Comforting Kids During Crisis

Child life specialist Katie Craft helps kids be kids when they’re in the hospital. As young patients grapple with new fears, that work has never been more important.

By Beth Tagawa UCSF Magazine

Portrait of Katie Craft with a face mask and protective eyewear on her head.

Katie Craft, captured via FaceTime in the schoolroom at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland on May 14 at 1:20 p.m. by photographer Steve Babuljak

At UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals, it’s not unusual to stumble upon patients banging drums in a music circle or pouring paint on canvases during an art class. A powerful – and healing – sense of community is fostered by child life specialists who spread joy and calm fears. For kids with complex medical needs, the hospital morphs into a second home, and child life specialists become their teachers, friends, and confidantes.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, their work has been upended. Child life specialist Katie Craft, who has supported young patients at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland for nine years, shares in her own words how the team has adapted and what she’s learned.

In my work, making connections with patients is crucial. I’m used to entering a kid’s world by sitting down next to them and engaging in play. Right now, I’m finding new ways to develop therapeutic relationships, like setting up a chair in the hallway, doing an art project together from a distance, or facilitating Zoom sessions.

It’s also important for patients to connect with each other, to see kids who look like them – kids with IV poles or who’ve lost their hair or who have visible Mediport scars. When they see others experiencing similar situations and forming friendships here, it helps mitigate the loneliness and the feeling that no one understands them.

Community-building usually happens organically in our playroom, teen lounge, family resource center, and schoolroom. Since those shared spaces are now closed, we’re fostering connections in new ways, such as holding virtual playroom sessions and Play-Doh parties. We pass out iPads connected to Zoom along with containers of Play-Doh so kids can see one another while we play. They love sharing their creations with each other. Earlier this week, I had seven kids on a Zoom call together, all holding up their Play-Doh donuts and flowers and shouting things like “My Play-Doh snake is the longest!” It was inspiring to see that the power to connect is still there, and it’s great to see them still having fun together.

She wanted to know more about this ‘COVID thing’ everyone is talking about.”

Katie Craft

But COVID is pervading kids’ thoughts. I recently had a new-diagnosis education session with a 6-year-old who has leukemia. At the end of it, I said she could ask me anything. She’s like, “Can we talk about coronavirus?” Though I had just facilitated an activity to help her and her family better understand her cancer diagnosis, she wanted to know more about this “COVID thing” everyone is talking about.

Many of our kids and teens are aware that they have immunocompromised systems, and they can internalize that as “I’m vulnerable. I’m going to get this.” It’s true that they need to be more cautious, and it’s sometimes hard to be cautious without becoming fearful.

Kids’ fears can get magnified when we don’t talk about what’s going on. So our department is demystifying the situation as best we can, in developmentally appropriate terms. A good place to help kids focus their energies is on the things we can control. We’ve made coronavirus activity books and coloring pages, hung kid-friendly informational posters about the virus outside the playrooms, and filmed with puppets explaining more about the virus and the precautions necessary to help keep everyone’s germs to themselves. We want to make sure that kids understand why the world is changing and know the hospital is a safe place for them.

Working in the hospital has always included a weird, beautiful combination of so many different emotions. There are families in the most unimaginable, awful situations of their whole lives. But there is also a tangible sense of joy and resiliency, the power of seeing that children can still be children and that there’s so much goodness in the world. The anxiety around COVID-19 has intensified those feelings and experiences for me. Many of us, including myself, have lost loved ones to this virus and are experiencing changes in our lives we never asked for. Yet everybody is showing up to help one another right now in the ways they can, and the world goes on. Sometimes, when life gets difficult, it’s easier to see what’s really of value and what our purpose is: to love one another and do it well.

Eight Ways to Help Kids Cope During COVID-19

Craft shares suggestions for promoting resilience and positive coping skills. 


Portrait of Alex Smith, with his computer in the background.

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