Working as a child psychologist can be an interesting, meaningful role for individuals who want to improve the lives of children and their families. This guide explores the several steps it takes to become a licensed child psychologist, as well as available educational paths in child psychology.
What is Child Psychology?
As one of the subfields recognized by the American Psychological Association, child psychology uses psychological theories and services to work with children from birth through adolescence. Child psychology addresses issues such as trauma, developmental disorders, biological vulnerabilities, cognitive issues, and resulting emotional problems. These psychologists also use tools such as assessments, intervention, prevention, and consultation to best serve their young clients. They frequently use talk therapy — such as cognitive behavioral therapy — for older children who can express their emotions and feelings.
How to Become a Child Psychologist
If you're interested in pursuing a child psychology career, it is important to familiarize yourself with each of the steps and requirements involved in becoming a psychologist. The following sections take a look at required degrees, internships, licenses, and certificates one must earn to work in this role.
Professional psychologists must possess a doctorate degree in psychology. Those planning to work as a child psychologist may obtain a Ph.D. or Psy.D. in clinical child psychology or clinical psychology with a concentration in child psychology.
Individuals hoping to receive licensure must complete practicum requirements to qualify. State licensing boards set the rules for practicums, so exact requirements vary based on where you live. Most graduates need at least one year of full-time work or internship to meet the required hours for supervised practice.
All states require child psychologists to receive and maintain licensure in order to practice. Individuals can typically pursue licensure as either a clinical psychologist or a licensed psychologist. The former is best for those who want to work directly with children and their families, while the latter is suitable for individuals interested in research posts. Processes for licensure vary by state. For example, the state of Kentucky requires professionals to submit an application to the licensing board, demonstrate evidence of two years of supervised experience, and pass three examinations.
While not strictly required, many child psychologists pursue board certification to validate their experience and knowledge. To qualify, students must participate in post-doctoral training, job experience, or a fellowship — usually lasting at least two years — at an approved site. Once learners complete this experience, they study and sit for the American Board of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology’s written and oral board examinations.
Child Psychology vs. General Psychology
While general psychology provides psychological services and therapies to individuals across the lifespan, child psychologists focus their practice on children from birth to 18 years of age. The following sections take a look at specific differences and commonalities.
Both general and child psychologists work in clinical settings and provide psychological services to improve one's mental health and quality of life. They take mostly the same general core of classes while in school, including statistics, cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, social psychology, and abnormal psychology. These classes provide a foundation for future learning, as well as a shared language and understanding amongst psychologists.
If you hope to practice as a psychologist, you must possess licensure, regardless of your specialty area. General and child psychologists can also both apply for board certification if they want to stand out from peers. Finally, career options — while different — can mirror one another. Regardless of whether you want to work across the lifespan or with children specifically, you’ll likely work in academic, clinical, or research settings to accomplish these goals.
After completing core courses, child psychology students examine topics specific to their areas of interest. This includes social and personality development, early childhood education methodologies, cognitive and language development, adolescent psychology, and the development of interpersonal relationships. General psychologists, meanwhile, continue surveying courses across the discipline to build a broad spectrum of knowledge.
General and child psychology licensing requirements also differ, especially in terms of how required supervised hours are completed. Child psychologists must pursue these hours at a site that supports children and adolescents, while generalists can choose from a larger pool of sites. The American Board of Clinical Psychology oversees board certification for general psychology, while the American Board of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology provides qualifications to child psychologists.
What Can You Do With a Child Psychology Degree?
Earning your degree in child psychology prepares you for a dynamic, meaningful career in a variety of settings. Child psychologists sometimes work in private practice and serve the needs of individual patients. Others work in schools, hospitals, or clinics to provide evaluations and services for children on an as-needed, short-term basis. Some may decide to work in research and spend their days in laboratory settings, testing theories and working to move the field forward. Visit our career page for child psychology to learn more.
While you must have a doctorate degree to work as a licensed child psychologist, bachelor’s and master’s degrees can prepare you for a variety of careers, such as a school counselor, teacher, therapist, or community service manager.
Child Psychology Degree Programs
Undergraduate Child Psychology Programs
While you may struggle to find a standalone bachelor’s degree in child psychology, many schools offer general psychology degrees with a concentration in child and adolescent studies. These programs typically require four years of full-time study and the completion of 120-128 credits. Learners also participate in a semester-long internship that provides real-world experience while still in school. Some programs also require learners to complete a professional capstone project, during which students use research and critical thinking to explore a specific topic or theme.
Careers This Degree Can Prepare You For
- Childcare Center Director Whether managing a childcare center or preschool, these directors create program plans, manage staff, ensure daily activities comply with safety standards, monitor budgets, and meet with parents as needed. Average yearly pay is $47,940, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects employment of these professionals to grow by 7% from 2018 to 2028.
- Community Service Manager These professionals design social services and programs that meet the needs of local community members, including children and adolescents. Median pay in 2018 stood at $65,320, and the BLS projects job openings to grow 13% from 2018-2028.
Child Psychology Master’s Programs
Master’s in child psychology programs usually require 2-3 years of full-time study, although some accelerated programs can be completed in as few as 12 months. Most programs require learners to complete 30-48 credits, depending on the college or university. Some programs require an internship or practicum to prepare learners for licensure. Students conduct research and write a thesis addressing an original research question.
Careers This Degree Can Prepare You For
- Social Worker Social workers help their clients manage issues arising in their lives. They help clients find solutions, connect them with resources, and provide structure during times of change and transition. Median pay in 2018 was $49,470, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment to grow 11% between 2018 and 2028.
- School Counselor Also known as guidance counselors, these individuals work in public and private schools to help students manage their academic and personal lives. They provide counseling, identify issues holding students back, and liaise with teachers and parents. Median salaries were $56,310 in 2018, and the BLS projects employment to grow 8% from 2018 to 2028.
Child Psychology Doctorate Programs
Ph.D. in child psychology programs typically take 5-7 years to complete, while Psy.D. programs average 4-6 years of study. Learners who completed a master’s degree before enrolling may be able to shave one year off of these timelines, depending on the program. Students must complete a supervised practicum, then research and write a long-form dissertation that uses primary and secondary sources to answer a unique research question.
Careers This Degree Can Prepare You For
- Child Psychologist Child psychologists provide one-to-one, group, and family therapy to help their young patients handle issues related to developmental delays, behavioral problems, emotional issues, stress, trauma, bullying, and other challenges. Median salaries were $79,010 in 2018, and the BLS projects employment of these professionals to grow by 14% from 2018-2028.
- School Psychologist Working directly for an individual school or district, school psychologists provide diagnoses and treatment for issues such as learning disabilities, behavioral problems, and mental health issues. They also offer individual and group counseling. Median salaries are currently $75,090 annually.
- Child Psychology Professor These professionals give lectures, assign readings, read and grade papers, mentor students, write letters of recommendation, and prepare graduates to enter the job market or an advanced degree path. The median salary for postsecondary professors was $73,770 in 2017.
- Child Psychology Researcher Research scientists in child psychology examine current and historical theories in an attempt to make breakthroughs in the field. They design studies to test their hypotheses, review the results, write papers, and present at conferences. Average salaries currently stand at $78,503.
Online Child Psychology Programs
Online child psychology programs may appeal to students who require a flexible degree but want to maintain academic rigor. For instance, many learners may have personal or professional responsibilities that prohibit them from visiting campus at specific times multiple times a week. Online learning allows degree-seekers to interact with peers and professors through digital portals, emails, and teleconferencing tools. They can watch prerecorded lectures, respond to readings, and submit papers through the digital learning platform.
When it's time to find a practicum site, learners living close to the school can typically select from a list of preapproved locations. Individuals living further away may need to work with a practicum coordinator or program director to find a site and receive approval. Review our guide on online child psychology programs to learn more.