Child Life Private Practice: Part 1

starting a private practice

I’ve had a lot of interest from other child lifers in the logistics of starting a child life private practice.  Some people are looking to add community services as a side job or supplement to part-time work and others are looking to make it a full-time occupation.  I had a lot of people graciously share their expertise and experience with me as I was researching self-employment.  So, I want to share some of what I have learned and things that you might want to consider in starting a private practice in a series of posts.  I had very little knowledge of the process of setting up a business in the beginning, and figuring out what I needed to do (and the order that I needed to do it in) was a little daunting.  The first step of the process is brainstorming the type of work you want and researching the structure of your business.

1. What services do you want to provide? 
Do you have a particular population that you want to serve? Do you see a need in your community that you can help fill? Some possibilities: offering traditional child life services in homes or community settings, providing services from a special certification you have like infant massage (or child safety, or Reiki, or guided imagery, etc), consulting with pediatric practices or hospitals in child/family friendly policies or design.  Seasoned professionals might offer supervision or mentoring to other child life specialists, tutoring child life students, or creating professional development opportunities.  I think it is important to mention that I think having a couple of years experience working with children and families is really a pre-requisite to this process. Learning the ropes of child life in the hospital setting will help you move more comfortably in alternative settings.

2. How much time and financial commitment?
How much time do you want to put toward your new venture?  Do you see this as an on-the-side job or something that you are committing to full time?  Building a new business takes time, especially when you are having to educate your target audience about your profession or service.  I’m almost five months into the process and I’m just now starting to see growth in the practice. I’ve been teaching a college course and substitute teaching to supplement my income throughout this time.  My husband is the primary bread-winner right now, and probably will be for quite a while.  The financial cost for starting a service-oriented business like this can be very reasonable compared to other businesses (primarily website, marketing tools like business cards, and supplies to use with clients like craft materials and medical play equipment).  However, you have to consider that time is money.  The biggest “cost” of my business for our family is the lack of income I could be making if I were employed by someone else.  I looked at the money I had in savings and developed a monthly budget/goal for spending to help me see the bigger financial picture.  It also serves as a guidepost for when I might need to consider adding a more regular part-time job to replace my occasional substitute teaching, if the practice isn’t growing the way I hope it will.   If you choose to start your practice as a part-time or side job there is less financial burden and risk, but the hours that you can offer services are reduced.  This might not be a problem at all, depending on what you’d like to do, where/how you offer services, and your regular work hours.

2. What type of business structure?
There are several different ways to organize a small business. So, one of the first steps in private practice development is choosing the type of business structure that meets your needs. The simplest type is called a “sole proprietorship” and generally just requires you to register the name of your business with your county or local government with a “doing business as” document.  While sole-proprietorship is the simplest business form, you also carry more financial liability with this structure. Professionals can also set up a limited liability corporation (LLC), professional limited liability corporation (PLLC), or traditional corporation.  I live and work in Houston, Texas and the local government makes starting a small home-based business pretty easy.  I am currently working as a “sole proprietor”.  This was the easiest way for me to begin, as I just had to register my DBA (doing business as) with my county office.  In the future, I might actually form an LLC, depending on the success and complexity of my practice. Laws vary a bit state-to-state in terms of the rules for which business types are allowed in your area. Your state and local government might also have requirements including permits or fees. Here is a link to the Small Business Association website where you can find your local chapter. They will have resources and the “rules” for your state and county:

I think that’s a lot of information for one post, so I’ll stop there for today.  In the next post I’ll talk a little about business finances, taxes, and accepting payments.


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