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How To Become a Child Psychologist

April 9, 2021 | Staff Writers

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Child psychologists play an important role in helping children grow and develop into confident and emotionally balanced adults. It’s only relatively recently in terms of human history that we’ve come to realize that children learn differently from adults and have different needs because their brains are still growing and developing.

Pediatric psychologists are trained psychologists that have spent many years studying children’s mental development. Within the specialization of child psychology, there are a number of job options, such as school psychology or adolescent psychology.

A clinical child psychologist may serve as a therapist for children who have experienced traumatic events or work as a developmental psychologist helping young people who are living with mental health issues, social or developmental problems.

Psychologists are not psychiatrists. Where psychiatrists focus on medicinal ways of managing mental health conditions, psychiatrists work with patients in a more holistic way, using therapy and counseling to help their patients. Clinical psychology is a complex and demanding profession, and those who work with children or adolescents need to be able to build a bond with the young people they’re supporting.

This means child psychologists need empathy, good communication skills, patience, and compassion. They also need to be comfortable working with their chosen age-group.

Benefits of becoming a child psychologist

Becoming a child psychologist can be incredibly rewarding. It’s a profession that offers an insight into the minds of children, and that can help people get a different perspective on their day-to-day lives.

What do child psychologists generally report as being the best parts of their profession?

Child psychologists are highly regarded medical professions. They’ve completed many years of training, are usually qualified to master’s degree, if not doctoral, level, and have extensive clinical experience too.

Working in a job that is respected both by your peers in the medical profession and by members of the general public is an enjoyable experience. Child psychologists take pride in their work.

They benefit from pleasant working environments too. A lot of their work is delivered in office settings and during regular business hours. This is in stark contrast to some other health-focused professions such as nursing, where people may be expected to work 12-hour shifts or spend a lot of time on call.

It’s the emotional satisfaction that draws people to the profession and retains them for a long time, however. Child psychologists get a chance to help vulnerable young people at a time when they can really make a difference. Children’s minds are still growing and forming. Helping a child understand the difficulties they are facing and come to terms with a problem in their life will make a visible difference to them almost immediately.

The child or adolescent benefits from the support and guidance of the psychologist. The psychologist benefits from the work in their own way, because it feels good to know that you’re working in a job that makes a difference.

Why are child psychologists important?

Child psychologists are important because they help parents understand if a child’s behavior is something that’s normal at the stage of life their child is in, or whether it’s a sign there could be something abnormal going on.

Child psychologists help parents communicate with their children and help the children build coping mechanisms for difficult emotions. As a child gets older, it becomes more difficult to promote positive coping mechanisms and to guide a child to develop positive behaviors at home, school, and in their friendships.

Child psychologists can work with other health care professionals to identify the root cause of certain behavioral or learning problems, such as anxiety, ADHD-like symptoms, delayed development, or hyperactivity. They can also support children who have otherwise been healthy and in a positive frame of mind, but who have experienced an unfortunate trauma.

Who can you work with as a child psychologist?

Child psychologists work in a variety of environments. The most common settings for them are offices at hospitals, schools or clinics. However, they also work in other settings such as family courtrooms or even in local authority offices where they advise educators and public health officials on a policy level.

A child psychologist may work with children directly, provide family therapy, or assess children and make recommendations for further treatments. They might help children develop confidence and understand what they’re going through.

Depending on whether someone works in clinical psychology, adolescent psychology, or as a developmental psychologist, they’ll have rather different duties in their day-to-day work. For example, a counseling psychologist might work with adolescents or provide family therapy in a group setting. In many cases, the families they work with are referred to them by other healthcare professionals.

Those focused on adolescent psychology may work with older children and teenagers who are struggling with behavior or anger issues in the home or at school. They may be attached to the school, or have patients referred to them by doctors, psychiatrists, social workers or others in the health and social care systems.

Developmental psychologists assess children to detect, diagnose or prevent developmental disorders. They help parents support and communicate with their children and support each child in their care to develop the best skills they can in life.

In most parts of the United States, psychologists do not have prescriptive authority. This means children who have behavioral or mental health issues that could benefit from medication would need to be referred to a child psychiatrist. Psychologists are also not trained to treat physical health issues and may refer a child to a doctor or other expert if there are concerns about the child’s physical well-being.

Traits of an effective child psychologist

An effective child psychologist is one who possesses good attention to detail, problem-solving skills, communication skills, and empathy. A good child psychologist can:

  • Communicate well with children and their parents
  • Communicate with laypeople and medical professionals
  • Keep accurate records of therapy sessions or treatment recommendations
  • Is willing to commit to lifelong learning
  • Builds a rapport with those that they treat
  • Has an understanding of scientific techniques
  • Can communicate complex issues in a clear and simple fashion

What personality types do not make good child psychologists?

A child psychologist should be able to build a rapport with children, communicate well with them and understand what they are trying to say. They need to be able to do this while still maintaining professional distance and not taking any cases they work with personally.

A psychologist could be good at working with adults but find children difficult if they aren’t skilled at communicating with those in that age group. Even some child psychologists may find working with very young children easy but adolescents to be stressful, or vice-versa.

Some people are not suited to the field of psychology at all. As a child therapist or a school psychologist, you may have to work with children who are victims of abuse or who have had incredibly traumatic experiences. Some people are able to process the things these children tell them and handle them in a professional manner but not allow the sadness of those issues to impact them when they get home.

These professionals care deeply about the work that they do, but know that a person cannot be a good child therapist if they’re struggling with their own traumas. A person who tends to metaphorically take their work home with them will not be as able to deal with the ongoing stresses of the job. This means they’re more likely to burn out after a few years in a clinical position.

Which personality traits are essential to be a great child psychologist?

A great child psychologist has a passion for caring for children and wants to use that passion to help young people achieve the best possible start in life. A psychologist who is enthusiastic and authentic will be better positioned to help a young person respond to treatment and make the positive changes they need to lead a healthy life as an adult.

Child psychologists must also be trustworthy and possess a strong sense of ethics. During treatment sessions, children and their families will share highly sensitive pieces of personal information. It’s vital that the psychologist treats this information with confidence and that the patients know their privacy will be maintained. In some cases, the information disclosed to a psychologist may need to be passed on, and this must be handled in a sensitive manner.

The professional boundaries between a therapist and a patient exist for the protection of the patient and are especially important when a psychologist is supporting vulnerable young people. The APA lays out the Ethical Principles of Psychology clearly, and a good psychologist must observe these principles in everything they do.

How do you know if you have the traits to be a good child psychologist?

If you’re considering becoming a child psychologist but you’re not sure if you’d be good at the job, consider doing some volunteer work with children outside of the field of mental health. Do you find it easy to form good relationships with young people?

Do you have a talent for understanding the moods that a young person is in, and helping them communicate their needs clearly. You don’t need a counseling qualification to be able to tell if you find it easy to work with children.

If you feel comfortable with the age-group, the next thing to consider is the job. Working as an educational psychologist, for example, means dealing with the paperwork and hierarchy of schools and local authorities. Is that something that appeals to you?

Most people who study psychology undertake a master’s degree and then complete one or two years of clinical experience. This gives you plenty of time to debate the exact field that you’d like to go into. 

You may decide, during your undergraduate studies, that psychology is not for you. If you feel a more scientific and medicinal approach would be more appealing to you then a career as a psychiatrist could be an option.

Certifications and degrees needed to become a child psychologist

The route to becoming a child psychologist is slightly shorter than that of becoming a psychiatrist. Where a psychiatrist is expected to complete undergraduate studies, medical school and a four-year residency, psychologists require a less intensive, but still rigorous, postgraduate education.

What education is required for becoming a child psychologist?

The minimum entry requirement for the profession, for someone who is happy to work as a therapist or counselor rather than a psychologist, is a master’s degree with a focus in child development or clinical psychology. Someone who wishes to work as a psychologist will need to complete a doctoral-level qualification such as the Psy.D.

Psychologists have a greater scope of practice than therapists or counselors and work more closely with other healthcare professions. In five states, psychologists have prescriptive authority.

To become a child psychologist, a person will also need at least 2,000 hours of supervised clinical practice time under a qualified psychologist. The exact requirements vary from state to state. Some states require more time than this.

Once a person has met their state’s licensing requirements, they can take the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology. This allows them to practice as psychologists in their state. Some states have an additional jurisprudence exam requirement.

To maintain the EPPP certification, a child psychologist must keep up with an ongoing program of continuing education. It’s also important to remember that the licenses are issued on a statewide basis, and in most cases, they are not portable between states.

This means a psychologist who is considering moving would need to re-certify. In addition, psychologists should be mindful of the location limits on their license. For example, if an adolescent psychologist were to offer counseling sessions through video chat, they would need to be licensed in the state in which their patient lives, not just the state in which the psychologist resides.

This requirement is something that may not have mattered a few years ago, but with the advent of app-based therapies, and indeed the popularity of remote care due to the coronavirus situation, has changed the way many psychologists run their business.

A child life specialist or child counselor may not do as much remote work as a psychologist who works primarily with adults, but opportunities for such work are becoming more commonplace.

Best degree programs for becoming a child psychologist

If you’re considering becoming a child psychologist, you’ll need to complete a program of education tailored towards both psychology and child development. This usually means a four-year B.S. degree in psychology followed by a master’s degree with a focus on developmental psychology or clinical child psychology.

Where can you find the best degree programs for becoming a child psychologist?

There are many institutions offering degree programs that lead to the opportunity to certify as a child psychologist.

Some of the best programs in terms of price and completion rate include:

  • University of Washington-Seattle Campus
  • Montclair State University
  • University of Kansas
  • Vanderbilt College

University of Washington – Seattle Campus

The University of Washington – Seattle Campus offers part-time and full-time degree programs, including master’s degree and Ph.D-level qualifications. The programs are affordably priced, and the institution claims a pass rate of 84% for psychology tracks. Actual course fees vary depending on the level of study but can be under $10,000.

Of particular note is the university’s Applied Child and Adolescent Psychology: Prevention and Treatment program. This program arms students with the experience they need to succeed in treating children with complex needs and conditions.

Montclair State University

Montclair State University offers a clinical psychology degree program at Master’s level with a child/adolescent concentration. In addition to this, it also offers a forensic psychology concentration and the option for students to undertake a school psychology certificate. Ph.D. qualifications are also available.

The university claims a graduation rate of 65%, and has a minimum GPA requirement of 3.0, although students with a GPA of 2.7 or better may be considered on a case-by-case basis.

University of Kansas

The Clinical Child Psychology Program at the University of Kansas is a Ph.D. level program that is APA accredited and offers supervised clinical practice for learners in a variety of settings including school psychology, mental health, and family services. The estimated cost of the program is less than $20,000, making it an affordable option for would-be doctoral students.

The university claims a graduation rate of 63% for this program, which is an impressive rate for a program at such a high level of study.

Vanderbilt University

This private research university offers an M. Ed in Child Studies and claims a 92% pass rate. Students also have the option of joining a Ph.D. program with a track for developmental studies. Those who are just at the beginning of their careers may be interested in the department’s undergraduate programs with a major in psychology.

What do the best degree programs for child psychology have in common?

The best degree programs for child psychology include extensive opportunities for individuals to get clinical practice experience, helping them progress to the EPPP certification more quickly. They also offer opportunities for students to specialize in areas such as forensic psychology or adolescent psychology, preparing the student for a specific job role if they have one in mind.

There are some master’s programs in child psychology that are delivered online or through a hybrid learning model. However, many programs require a student to attend workshops or gain supervised practice hours at a venue affiliated to the university or college. This may make it difficult for a distance learning student unless they’re willing to travel.

Students should make sure the institution they are planning to study with is accredited and that it’s recognized by the APA. There are a huge number of accrediting bodies in the United States. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation maintains a list of recognized accredited institutions.

How can you determine which child psychology degree program is best for you?

When you’re considering which child psychology degree to enroll on, there are several factors to take into account:

  • The level of the degree and how it fits with your career goals
  • How easy it will be to progress to the next level of qualifications
  • How much clinical experience the degree offers
  • What specialization options are available
  • The cost of the degree
  • The number of credit hours
  • How long the degree takes to complete
  • Delivery options (online/on-campus/hybrid)
  • Accreditation
  • Scholarship options
  • Entry requirements
  • Pass rates

It can be tempting to pursue entry into a prestigious degree program at an institution such as Duke University. However, the entry requirements for each level of degree from such institutions are incredibly high and intakes are always competitive. Those who have the grades required to start a program at an institution with a high profile will find themselves in a strong position when they start job-hunting, but that doesn’t mean those who miss out on such placements have no chance of getting a job in the field.

There are many state universities and even trade colleges and community colleges offering affordably priced programs in the field. This makes child psychology programs accessible to those who might not otherwise be able to afford the cost of tuition.

Completing a program including an undergraduate degree, master’s degree and Ph.D before working as a clinical psychologist with a focus on young people would be an expensive undertaking. Many people opt to complete their post-graduate studies part-time while working in therapy or in a health-adjacent occupation.

Even with this, the cost of study can seem intimidating to some early-career mental health workers. However, the investment in education should be worthwhile. The average salary of school psychologists, for example, is $89,290 per year. Those who work in clinics or doctor’s offices can often expect to earn more than those who are stationed in schools.

How can you pay for your tuition as a child psychology degree student?

Students who are unable to cover the cost of studying for an undergraduate or postgraduate degree themselves may be able to receive financial support from the government if they can prove that there is a clear financial need.

Those who are not eligible for federal grants should contact the student finance department at the university they would like to study with to find out about any scholarships or bursaries that may be available. It is common for institutions to have scholarships for marginalized groups, low-income students, and students who are particularly academically promising.

Funds are usually very limited, and it is important to apply early because they are often over-subscribed. In addition, you may need to apply for multiple scholarships to cover the total cost of your program, and find some other funding too, because there are often up-front enrollment fees or student membership fees that must be paid before any grants or scholarships are issued.

Common examples include the Bendiner and Doug Morgenson Scholarship and the William R. Goldfarb Memorial Scholarship. Students should look for local grant-making organizations that offer funding for students in their city or state, as well as considering such nationwide options, in order to increase their chances of being successful in their application.

Another option for would-be psychology program students to consider is student loan forgiveness programs. If you have taken out student loans, or are considering doing so, the loan forgiveness programs could offer you an opportunity to clear your balance after a specific period of time serving in a non-profit hospital setting. This option is only going to be suitable for those who choose to serve in clinical psychology or therapy at a hospital, rather than a school, but it could be a lifeline for someone who would otherwise be saddled with loan repayments for decades.

Students who are looking to fund their undergraduate studies might be able to reduce the cost of their B.S or B.A. degree by taking online courses for the modules that are general-education specific. This would reduce the annual tuition fee, and potentially allow them to take those modules part-time while working to offset some of the cost of their studies.

There will still be a need to attend some psychology courses on-campus, or to take a summer school to gain clinical experience hours, but the requirements for bachelor’s students are usually less intensive than they are for masters degree students who are looking to practice as therapists.

In some cases, a student can obtain a degree, get a placement at a school or clinic, and then receive sponsorship to continue their studies. Many institutions will consider this for students who are willing to work for them for a period of several years upon completion of their master’s or Ph.D.

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