How to Get a Degree in Child Psychology

The Basics

Child psychology is the study of the emotional, mental and social development of children from the time of birth until they reach adulthood. Child psychologists study genetics, personality, gender roles, social growth, sexual development, mental growth and language development.

Child psychologists can choose to work as researchers, teachers, consultants or counselors. But whatever their choice, most psychologists deal with a wide variety of people, which might include children, parents, teachers, psychiatrists, social workers, law enforcement agents and a broad selection of health care professionals.

Some psychologists who specialize in counseling choose to simplify their jobs by opening their own practice, allowing them to set their own hours and to spend more time with each patient.

Select a Sub-Specialty

There are numerous sub-specialty fields in child psychology. Some psychologists specialize in children who have certain types of disorders, while others choose a specific age group. Still others practice a particular psychological method, such as behavioral psychology.

Here are a few of the most common sub-specialties:

Adolescent psychologists work with clients who are between twelve and eighteen years of age. Teenagers have their own set of problems that younger children normally don’t share, like sex, drugs and the transition into adulthood; adolescent psychologists specialize in these issues.

Developmental psychologists study human development from the time of infancy up to late adulthood. Their work generally entails researching children’s behavior and development. They also study the histories of adults, enabling them to set up a kind of “reverse engineering” process whereby they gain perspective on those histories and where they have led. Developmental psychologists normally work in either academic settings or in applied settings like day care centers, geriatric hospitals or pediatric hospitals. They can also serve as consultants or teachers.

School psychologists work within the educational system, where they counsel children and/or adolescents who have personal, social or academic problems. They normally counsel youth  who possess learning disorders or have difficulty getting along with other students. They also work closely with parents, guidance counselors and teachers to develop integrated programs for helping students.

Educational psychologists research how children and young adults learn in order to design better instructional programs. They study gifted students as well as those with learning disabilities.

Abnormal child psychologists work with children and adolescents who suffer from fairly serious psychological disorders, including anxiety, personality and mood disorders.

Forensic child psychologists work within the legal system, often working for a law enforcement agency. Some of them serve as expert witnesses in court or serve as advisors to youth who have legal difficulties. Some serve as advocates for children in child custody cases.

Research child psychologists normally work in universities or research centers, studying problems like learning disabilities or developmental disorders in order to develop new behavioral models for remedying these issues.

Necessary Personal Qualities

Because child psychologists often work with a team of parents and professionals, they must be able to work effectively with others. This requires good communication skills, flexibility, open-mindedness and tolerance.

Working in mental hospitals, drug clinics and other health care facilities can prove depressing and stressful, so psychologists who intend to work in these environments must make certain they can bear the conditions for long periods of time.

Psychologists who go into counseling will need patience in dealing with parents who might expect miracles. It’s often difficult for parents to accept the fact that their children might never live up to their expectations. Patience is also necessary when trying to communicate with young people who in many cases lack the capacity to accurately describe their needs and feelings.

Counselors also need to be adaptable. Some children are shy, so a counseling psychologist sometimes needs to use creative and gentle treatments to draw these children out of their shells. Other children get bored easily, so a counselor might need to provide coloring books or toys to ease these children into their sessions.

Educational Requirements and Recommendations

While certain jobs in the field of child psychology only require a bachelor’s or master’s degree, you’ll need to get a PhD or PsyD degree to become a licensed child psychologist.

The first step in gaining a doctoral degree in child psychology is to get a bachelor’s degree at a four-year university. Students generally need to take courses in psychology, biology, anthropology and sociology. These sciences provide the necessary foundation for understanding the human condition. Other recommended courses might include statistics, math, public speaking and communications.

Undergraduate coursework should be adjusted according to the sub-specialty; for example, forensic child psychologists will need to take several courses in criminal justice and/or law, and possibly get a minor in one of these areas.

The next step toward a doctorate is to attend graduate school. Because admissions to graduate school are quite competitive, it’s important to get a good score on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). It also helps if a candidate has volunteer experience in psychology.

After getting a bachelor’s degree, it can take anywhere from four to seven years to get a doctoral degree. Some graduate school programs allow students to combine their master’s and doctoral studies into one program, saving time and money.

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