Child & Developmental Psychologist

classroom psychologist talking to kids
Learn – Play – Grow: Child & Developmental Psychology

Child psychologists or developmental psychologists strive to help children and their families deal with life-altering events & issues. Nancy Michel has been a child psychologist for over 25 years. She has worked with children and teens dealing with a range of issues, from those suffering from anxiety and depression to those having problems coping in school or those who have experienced a trauma, like the death of a loved one or abuse.

“As a psychologist, it’s a nice place to be, working with people who have a long life ahead of them.”

“As a psychologist, it’s a nice place to be, working with people who have a long life ahead of them…”said Michel in an interview with Psychologist Simon Hearn, presented by Dennis Boyd & Associates. If you would like to profoundly help those who still have their whole lives ahead of them, then a career as a child or developmental psychologist could be your calling.

Child & Developmental Psychologist Career At a Glance

  • Degree Level Requirements: PhD. or Psy.D
  • Certification/Licensure Requirements: Licensed is required to practice as a child and developmental psychologist and requirements vary by state.
  • Specializations: A range, from clinical to counselling, from working with children with developmental disabilities to those who have experienced a trauma.
  • Median Annual Salaries: $68,640 *
  • Job Outlook: 22% growth from 2010 to 2020 **

Career & Job Description

“A child psychologist is a type of psychologist who studies the mental, social and emotional development of children,” states About.com’s Kendra Cherry, a former psychosocial rehabilitation specialist and author of The Everything Psychology Book, 2nd Edition. “Typically, child psychologists look at development from the prenatal period through adolescence.”

Child and developmental psychologists work in a variety of settings, such as hospitals, schools, clinics, mental health centers, social service agencies, universities, private practices and universities and their clients may have a range of difficulties, from mental illness and behavioral problems to those who have developmental impairments, are struggling with various life stages or who have experienced a traumatic event.

“Play therapy is a form of psychotherapy that is often used with children because it tends to utilize play and imagination rather than words as the primary vehicle of communication.” – Child Psychologist Dr. Laurie Zelinger

A child or developmental psychologist’s job description will often involve clinical and/or counseling duties, however some will focus on research, teaching, consulting and other functions.

A child and developmental psychologist may perform one or more of the following:

Again, a child psychologist’s job description will vary by area of expertise, workplace and the children they interact with, but here are some examples of professional tasks:

  • Observe, interview and interact with children and adolescents to gain an understanding of what they are dealing with.
  • Continuously learn about and research psychological, emotional, behavioral and developmental difficulties associated with children and adolescents for diagnostic and treatment purposes.
  • Deliver psychological/developmental/performance tests for diagnosis.
  • Work as part of a healthcare team (that might include a family doctor, psychiatrist, social worker and other health professionals, and possibly family members and teachers) to develop and implement an effective treatment plan.
  • Provide psychotherapy, such as play therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT), parent-child therapy, family therapy, group therapy, anger control training, multi-systemic approaches and dialectical behavior therapy.
  • Design and evaluate the effectiveness of treatment programs, such as a self-esteem program for elementary school-aged children or a series of classes for new parents.
  • Evaluate families to determine if children and youth are receiving adequate care.
  • Evaluate prospective foster parents.
  • Serve as an expert witness in trials related to child custody, abuse or where the defendant is a minor (and assess all relevant individuals ahead of time).
  • Conduct research for government, social service, academic or industrial institutions, such as on the effects of media on young viewers or how to empower youth growing up in an oppressive environment.

Specializations & Concentrations

In some cases, the term child psychologist and developmental psychologist are used interchangeably. This is because up until recently, developmental psychologists focused on the development of children and adolescents. “But as life expectancy in this country approaches 80 years, developmental psychologists are becoming increasingly interested in aging, especially in researching and developing ways to help older people stay as independent as possible,” states the American Psychological Association (APA). Tara L. Kuther and Robert D. Morgan add (in their book Careers in Psychology: Opportunities in a Changing World, 4th edition) that developmental psychology is also growing from an academic/research field to also include clinical and counseling roles.

Child or developmental psychologists may work with a range of individuals dealing with a variety of difficulties. Through academic and professional experiences, they may deal with one or more specializations. Examples include:

  • Working with children suffering from mental health problems, such as anxiety and mood disorders like depression and PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).
  • Working with children who have experienced a physical, emotional or sexual trauma.
  • Working with children with developmental disabilities such as autism, ADHD or learning disabilities.
  • Working with children with physical disabilities (either lifelong or newly developed) to help them deal with the psychological repercussions linked to their condition.
  • Working with a certain age group such as infants or adolescents (12-18 years old).
  • Working with youth in the educational system as a school psychologist.
  • Being specialized in a particular treatment approach, such as trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy or anger coping therapy.

The Educational Journey

In most cases, licensed child or developmental psychologists generally require a Doctoral degree (Ph.D. or Psy.D.). However, there are child psychology-related careers obtainable with less education.

Bachelor’s Degree Complete a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology. Complete elective courses as well as research labs/service projects/placements related to developmental and child psychology. (Some undergraduate programs may also offer the option to concentrate in Child or Developmental Psychology).
Graduate Application After you finish your Bachelor’s Degree, you can apply for a Master’s program or gain some work experience. With a Bachelor’s degree, you can gain employment as a research assistant for a professor specialized in child psychology, a psychiatric technician or child life specialist at a children’s hospital, youth probation officer, crisis center worker, family or youth shelter case manager, family services worker, early childhood behavioral specialist, teacher assistant, program coordinator of a relevant non-profit organization and more. (Note that some positions will require previous related experience and/or certification).
Master’s Degree Complete a Master’s Degree in Psychology specializing in Child Counseling, Family Counseling, Children or Adolescent Clinical Psychology, Pediatric Psychology, School Psychology, Developmental Psychology or another concentration related to your career goals. (You do not necessarily need a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology to be accepted into a Master’s of Psychology program).
Workforce or Doctoral Degree After completing a Master’s degree, you may wish to pursue a Doctoral degree, or you may wish to enter the workforce. Grads of Master in Psychology programs go onto various professions, including as an assistant to a professor, doctoral student or licensed psychologist, child protection worker, developmental specialist, early childhood behavioral specialist, family or youth shelter supervisor, school counselor, child welfare workers and more. (Note that some positions will require previous related experience and/or certification).
Licensure To become a licensed clinical or counseling child psychologist, an (applied) developmental psychologist and/or a professor/academic researcher, complete a Ph.D. or Psy.D. Select a concentration related to your career goals, such as Clinical, Developmental or Child Psychology.

Certification & Licensing Requirements

  • Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) can be diagnosed among children as young as 2 years old.
    Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • In 50% of cases, mental illness surfaces by the time an individual is 14 years old.
    Source: National Institute of Mental Health
  • There are 3.3 million cases of child abuse reported (representing almost 6 million children) each year in the United States. Each day around five children die from abuse.
    Source: ChildHelp.org

“In most states, practicing psychology or using the title of “psychologist” requires licensure or certification,” states the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Each state has their own guidelines for licensure of clinical and counseling psychologists and these are outlined by the Association of State and Licensing Boards. Generally speaking, to gain certification, candidates must complete an approved doctoral program (usually one that is accredited by the APA), two years of supervised training/internships (often times one year during the doctoral program and one year after, although there are some state exceptions) and passing a national qualifying exam (i.e. the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology) and possibly a jurisprudence exam (specific to the state) and/or oral exam.

Examples of agencies that administer specialty psychology certifications related to child and developmental psychology include:

  • The American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) which administers 14 specialty certifications including “Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology” and “School Psychology”.
  • The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) which administers the Nationally Certified School Psychologist credential. (It also provides state-by-state requirements for school psychologist licensure, where only a Master’s degree may be required.)

School Psychologists

“School psychologists work with children and adolescents who present a broad array of psychological needs that are of a developmental or school-related nature,” states Careers in Psychology: Opportunities in a Changing World (4th edition) by Tara L. Kuther and Robert D. Morgan. “Up to 20 percent of children and adolescents experience significant mental health problems during their school years…” These problems range from “psychopathology (such as depression and anxiety)” and learning difficulties to “life stage problems (for example, sexuality, college…)” and troubles with family or school relationships.

Generally, School Psychologists require a minimum of a specialized Master’s degree (60+ graduate credit hours) and certification granted by National Association of School Psychologists (NASP).

  • Reference & Data Information Provided by the Following:
  • * May 2010 (for Psychologists Overall, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)
  • ** May 2010 (for Psychologists Overall, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)
  • † Salary data from US BLS http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Life-Physical-and-Social-Science/Psychologists.htm#tab-5
  • ‡ Job Outlook data from US BLS http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Life-Physical-and-Social-Science/Psychologists.htm#tab-6