Child Life in Action

in Public Health with Morganne Bovee, MPH, CCLS

by Bea Wikander | November 13, 2018


As an undergraduate student at the University of Iowa, Morganne was planning to become a child psychologist when she experienced a memorable introduction to child life. She was volunteering at a The University of Iowa Children’s Hospital when she saw Kathy Whiteside, CCLS, walk by with a suitcase full of light spinners and whirlybirds. Dressed casually but clearly part of the healthcare team, “Kathy Whiteside and her bag of tricks” piqued Morganne’s interest. After reading the words Child Life Specialist on Kathy’s badge, Morganne decided to learn more about the child life profession.

"She has come with a background as a child life specialist on our team and that has paid excellent dividents for our research projects."

In her junior year, Morganne was accepted into the child life track and graduated from the University of Iowa with bachelor’s degrees in psychology and therapeutic recreation with an emphasis in child life. She completed her internship at Levine Children’s Hospital in North Carolina and gained experience in intensive care, surgery, and the emergency department. Morganne’s first child life position was a float position at Inova Children’s Hospital in DC, and her second was in surgery at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center. At Johns Hopkins, Morganne inherited a project focused on making the surgery unit a more friendly and accessible space for children with sensory issues or developmental delays.

After a year at Johns Hopkins, Morganne decided to pursue a master’s degree in public health from George Washington University. Her experience working at large, urban hospitals and her concern for underserved populations led her to specialize in global health program design and implementation. Currently in Peru completing the culminating experience for her master’s program, Morganne has gained experience in international public health programming and research. One unexpected lesson is the pace and unpredictability associated with procuring grants and approval from institutional review boards. Such delays have affected Morganne’s timeline but not her focus or enthusiasm.

In Peru, Morganne is partnered with Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia (UPCH) and an NGO called Prisma. She works closely with Dr. Bob Gilman of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, an experienced researcher who has lived in Peru for many years and whose wife founded Prisma. The focus of Morganne’s work in Peru is the prevalence of autism in the pediatric population and the psychological care available to patients and families. Her work is supported in part by the Center for Children with Special Needs in Connecticut, which is run by Michael Powers, Psy. D, a professor and practitioner with a joint appointment at Yale. The prevalence of autism in Peru is unknown, a fact that presented challenges for Morganne and her colleagues as they worked to create an applied behavioral analysis program, the standard for behavioral interventions for children with autism.

Bubbles in field office

The children needed to remain perfectly still while Morganne
and her colleagues took photos of their pupils.

Man fixing toy

Morganne walked six miles to find someone who could fix a
switch toy with a soldering tool. 

After many months of research and outreach, Morganne has assisted in implementing a family training plan in applied behavioral analysis. Mariana Torres-Viso, Psy. D., of the Center for Children with special needs, has trained two local Peruvian psychologists in behavioral analysis, while Morganne assisted in recruitment, securing local partner organizations, and meeting with families. The autism project is now operational, and the psychologists she helped train will meet with families as part of a 12-week screening and treatment plan. The training includes teaching parents how to use positive reinforcement and how to better play with and relate to their children. Morganne will monitor the screenings and analyze the results of the initiative using qualitative surveys.

While waiting for approval to continue with the autism project, Morganne also worked on a pediatric malnutrition ultrasound project. Using her child life training and conversational Spanish, Morganne was a key member of the team as they went door to door with a portable ultrasound machine to screen children for malnutrition. Thinking as a child life specialist, Morganne purchased age-appropriate toys and suggested the team wear clothing that would put parents and children at ease.  She also used a dinosaur stress ball and bubbles to distract and calm children who were frightened by the calipers used to measure skin thickness.

Although Morganne is not currently working as a child life professional in a clinical setting, her child life skills and experiences have improved the implementation of her public health project. Morganne credits her stints in fast-paced environments like surgery and the emergency department with her ability to think on her feet and figure out quickly “where you’re needed, where you’re not, how to be helpful.” Dr. Gilman has observed how the child life skills and mindset Morganne brings to public health outreach has positively affected the healthcare experience for patients and families as well as the quality and quantity of data required for their outreach and research:

“Morganne makes things happen. She brings enthusiasm and pride in her work to our projects. She has come with a background as a child life specialist on our team and that has paid excellent dividends for our research projects. She has trained our field workers so that children are happy to cooperate with our non-invasive procedures. Also, she was instrumental in changing the environment of the field office for testing children with autism. It now functions better, with decreased distraction and better testing results. I think it’s important in all research, especially global health to have teams of professionals and students that are multidisciplinary, and the success of bringing her on these projects really shows that it works. She has become a very valuable part of our research team.”

According to Morganne, “There’s definitely a place in public health for child life specialists just as much as there’s a place for child life specialists in the community.” Although she found clinical child life work fulfilling, her work experiences in Baltimore and Washington, DC led her to focus on the power and primacy of the family and community. Despite a shift toward community-based work, Morganne makes good use of her clinical child life skills by noting what might be potentially scary or offsetting to children and families and adjusting environments and procedures accordingly. Her suggestions improve care for children and families as well as the quality of data and the ease of data collection.

After she graduates, Morganne plans to implement community programs in pediatrics for underserved populations. Although her name tag may not say Child Life Specialist, Morganne hopes to represent the child life community by bringing her training in the psychosocial care of children to all aspects of her work. She believes any opportunity to increase the visibility of child life and demonstrate its value across a variety of professions and work environments is a positive step forward for the profession.

Child Life Profession