How to Become a Child Psychologist

By Indeed Editorial Team

July 23, 2021

If you are interested in mental health and enjoy being around children, you may want to consider a job in the mental health field as a child psychologist. Mental health is not only a prevalent concern for adults but many children often face emotional and behavioral challenges. As a child psychologist, you can help children and adolescents with the issues impacting their daily life. In this article, we discuss what a child psychologist does and how to become one.

What does a child psychologist do?

Child psychologists evaluate and treat the mental health needs of children and adolescents. They help children cope with things like family transitions, divorce, moving to another school and grief. The children that a child psychologist treats may have any number of different developmental issues, from severe mental illness to learning disabilities. Below is a partial list of treated problems:

  • Adjustment disorder

  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder

  • Phobias

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder

  • Autism spectrum disorder

A child psychologist assesses the complex symptoms a young patient may have and then arrives at the best diagnosis. More than many other mental health professionals, child psychologists have expertise in performing psychological tests.

Types of child psychologists

There are a variety of fields of study in child psychology that these professionals can specialize in, including:

  • Educational psychology

  • Clinical child psychology

  • Adolescent psychology

  • School psychology

  • Developmental child psychology

  • Abnormal child psychology

Educational psychology

Education child psychologists focus on improving the teaching and learning processes in schools by suggesting changes to classes and curriculum that most appropriately address the needs for the psychological health of children. Some positions in this area are:

  • Educational design consultant

  • Programs assessment specialist

  • Programs implementation coordinator

Clinical child psychology

Clinical child psychologists work with children by assessing, diagnosing and treating children and adolescents with psychological or developmental disorders, and they conduct academic and scientific research. Some positions in this area are:

  • Research professional

  • Licensed child psychologist

  • Clinical child therapist

Adolescent psychology

Adolescent psychologists work with pre-teen and teenage patients through psychotherapy and by creating a structure of behavior modifications and therapeutic methods, with constant contact with parents and the patients' other supporters. Some positions in this area are:

  • Adolescent therapist

  • Licensed counseling psychologist

  • Attending psychologist

School psychology

School psychologists address children's mental health needs in a school or educational environment and decide if a child is eligible for government-sponsored programs. Some positions in this area are:

  • School therapist

  • School counselor

  • Certified school psychologist

Developmental child psychology

Developmental child psychologists aim to gain a better understanding of children's behavior through research. Some positions in this area are:

  • Developmental child psychology professor

  • Art therapist

  • Research professional

Abnormal child psychology

Abnormal child psychologists treat atypical issues children have because of physical abuse, emotional abuse or some other trauma. They sometimes work with young clients into their adulthood. Some positions in this area are:

  • Abnormal child psychology professor

  • Behavioral health professional

  • Mental health professional

Average salary

In the United States, the average salary for a psychologist is $86,191 per year. Salary can vary based on education, experience, employer, specialty and location.

How to become a child psychologist

Typically, these are the necessary steps to take to become a child psychologist:

1. Finish a related bachelor's degree program

At the undergraduate level, there aren't many psychology programs that specialize in children. However, a Bachelor's Degree in General Psychology or Counseling gives you the foundation for more advanced coursework, specific to child psychology, in the future.

In general psychology studies, there is an immersion in a multidisciplinary curriculum encompassing liberal arts and science-based coursework. As a psychology major, you'll have classroom learning, research and laboratory skills needed for graduate degree programs.

With counseling as a major, your coursework will instill concepts of cultural awareness, communication and emotional intelligence. You'll also be taught social theory and gain theoretical knowledge of cognitive and human development.

Complete an undergraduate program that offers courses that graduate school admission officers want to see on transcripts. These can include classes such as:

  • Child development

  • General psychology

  • Statistics

  • Behavioral psychology

  • Research methods

  • Child and adolescent psychopathology

  • Theories of personality

  • Abnormal psychology

  • Trauma and crisis

  • Developmental psychology

  • Social sciences

  • Family interventions

  • Neuropsychology

2. Enroll in a graduate program

A master's or doctoral degree is typically a requirement to work in the field of child psychology. However, If you want to have a private practice, licensing regulations will require you to have a doctorate.

With a master's degree, you will have the credentials to be a mental health counselor, but you cannot conduct psychological testing. To be a licensed psychologist, you must have your Ph.D. or Psy.D. degree to assess and directly diagnose patients.

If you pursue a doctorate, you don't have to obtain a master's degree beforehand. Earning a master's will become a milestone as you work towards your Ph.D. through graduate coursework. Graduate degree programs put substantial attention to psychological theories and research.

Master's degrees involve two to three years of full-time coursework. You have the option of pursuing a Master of Science or a Master of Arts. If you want to work in research mainly, then a Master of Science degree will suit you well.

Doctoral programs take between five and seven years of study. The common course of study for a child psychologist is a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology with a concentration in child development or clinical child psychology. If you've completed a master's program previously, then it is possible to complete the degree a year early.

The advanced coursework of a doctoral program has a structure that gives students skills in cognitive, biological and behavioral approaches to child psychology. Doctoral programs require the completion of a thesis to graduate that involves independent and substantial research in the field.

Related: 15 Top Psychology Degree Jobs

3. Complete an internship or practicum

Most graduate programs, especially doctoral programs, make it mandatory for students to have a supervised internship as part of the training. An experienced child psychologist will supervise your work and figure out how much you know before signing off on the internship's completion. It could last a year or more, but many states require this supervised practical experience.

4. Apply for a license

Your licensure will designate you as either a clinical psychologist or a licensed psychologist. Since all states require a license to practice psychology, requirements typically involve having a specific degree, completion of practical experience in the field and passing a written exam. In most cases, the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Board administers the Examination for Professional Practice of Psychology.

Related: Definitive Guide to Internships

5. Get board-certified

You can embark on a postdoctoral fellowship in a child psychology-related role after you've received licensure. One or two years in this position prepares you for the board examination of the American Board of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology (ABCCAP). These are the steps for board certification with ABCCAP:

  1. Your doctorate must be from an APA-approved program.

  2. Your licensure needs to be in your jurisdiction of practice.

  3. You should have completed an internship lasting one or two years and at least two years of post-internship experience.

  4. Lastly, you must pass the ABCCAP exam to qualify for board certification.

You'll also have the opportunity to become a board-certified psychologist with the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP). There are experience and education requirements, plus an exam. The application process involves submitting practice samples, which the ABPP reviews before accepting you as a candidate. If the board approves your application, then you can take the examination to become certified.

6. Apply for child psychologist jobs

After you've obtained the proper education and licenses to practice, look for work at various organizations. Places like research centers or universities, mental health clinics, hospitals and legal organizations hire child psychologists. Research each organization and decide on the best fit for you.

Related: Guide: How to Get a Job After College


Here are answers to the most common questions about a role in child psychology:

How long does it take to become a child psychologist?

The length of a child psychology degree program depends on the degree. Most master's programs can take two to three years before completion, while doctoral programs require a minimum of four years and often up to six years to complete.

Are child psychologists in demand?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is a 14% projected job growth for this field through 2028, which is above average.

What is the difference between a child therapist and a child psychologist?

A child psychologist often works alongside a psychiatrist who prescribes medication if it is necessary for a patient's treatment. A child therapist helps children make decisions and sort through emotions to solve their problems.

Where does a child psychologist work?

Child psychologists work in venues like schools, hospitals and doctor's offices. They may work in medical settings, government centers or have their own private practice.

Jobs similar to child psychologists

If you're interested in becoming a child psychologist or pursuing another position in the field of psychology, there are many job options you can choose from. Here are 10 psychology jobs to consider:

1. Psychologist

2. Behavioral therapist

3. Psychometrist

4. Pediatric therapist

5. Family counselor

6. Behavioral health nurse

7. Child and adolescent psychiatrist

8. Social worker

9. Psychology professor

10. Psychology researcher

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