According to research published by Columbia University, mental health issues can start early in a child’s life. Approximately one in five children between infancy and adulthood have a diagnosable mental disorder, while one in 10 have issues severe enough to cause significant problems in their homes or at school. Child psychologists are trained professionals who help children understand their emotions and experiences in order to develop treatment plans and ways of coping with their illness. Whether working with a young child dealing with the divorce of their parents or a teenager fighting against self-harm impulses, child psychologists can make a true and lasting difference. Keep reading to learn what it takes to become a child psychologist, earning potential, and similar career paths.
With a thorough understanding of what makes children tick, child psychologists work with their young patients to diagnose and treat a variety of developmental, behavioral and emotional psychological disorders. The majority of child psychologists are focused on clinical care rather than research, meaning they work directly with patients to devise treatments and monitor their progress. Psychologists serving children can be found in a range of settings, including schools, hospitals, clinics and private practice. Those who do work in research are mostly considered with gaining better understanding of how behavioral and mental development affect children as they age.
Child psychologists are tasked with ensuring the mental health of future generations, and this responsibility comes with many requirements. In addition to undergraduate educations, child psychologists must complete a doctoral program, numerous practicums and fieldwork placements, and supervised post-doctoral training. Aside from clinical and research positions, some child psychologists elect to work in administrative or programmatic roles, developing curriculums or other academic programs that help address behavior management or positive emotional and behavioral development.
Roles for psychologists – including those who work with children – offered a median salary of $72,580 per year, while those in the upper echelons can expect to bring home close to $125,000 annually. Depending on the state where an aspiring child psychologist expects to practice, this number can fluctuate. Use the map below to see salary projections for those in the 10th, 50th, and 90th percentiles.
Becoming a child psychologist takes years of education, fellowships, and hard work before ever being issued a license. The following section details the necessary steps to starting your practice.
Undergraduate degrees in child psychology are all but nonexistent; however, there are numerous paths a student may elect to follow at this level. A baccalaureate degree provides the foundation for future advanced coursework, so the most important thing is to find a program that provides courses in topics that admission officers look for on transcripts. These include child development and psychology, general psychology, social sciences and statistics.
Depending on the school, some child psychology programs require students to complete a master’s degree, while others combine the programs into one doctorate degree. Schools offering this option typically factor in the applicant’s undergraduate degree when making a decision, and those with relevant baccalaureate backgrounds are more frequently accepted directly to a doctoral program.
Master’s degrees typically require two to three years of full-time study and can be taken as either a master of arts or a master of science, the latter of which is better suited to those who plan to work in research.
Doctoral programs are often offered as a PhD in clinical child psychology or clinical psychology with a concentration in child development and take between five and seven years of study. Students who previously completed a master’s program may be able to finish the degree a year sooner. Coursework is designed to provide students with skills in behavioral, biological and cognitive approaches to child psychology. Aside from class requirements, candidates for graduation must also complete a thesis consisting of substantial and independent research in the field.
Before applying for a license, students must complete a supervised practicum overseen by the American Psychological Association. These may last one year or longer, and many states require this step before a full license can be obtained.
No matter the type of psychologist, all states require these professionals be licensed in order to practice. The license typically shows that one is either a clinical psychologist, or a licensed psychologist. In addition to meeting practicum requirements, applicants must also sit for and successfully pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology administered by the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards.
After receiving licensure, psychologists can undertake a postdoctoral fellowship in a position related to child psychology. After spending one to two years in this role, individuals are prepared to undertake the American Board of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology’s Board Examination. Candidates for certification must hold a doctorate degree from an APA-approved program, be currently licensed in their jurisdiction of practice, complete a one- or two-year internship and a minimum of two years of post-internship experience, and pass the ABCCAP exam.
In most cases, a career as a child psychologist requires earning a doctorate, while a career as a school psychologist also requires postgraduate study. The first step toward a master’s or doctoral degree is to complete a bachelor's degree program from a reputable college or university. Major programs specifically in child psychology are rare on the bachelor's level, so most students opt for a general psychology course of study or counseling. Examples of undergraduate degrees for students interested in continuing their education in child psychology at a postgraduate level are shown below.
General psychology students are immersed in a multidisciplinary curriculum comprising both scientific and liberal arts coursework. With a focus on classroom learning, laboratory skills, and research, the major produces well-rounded graduates who have a foundational knowledge of the topics they’ll encounter in graduate degree programs.
Example courses: Statistics in the Behavioral Sciences, Research Methods, Developmental Psychology, and Child and Adolescent Psychopathology
This academic discipline prepares students for future advanced coursework by instilling concepts of communication, cultural awareness, and emotional intelligence while also providing theoretical knowledge of human and cognitive development, and social theory.
Examples courses: Theories of Personality, Trauma and Crisis, Family Interventions, and Abnormal Psychology
After finding numerous suitable programs, the next crucial step is to be admitted. These degrees are extremely competitive, with the top rated schools excepting less than 3 percent of all applicants. During the 2014-2015 academic year, the University of Kansas received 153 applicants but matriculated just five students.
Applicants must take the standardized GRE test and submit scores as part of their application. Those with an unrelated undergraduate degree are often required to take the advanced test in psychology in addition to the standard sections of the examination. The most competitive students also have previous experience of conducting research and interacting with children from a psychological perspective.
Other standard requirements include transcripts, GPA, letters of recommendation, a personal statement, and an interview. Prospective students should take time to review the individual requirements of each program for which they intend to apply.
Degree Earned: M.A. and/or Specialist Certificate (S.C.)
Amount of time: 2-3 years of full-time study beyond a bachelor’s
Approximately 60 credit hours, a supervisory fieldwork placement, internship, and a thesis or capstone project.
The school psychology degree provides a holistic look at the educational and personal development of children and adolescents
Individuals who know they want to work with children in an educational setting, particularly those who are already working in some capacity in education. Graduates of this program may go on to work as school psychologists, but they could also work as teachers or school counselors.
Degree Earned: PhD in Developmental Psychology
Amount of time: 5-7 years of full-time study beyond a bachelor’s, maybe less for those who’ve completed the master’s degree in developmental psychology
Aside from coursework, students in this combined advanced degree complete both a master’s thesis and a PhD dissertation. Most programs also require written and oral qualifying examinations
Although students can choose to focus their studies on children, the degree also covers adolescent and family dynamics. Cognitive, cultural, emotional, neurological, social and spiritual factors are examined throughout.
Individuals who want to serve children but also have the freedom to work with those who a child regularly interacts with, such as siblings and parents.
Degree Earned: PhD in Child Psychology
Amount of time: 5-7 years of full-time study beyond a bachelor’s degree, sometimes less for those who have already completed a master’s degree
In addition to coursework, students complete approximately 300 hours of clinical practica before moving into supervision and consultation. Individuals who did not previously complete a master’s must write a thesis in addition to the PhD dissertation. A comprehensive oral examination is taken after all coursework is completed.
While other programs are wider in scope, child psychology curriculums were created for individuals who know they want to work as child psychologists; all coursework is focused toward that goal.
Students who are committed to their goal of becoming a child psychologist.
This class combines both classroom discussion and opportunities for supervised experience in assessing and treating children and their families. In addition to working with patients, students also hone their interviewing skills and delve into behavioral observation.
Diversity plays a significant role in how a child develops and learns, and this course seeks to equip students with the knowledge to recognize these differences with diagnosing and creating treatment plans for their patients. Various theoretical frameworks will be discussed along with numerous case studies.
This course examines how information gathered from neuropsychological assessments can help better inform a holistic treatment plan for a child or adolescent. The importance of a child’s individual experience in how they behave and interact is highlighted throughout the class.
This course familiarizes students with the range of behavioral disorders affecting this population, ranging from ADHD and autism to depression and self-harm. Concepts of temperament, family and peer interactions, and mental health will be studied intensively throughout.
Students become oriented to the practice of child psychologists by shadowing licensed professionals, assisting with research, and presenting case studies. Students also have the opportunity to make and report on observations about different behavioral patterns.
While school psychologists do spend one-on-one time with schoolchildren, they are also tasked with researching how teaching and learning can be used to address issues that happen while in school. They may work in tandem with teachers to develop techniques to treat children or work with parents and families to help apply the principles being used at school to home life.
The field of developmental psychology is concerned with how humans develop throughout their lifetime. While early days of this branch of psychology were mainly concerned with infants, children, and adolescents, the field has evolved to cover how individuals change across the lifespan. Some of the specific areas of interest for developmental psychologists include cognitive skills, personality, emotions, language acquisition, and how morals are developed and understood.
While other psychologists may be involved with administration or program development, clinical child psychologists are primarily focused on diagnosing and treating patients. These individuals are trained in a variety of different treatment methodologies and frameworks, and use their knowledge in behavioral assessments to develop a course of action tailored to the individual child’s needs. Clinical child psychologists may also be found in research roles.
Child psychology faculty at academic institutions often teach a variety of courses on behavioral and cognitive development, behavioral disorders, and psychological treatment theories. They may also coordinate practicums and fieldwork placements for their students and perform independent research to deepen their knowledge in their area of interest.
Education, licensure, and certification are all very important components of finding success and fulfillment from a career as a child psychologist. Still, the best professionals in the field also have the perfect blend of skills and an awareness of useful tools and technologies. Compare the checklists below to learn about being a well-rounded child psychologist.
Talking to an adult can be a scary thing at a young age, especially if the child is frightened or uneasy to talk about what is bothering them. Child psychologists must be excellent communicators, and they must also develop numerous ways of communicating with different types of children.
Being able to understand what a child has gone through and the trauma they may have already experienced at a young age is a vital skill of the child psychologist. Being able to relate to them is also important, and most child psychologists try to stay abreast of different books, toys, and programs children may enjoy.
Whether working directly with the child’s family or with protective services, many child psychologists must work within the confines of numerous variable or unstable situations. Being able to develop treatment plans that fit within the child’s life is a skill these professionals will use throughout their years of practice.
Children visiting psychologists must feel completely safe and secure to share information about themselves, especially if there is a fear of having what they say get back to their families or other individuals. Child psychologists must develop a warm and welcoming persona and environment to help children talk through whatever may be bothering them.
In many cases, parents or guardians decide that a child should see a psychologist, meaning children could be averse to the idea of talking about themselves or what they’re feeling. Child Psychologists must develop creative ways of getting children to open up, be it through games, exercises, art, or play therapy.
Aside from licensure, certifications are a valuable way for psychologists to establish themselves as specialists within psychological sub-fields, including child psychology. The American Psychological Association currently recognizes 15 certifications for specialties, including numerous areas that may be of interest to individuals hoping to work with children. These include school psychology, clinical child psychology, counseling psychology, behavioral/cognitive psychology, and family psychology.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
There are a number of alternate career choices related to the field of child psychology. Those individuals interested in helping improve the lives of children may also want to consider careers in education, family therapy, animal-assisted therapy, social work, school counseling or developmental psychology. Salary estimates for child psychology-related occupations are shown in the graph below.
This membership-based group supports individuals in the field by providing advocacy, a job center, research findings, and regional chapters.
The APA is the governing body for many different facets of the field of psychology, ranging from accreditation to overseeing many different specialized professional bodies. The website provides a wealth of information for prospective child psychologists.
This academic publication heralds the latest data and emerging research within child and adolescent psychology. Professionals can read about the work of their peers or contribute their own research.
Individuals looking to counsel and treat students in an educational setting are often drawn to roles as school psychologists, and the NASP exists to help these professionals. Membership perks include access to research findings, conferences, professional development opportunities, and a variety of certifications.
Operating under the umbrella of the American Psychological Association, Division 53 exists to develop and advance the field of child and adolescent psychology. Whether advocating for better public policy or providing training opportunities, SCCAP is a valuable resource for those in the field.
Whether seeking a baccalaureate degree to prepare you for future coursework or an advanced clinical program, this powerful search tool will help narrow down the options. Schools can also be sorted by cost, location, and available specializations.
Distance learning degree programs are increasingly popular and are offered by traditional colleges and primarily online institutions alike. These web-based programs allow students to balance classes and schoolwork with their busy schedules and other commitments. Some programs may be hybrid, meaning that some classroom instruction or fieldwork is required.