established relationships that are cultivated regularly, members of the Think Tank correspond as needed throughout the year to improve programming and help students. Open communication nourishes the trust needed to receive feedback from and share ideas with others.
Second, we collaborate to develop student programming and contribute to the child life field. We cheer each other on and help each other problem solve, without concern for or risk to our programs or professional aptitude. We believe in and live out the phrase “better together.” For example, in 2012 we established common practicum application offer and acceptance deadlines.This cooperative shift simplified the process for practicum applicants at more than fifteen child life practicum programs. Additionally, the deadline dates follow the ACLP recommended internship deadlines by two weeks, which has directly benefited students and clinical programs. In 2018, the Think Tank group also created a common practicum application, further streamlining the practicum application process for students in our region.
In 2012, five child life programs across the Dallas-Fort Worth area collaborated to establish the DFW Child Life Workshop. This session was facilitated multiple times each year, and the responsibility to coordinate and host the session rotated among the hospitals. Student coordinators from each hospital were present at every session and shared in facilitating the presentation. When the pandemic occurred, the workshop transitioned to a virtual format and expanded across the SACLP region. A total of eight sessions—four Child Life 101 sessions and four Child Life 201 sessions—are presented each year with two to three Think Tank members volunteering their time to facilitate. In 2022, this equaled 17 Think Tank members sharing their knowledge and expertise with students from across north America.
Third, because of frequent communication and collaboration, we understand and value one another’s programs, thus allowing us to support students more accurately and effectively. Academicians can better advise students as they prepare applications for practicum and internship,and because we have streamlined certain practices, the workload on academic advisors is less heavy. Clinical student coordinators can help volunteers and students think critically through the programs to which they are applying as they prepare to take their next professional step. The student successes are the real win for the development and ongoing practice of the Think Tank.
Save the date graphic that was sent to attendees of the 2011 Child Life Student Coordinator Think Tank.
THE FUTURE – CONTINUING COLLABORATION
There have been many discussions and disagreements in child life about what is best or right for student programming. The clinical and academic program coordinators that participate in Think Tank have not been exempt from the emotional and procedural highs and lows of the current student crisis in our field; however, we have weathered the storms together and maintained our original commitment to unity and collaboration. The Think Tank is far from perfect, and there has been good work that has been accomplished despite the clatter of protests and noise that not enough has been done. Nonetheless, there are reasons it continues to thrive and accomplish a great deal of good for the students and programs within the region.
Over the past two years, we have welcomed child life leaders from two other regions to observe and participate in past Think Tank meetings. This is a good first step in establishing collaborative Think Tank groups, and the invitation is open to student coordinators and educators from other regions of the child life community to attend a future Think Tank. I believe the Think Tank model introduced in this article will help us achieve positive outcomes for aspiring child life specialists sooner than the status quo.
If you are interested in learning more or creating a Child Life Student Coordinator and Educator Think Tank in your local area or geographic region, contact Linsey Hammon at Linsey@lighthousecounselcenter.com.
“As I was finishing my practicum and applying for internships my student coordinator helped me problem solve two different issues at some regional child life programs by communicating with their student coordinators. The first issue was a website problem the site was unaware of and the second involved a misconception I had over the site’s affiliation requirements. Because these three student coordinators were in communication, they were able to solve these problems that were beyond my control as a student,and I was able to apply at two additional regional child life programs. As a career changer with a family and local responsibilities, having regional sites to apply to was critical in my journey to becoming a child life professional, and I ultimately able to secure a local internship and have recently completed my 3rd year as a CCLS.”
-Tyson Heaton, MDiv,CCLS, Cook Children’s Medical Center (practicum summer 2018, internship spring 2019)
“Think Tank has been an amazing resource for both me and my students. This group has been a sounding board for new ideas, and a network for collaboration and communication. The connection the group creates between the clinical childlife world and academic child life world is valuable to both sides and has created a positive support system for students,faculty, and professionals in this field.”
-Elizabeth McCarroll,PhD, CCLS, Texas Woman’s University
“Completing all my student experience, both academic and clinical, in Texas was greatly impacted by the work done by the Think Tank. I didn’t know it at the time, but in hindsight, I can see how the alignment of education and training was designed with intention and collaboration. My supervisors also were all so well connected with one another, which aided my growth as a specialist as they were able to share with one another how my experience had been at each step in my journey.”
-Crystal Chilcoat, MS, CCLS, Communities in Schools, Central Texas (practicum fall 2018, internship fall 2019)
“Think Tank has really brought our Texas child life community together. It has opened avenues of communication with all student programming leaders and academic leaders. It has been key in helping all programs beon the same page to benefit the students we serve. It has given me strong relationships with other program leaders and provided me instant resources I can turn to for support, problem solving, brainstorming, and fellowship.”
-Tracy Hogue, MS, CCLS, CIMI, Children’s Hospital of San Antonio