How To Become a Developmental Disability Nurse (Plus Salary)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated September 2, 2022 | Published April 20, 2021

Updated September 2, 2022

Published April 20, 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

a person in glasses and white scrubs looks at a clipboard in a medical office

Nurses play a vital role in a healthy society. They are present in hospitals, clinics and homes across the country. Some nurses have specialized training to help patients with specific needs like developmental disabilities. This type of nurse works regularly with one or more patients to create supportive, healthy environments.

In this article, we’ll examine how to become a developmental disability nurse, including the typical duties of the role, necessary skills to succeed and average national salary.

What is a developmental disability nurse?

A developmental disability nurse is a registered nurse (RN) or licensed practical nurse (LPN) who specializes in caring for patients of all ages who have developmental disabilities. They work in hospitals, clinics, schools or private homes to coordinate patient care. They also keep families and members of the patient's care team updated on any necessary information or changes regarding the patient's care.

Related: Complete Guide to the Nursing Qualifications

What does a developmental disability nurse do?

A developmental disability nurse helps patients have an improved quality of life and maintain their health. To do this, these nurses work with a team of other professionals such as the patient's school or workplace, doctors and any specialized organizations involved.

Nurses often spend a lot of time with their patients and analyze their behaviors and health indicators to make recommendations about treatments, like physical therapy, and care practices like which living situation is most beneficial.

Related: Why Social Work Might Be the Career for You

How to become a developmental disability nurse

If you're interested in becoming a developmental disability nurse, follow these steps:

1. Earn an associate or bachelor's degree

The first step to becoming a developmental disability nurse is to earn a degree in nursing. While most employers accept an associate degree, a bachelor's in nursing is more highly sought after and can help your career growth. This degree gives you a good understanding of how to care for patients and handle certain medical emergencies.

Related: Disability Studies Associate Degree: What It Is and Job Options

2. Pass the NCLEX

After you've received your degree, the next step is to take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) to become an RN or LPN. You need to register with a nursing regulatory board and also register for the NCLEX-RN or NCLEX-LPN at the same time. Your education likely covers most topics addressed in either exam although there are many study courses, programs and books that can help you prepare.

Related: Your Guide to Registered Nursing Programs

3. Earn your nursing license

Each state has different licensing requirements so it's important to check with your state's licensing board to ensure you have the right paperwork and qualifications. Typically, you submit documentation of your nursing degree and a passing score on the NCLEX, undergo a background check and pay a fee. You also need to renew your nursing license based on your state's regulations.

4. Gain experience

As a nurse, you can work at hospitals, group homes and schools to gain experience with patients. If your first job is as a general RN, try to find volunteer opportunities or experiences to become familiar with a range of disabilities. This can help you specialize your resume and find your ideal job in the field.

To become a certified developmental disability nurse, you need to care for patients with developmental disabilities for at least two years before you can take the certification exam.

Related: How To Display Nursing Credentials (With Tips and Examples)

5. Consider the DDNA certification

While you don't need certification to be a developmental disability nurse, it can help show your specialized interest to employers and prove your understanding of the responsibilities of the role.

One certification to consider is from the Developmental Disabilities Nursing Association (DDNA). Requirements to take the exam include being an RN or LPN and two years of experience with developmental disabilities.

Related: 22 Specialty Certifications for LPNs

Skills for a developmental disability nurse

Here are some skills that can help you succeed as a developmental disability nurse:

Medical knowledge

Having a good understanding of medical terminology, basic biology and common illnesses is important for developmental disability nurses to provide quality care to their patients. You may need to provide emergency medical attention to your patient or make treatment recommendations so it's a good idea to refresh your medical knowledge often to ensure you have the most relevant information.

Related: Occupational Therapist vs. Nurse: How They Differ


Compassion is vital to care occupations like developmental disability nursing. As a nurse, it's important to treat your patients with kindness and respect because your decisions and actions have a significant effect on their lives. Practicing kindness in your job allows you to better connect with patients and offer the most beneficial options for their care.

Health and safety knowledge

Knowledge of health and safety standards, such as body fluid hazards and sanitation expectations, is integral to keeping yourself, your patients and other health care professionals safe. Courses in college and online can help you prepare for these situations and give you tips on how to handle any challenges that might happen while with a patient.

Related: Patient Education in Nursing: 12 Tips To Improve Instruction


Developmental disability nurses typically have good verbal and written communication skills because they have to give updates and information to many members of the patient's care team. Clear, direct communication allows involved parties, like doctors and family, to know what is going on with the patient's life and what methods they may need to change.

Nonverbal communication

Besides typical forms of communication, developmental disability nurses may be skilled in reading nonverbal communication and changes in emotion. This skill is important for connecting with and understanding patients who don't speak or write. When a nurse can engage with nonverbal patients, they can create better care plans and get to know the people under their care.

Read more: Complete Guide to Nonverbal Communication in the Workplace

Research ability

Developmental disability nurses can use their research abilities to coordinate effective care and better inform families and patients. Nurses use research to find the most relevant information regarding patient care. For example, nurses might follow medical news to find studies or new care methods that can help them provide support to patients. They can also use research skills to learn about diagnoses they haven't encountered before.

Familiarity with developmental disabilities

One of the most important skills for this type of nurse is to be familiar with various developmental disabilities. Since this role is specialized, employers expect these nurses to understand their patients and be comfortable offering support, recommendations and treatments. Nurses with more developmental disability experience have a higher chance of being hired in this role.

Related: 64 Jobs Similar to Nursing To Consider

Average developmental disability nurse salary

There's no specific salary data for developmental disability nurses. RNs make $91,444 per year, and LPNs make $57,111 per year. Since developmental disability nurses have specialized experience, they may potentially earn more. Certifications and geographical location can also affect a developmental disability nurse's salary.

For the most up-to-date salary information from Indeed, click on the links provided. Also, please note that none of the organizations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

Related: Nursing Interview: Describe a Time When You Provided Patient Education

Registered nurse Alexa discusses an interview question regarding providing patient education, provides an example answer, and explains why employers ask this question.

Explore more articles