Becoming a Child Psychologist

Overview

By Lilla Dale McManis, PhD
Psychologist counseling a child

Child psychology is a varied, dynamic, and rewarding field. While the educational and training requirements are rigorous, a career as a child psychologist provides abundant opportunity to work with and on behalf of children within an area of interest and preferred setting. Child psychologists serve an important role in our society to address the needs of children who are struggling with mental, social-emotional, and learning issues. As we learn more about the critical period of childhood – the foundation for wellbeing in adulthood – it only further underscores the vital contribution that child psychologists make, helping children prepare for and cope with personal challenges and the increasing stresses of modern life.

Child psychologists specialize in the developmental and behavioral wellbeing of children in the formative years of infancy through adolescence. Across and within the interconnected domains of social-emotional, cognitive-intellectual, and physical-health development and functioning, child psychologists use scientific and research-based knowledge and treatment to improve the lives of children.

'Child psychology' is actually an umbrella term. In this article, we'll explore the common aspects of child psychologists, as well as:

Types of Child Psychologists

Regardless of their area of specialization, in general all child psychologists have expert knowledge in child development, fundamental psychological needs of children, assessment, and ways in which the family and other social contexts influence children’s functioning and wellbeing. There are four major areas in which a child psychologist typically specializes:

  • Clinical
  • Developmental
  • School
  • Educational

The area of specialization often determines if a child psychologist is more likely to provide direct services to children or to conduct research, although many do both. Let’s take a look at each of these.

Clinical Child Psychologist

Clinical child psychologists are what most people have in mind when they hear the term child psychologist. A clinical child psychologist most often provides direct services through assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of problems experienced by children. These psychologists work with children and teens who may be struggling with a variety of issues ranging from minor, short-term issues to serious, long-standing ones.

The children they serve may be experiencing internalizing behaviors – such as anxiety, depression, and somatic complaints – or externalizing behaviors like aggression, delinquency, and poor social relationships. These may be related to life events such as divorce or death; pervasive damaging environments such as neglect and abuse; disorders such as autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, phobias, and eating disorders; or more serious mental illnesses like borderline personality, bipolar, or schizophrenia.

Clinical child psychologists are particularly well versed in evaluation. A number of assessments ranging from paper-and-pencil to interview-style are matched to the child’s age and functioning; additionally parents, siblings, teachers, health care providers, and other people who know the child well are often assessed as part of the process. When interpreting assessment results, clinical child psychologists primarily use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM currently in its 5th edition) to diagnose and classify mental disorders.

Clinical child psychologists may also tailor their approach to providing therapy depending on the age of the child. For younger children, using play therapy is common. In this approach, toys and other materials/objects are carefully selected by the psychologist and provided to the child as a way to express feelings and thoughts and, with guidance from the psychologist, to learn strategies for coping and finding positive and appropriate solutions to the problems and emotions they are experiencing. Art therapy is another method used with children and adolescents to express feelings, reduce stress, and become more self-aware. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a widespread approach with older children and teens; it revolves around helping them understand and manage how behavior is influenced by thoughts that cause them certain feelings and emotions.

Developmental Child Psychologist

Developmental child psychologists also often work directly with children, but their focus tends to be more research-based and concerned with how development and functioning change over the stages of a child’s life, from infancy to toddlerhood, then childhood and finally adolescence. Their areas of interest can be any of the same as for clinical child psychologists, but many have areas of expertise that are more common across children as a group. For example, in the area of cognitive development, they may study language, intelligence, or schooling; in the social-emotional domain, such areas as personality, attachment, parenting behaviors, and friendship; and in the biological-physical domain, they may focus on brain development or genetics.

One of the major results of such research is to design and/or evaluate programs. These could be intervention and remediation-based, which are delivered one-on-one or in small groups such as the therapies we discussed clinical child psychologists use. Alternately, they can be more prevention-based and implemented in agencies, schools, communities, and even nationally. Much of the research of developmental child psychologists makes its way into college psychology textbooks.

School Child Psychologist

School child psychologists focus on the educational and mental health needs of children in school settings. Therefore they have extensive knowledge of several crosscutting disciplines in psychology and education. When conducting assessment for diagnosis, school psychologists rely most on the Individuals with Disability Act (IDEA) to determine eligibility for a disability that would allow a child to have an Individual Education Plan (IEP) and receive special education services. These areas may be of a learning, behavioral, and/or emotional nature and a school psychologist will often help develop and monitor instructional support activities.

School psychologists also develop and implement school-wide programs, such as anti-bullying, crisis planning and crisis response. While some school psychologists provide counseling directly to students, typically they work more with teachers and school personnel to determine the best prevention or intervention for a child, classroom, or school and then serve to consult and collaborate as these are implemented.

Educational Child Psychologist

Educational child psychologists have expertise in learning and teaching. They bring their knowledge of such areas as child development, neuroscience, individual differences, assessment, and curriculum and instruction to better understand and support how children learn and process information, particularly in educational settings. These psychologists may be interested in the typical learner or may focus on learning disabilities or giftedness. Those more focused on the instructional side may concentrate on theory and pedagogy, which is the method and practice of teaching. Educational child psychologists often study how environmental factors, such as parenting or socioeconomic status, impact learning.

In some cases, educational psychologists and school psychologists may do similar tasks, but educational psychologists in general tend to do more research as well as program evaluation. Their work is often used to evaluate and improve the effectiveness of teaching techniques and methods of learning for the general population of children, as well as advanced learners or children who are struggling. Much of their work is used in teacher training and preparation programs.

Salary and Job Outlook

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According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for child psychologists is $68,900. Newly certified child psychologists may begin with a salary closer to the bottom 10% of wage earners, whose average is $40,080. Those in the top 10% of wage earners make over $113,640 annually.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that employment of clinical, counseling and school psychologists will grow by 20% between 2014 and 2024, which is considered much faster than the average for all occupations. Demand is strong for psychologists to work with the growing student population and with young people who have autism. The shift toward multi-disciplinary teaming in health care is also creating a need for child psychologists to provide comprehensive treatment to clients with complex needs.

Requirements

Education and Training

Depending on the university, a master’s degree may be expected before entering a doctoral program. In some universities, these degrees are combined. Having a major related to child psychology – or at least taking substantial coursework and having work or volunteer experience related to child psychology – is recommended to facilitate acceptance into the doctoral program of your choice. Most doctoral programs use coursework, experience, and standardized test scores (such as the GRE - Graduate Record Exam) when selecting candidates.

For any of the types of child psychologists described above, a PhD (Doctor in Philosophy) in psychology is most often expected. Approximately 75% of doctorate psychology degrees are PhDs. However, a PsyD (Doctor of Psychology) is an option for those wanting to focus on clinical work, while an EdD (Doctor of Education) is an option for those in educational settings, most often administration. A PhD is the most versatile, as it allows you to be prepared for clinical work and for research.

The length of time to complete any of these degrees depends on factors such as the type of program and your individual life situation, but most programs expect full-time commitment. A PhD will take the longest to complete, generally 5 to 8 years, because it involves a dissertation. This also makes it the most expensive, although many students have a teaching or research assistantship and/or grants to help offset the cost. PsyD and EdD students do not have as heavy a research component, being more focused on clinical work, and therefore usually take about a year and a half less to obtain the degree than a PhD.

It is important to be aware that earning a doctorate is expensive. Many graduates have substantial debt by the time they complete their education. And it's very important to make sure that your chosen graduate program is accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA).

Licensure

Licensure at the state level is required to practice psychology in the U.S., providing direct therapeutic services. Many states require the doctoral program to be accredited by the APA (American Psychological Association) and require supervised practicum training from this group, ranging from one to several years. To reduce obstacles around licensure, it is important to choose a doctoral program carefully and begin planning for practicum hours while still in grad school. Please note: currently the APA does not accredit exclusively online programs. Part of the licensure process is to sit for the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP).

Once practicing, psychologists can additionally become board-certified in clinical child and adolescent psychology through the America Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP), which applies high standards for education, licensure, and experience. Those who conduct research and work in universities, state or federal agencies, research labs, or corporations may be exempt from licensure requirements; this varies by state.

Skills and Competencies

The specific skills required of a child psychologist depend to some extent on the area of specialization, but in general the following knowledge areas are applicable:

  • Child Development – social-emotional, cognitive, and physical patterns of growth.
  • Assessment and Diagnosis – psychological-emotional, intellectual-cognitive, and social-behavioral testing and diagnosis.
  • Intervention and Treatment – therapies and counseling techniques.
  • Prevention – knowledge of and design to prevent problems.
  • Research and Evaluation – design, implementation, analyses, and utilization of findings. 

There are also characteristic-based competencies that make for a successful child psychologist. Intellectually those who enter the field tend to be analytical, systematic, and observant. When working with children and their significant others, they rely on their strength in communication and collaboration, empathy, the ability to be objective, ability to establish trust, and patience.

If you would like to gain the necessary education to become a child psychologist, we highly recommend that you check out our free School Finder Tool located HERE.

Work Environment

Child psychologists work in a wide variety of settings with their area of specialization determining the specifics. Those who provide treatment will likely work in a team to create a comprehensive and consistent support network to promote recovery and wellbeing. Meanwhile, those focusing on research typically work in a team with other researchers.

  • Clinical psychologists work in private practice, hospitals and other mental health facilities. They also work in community-based social services agencies such as child welfare and the justice system, as well as non-profits.
  • Developmental psychologists work primarily in universities, think tanks and research facilities, but also in private practice, hospitals, and industry.
  • School psychologists, as the name implies, work primarily in K-12 school systems or may have a private practice.
  • Educational psychologists are found most frequently working in universities, think tanks and research facilities. They also work in government-funded or non-profit agencies conducting evaluation, or employed by businesses developing educational products.
  • Child psychologists in each of these areas may work as faculty members teaching in universities and colleges.

Child psychologists work quite independently with regard to how they carry out their specific duties, due to their high level of education and expertise. At the same time, expectations are high and, in general, the profession of child psychologist is on the demanding side.

With regard to flexibility in a child psychologist’s schedule, this varies depending on the setting. Those in private practice may have the most flexibility, although they must be available when children are. This often means evenings and weekends to build and maintain a successful practice. Settings that employ child psychologists to provide direct services to children must often carry a heavy caseload.

Because business is focused on generating revenue, there is pressure for child psychologists in this setting to put in long hours and get results in the form of sales and profit. Those who conduct research particularly in universities often fall under the “publish or perish” expectation, which requires substantial devotion of time and effort as well as the ongoing need to write and be awarded grants.

Nonetheless, because child psychologists must devote many years toward meeting the educational and training requirements to work in the field, most are highly invested in the work they do and find much satisfaction in the profession.

Further Reading

If you would like to further explore becoming a child psychologist, here are some action steps from reputable sources:

  • Learn more about child psychology and various specialties at the American Psychological Association.
  • Interview child psychologists in your community. Psychology Today Therapists provides in-depth profiles and allows you to search by location and then by area of specialty, age of children served, treatment orientation, and more.
  • Keep up with recent posts and information about child development at Psychology Today.
  • Evaluate educational programs. The Office of Graduate and Postgraduate Education and Training from APA has an excellent database of accredited programs. You can search by state, specialization, and degree and these results each have a direct link to the program. Here you can learn about individual programs including coursework, faculty, and admissions.

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