Examining the important role of a child psychologist

The national conversation about mental health has shifted over the years. Organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) are working hard to break the stigma that once existed. The discussion has become even more common due to the mental health crisis on the rise.

And this phenomenon is not limited to adults — children are being affected at surprising rates as well. As the psychology field continues to evolve, there’s been a growing focus on child psychology as a specialization. If you’re interested in dedicating your career to serving the mental, emotional, and physical well-being of the children in your community, you’ve come to the right place.

What does a child psychologist do, and why do they play such a critical role in society? Keep reading for these answers and more.

Why Is Child Psychology Important?

The American Psychological Association (APA) reports an estimated 20 million American youth can currently be diagnosed with a mental health disorder. But a majority of these young people never receive appropriate help from qualified mental health professionals.

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, and behavior disorders are among the most common mental health conditions that can be diagnosed during childhood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) list. Consider the following estimates:

  • 9.8 percent (approximately 6 million) of youth ages 3–17 have received an ADHD diagnosis.
  • 8.9 percent (approximately 5.5 million) of youth ages 3–17 have a diagnosed behavior problem.
  • 9.4 percent (approximately 5.8 million) of youth ages 3–17 have diagnosed anxiety.

These numbers, both the CDC and APA note, are more pronounced among children and youth living in low-income communities. The CDC reports that more than one in five children who live below the federal poverty level have received a diagnosis of a mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder.

Child mental health care advocates maintain that all young people have the right to health and happiness. In fact, Kate Middleton, Catherine, Princess of Wales, said, " The stigma around mental health means that many children do not get the help that they so badly need.” She continues, “With the right help, children have a good chance of overcoming their issues while they are still young and can have the bright future they deserve.”

It’s also worth noting that mental health disorders aren’t the sole driver behind parents and guardians seeking a child psychologist’s help. Clinical child psychologists treat a wide range of interrelated issues young people experience. These can include biological vulnerabilities, emotional and developmental problems, cognitive deficits, trauma and loss, health-related problems, and stress.

The Impact of Child Psychologists on Children with Autism and Disabilities

Child psychologists play a crucial role in providing assessment, diagnosis, and intervention services to help these children thrive and reach their full potential. Children with autism may experience difficulties with social interaction, communication, and repetitive behaviors.

Child psychologists who specialize in working with children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) use evidence-based interventions, such as applied behavior analysis (ABA) and social skills training, to address these challenges. They work closely with families and educators to develop individualized treatment plans that promote the child's social and emotional development.

In addition to ASD, child psychologists also work with children who have other disabilities, such as intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, and developmental delays. They assess the child's strengths and limitations, provide support and guidance to families, and collaborate with other professionals to create inclusive and supportive environments for the child.

Child psychologists also play a vital role in advocating for the rights and well-being of children with disabilities. They may work with schools and community organizations to ensure that these children receive appropriate accommodations, support services, and educational opportunities.

What Does a Child Psychologist Do?

As a professional psychology specialization, the APA says child psychology uses scientific knowledge to deliver psychological services to infants, toddlers, children, and adolescents within their social context. This distinction from other psychology fields matters because children have difficulty explaining the things they’re going through and analyzing their feelings. From the vantage point of a parent or guardian, determining whether a child’s behavior is a normal part of a developmental stage or a sign of an abnormality is equally as difficult.

A child psychologist is trained to help people understand the difference. Professionals in this sphere maintain a firm grasp on children’s basic psychological needs and how family and other social contexts influence their development. They focus on three key areas:

  • Physical development refers to the typical sequence of events in a child’s physical capabilities — things like holding their head up, rolling over, crawling, walking, and running. Child psychologists can aid pediatricians in observing a child’s physical development. Significant delays in physical development can sometimes reveal other underlying issues that can then be addressed early on.
  • Cognitive development is the intellectual learning and thought processes of a child. Language learning, memory, decision making, problem solving, and a child’s use of imagination fall under this developmental area. These factors can all be a reflection of both a child’s genetics and their environment.
  • Emotional development is all about how a child feels, understands, and expresses their emotions. Deeply tied to social development, it’s expressed in very basic emotions — joy, anger, sadness, and fear — among young children. More complex emotions like guilt, confidence, hope, and pride surface as they age. Helping children understand their emotions can have a powerful impact on overall development and relationship skills later in life.

In addition to these developmental aspects, child psychologists also address a wide range of mental health issues and interrelated problems that children may experience. These can include behavioral problems, trauma and loss, health-related problems, stress, and cognitive disabilities.

Child psychologists use various therapeutic techniques tailored to the needs of children, such as play therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), art therapy, and child-led therapy. They create a safe and supportive environment where children can explore their thoughts and emotions, develop coping strategies, and learn healthy ways to navigate life's challenges. They are especially skilled at identifying abnormalities early on. A children’s psychologist can also help detect the roots of common behavioral issues.

How Does Child Psychology Differ from Adult Psychology?

One of the key differences between child psychology and adult psychology is the developmental stage of the individuals being studied. Child psychologists work with children who are still in the process of developing their cognitive and emotional abilities. They assist children in understanding the stages of development and how to cope with these developmental changes in an age-appropriate manner. This is why the education for a child psychologist is different from that of a general clinical psychologist. A children’s psychologist must have a deep understanding of child development similar to that of teachers.

In contrast, adult psychologists primarily work with individuals who have completed their developmental stages and are facing different challenges. They focus on issues such as career development, relationship dynamics, and personal growth. While both child psychology and adult psychology share common theoretical frameworks and therapeutic techniques they differ in facilitation.

Child Therapist vs Child Psychologist

When discussing the roles and responsibilities of professionals working with children, it's important to differentiate between child therapists and child psychologists. While both professions focus on supporting the mental health and well-being of children, there are distinct differences in their training and approach to therapy.

Child Therapist

A child therapist is a mental health professional who provides therapy and counseling services to children and adolescents. Child therapists may have a master's degree in a mental health-related field, such as counseling, psychology, family therapy, or social work. They use various therapeutic techniques to help children improve their coping skills, emotional regulation, and overall mental well-being.

Child Psychologist

Child psychologists must have a bachelor’s in psychology or a related field. Additionally, they must have a master’s degree and/or doctoral degree in psychology, which includes specialized coursework and practical training in child psychology.

On the other hand, child psychologists who specifically work in an educational environment must have a bachelor’s in psychology, typically with a concentration in school psychology, and a master’s in educational psychology and education specialist (Ed.S) degree in school psychology with a Pupil Personnel Services credential (PPSC) credential. These degrees are necessary for aspiring school psychologists to gain a more comprehensive understanding of how psychology integrates into the school system.

Child psychologists may conduct psychological assessments, such as intelligence testing or diagnostic evaluations, to gain a better understanding of a child's strengths and challenges. They collaborate with other professionals, such as medical doctors, educators, and social workers to coordinate the appropriate treatment.

Where Do Child Psychologists Work?

These practitioners can work in a range of environments, including schools, community health centers, hospitals, research centers, and private practices. They typically work in their own offices where they meet with patients either in person or virtually.

A child psychologist may work on their own or as part of a team. Even if assessments and consultations are conducted solo, they often are required to report on a child’s progress to parents, teachers, doctors, or the court.

What Is the Difference Between a Child Psychologist and a School Psychologist?

While child psychologists and school psychologists both work with children, there are distinct differences in their roles and responsibilities. Child psychologists are primarily focused on providing clinical services to children and adolescents, including evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment of mental health disorders. Child psychologists also often collaborate with other professionals, such as medical doctors and social workers, to ensure coordination.

School psychologists work within the educational system to support the academic and social-emotional development of students, meet the need for more school professionals to address mental health, and evaluate relevant data for educational planning. Additionally, school psychologists must understand regulations for special education, counseling interventions, leveraging assessments, and reporting communication strategies. They assess and identify learning and behavioral difficulties, provide counseling and intervention services, and collaborate with teachers, parents, and administrators to create supportive learning environments. School psychologists play a crucial role in promoting positive school performance and addressing the specific needs of students within the school setting.

What Skills Do Child Psychologists Need?

A child psychologist career requires a unique blend of hard and soft skills. The technical knowledge and procedures required for the job must be complemented by strong emotional intelligence.

The APA identifies the following methods and skills as essential for child psychologists:

  • Assessment (e.g., psychological, intellectual, cognitive and behavioral testing, and evaluation)
  • Intervention (e.g., psychotherapy and behavior management)
  • Development of prevention programs (e.g., bullying, addictions, teen pregnancy, obesity)
  • Consultation with other professionals working with children
  • Design and utilization of research

In addition to these proficiencies, the best child psychologists often possess the following qualities:

  • Written and oral communication
  • Trustworthiness
  • Empathy
  • Problem-solving
  • Enthusiasm

How to Become a Child Psychologist

Becoming a child psychologist requires a significant commitment to education and training. While the process of becoming a child psychologist takes time, it offers rewarding opportunities to make a positive impact on the lives of children and adolescents.

The educational path to becoming a child psychologist typically includes the following steps:

  1. Bachelor's degree: Aspiring child psychologists start by completing a bachelor's degree in psychology or a related field. This typically takes four years of full-time study and provides a foundational understanding of psychological theories and research methods.
  2. Master’s degree: Once a bachelor’s degree is earned, a master’s in psychology with an emphasis in the setting you would like to practice is needed. A psychology-related master’s degree will act as a prerequisite if interested in a doctoral degree program. However, most employers only require a master’s degree for positions in clinical and school environments.
  3. Specialization in child psychology: Aspiring child psychologists can choose to specialize in child psychology when choosing their degree program. This specialization involves coursework and practical training focused on child development, assessment, and intervention.
  4. Internship: After completing a doctoral program, aspiring child psychologists typically participate in a one-year full-time internship. This supervised clinical experience provides hands-on training in working with children and adolescents in a professional setting.
  5. Licensure: All psychologists in clinical practice must obtain proper licensure. Licensing requirements vary by state, but most states require candidates to pass a licensing exam, such as the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP). Some states also require candidates to pass a jurisprudence exam to assess their understanding of state laws related to practicing psychology.
  6. Postdoctoral supervised practice: Some states also require a period of postdoctoral supervised practice before granting full licensure. This allows new psychologists to gain additional clinical experience under the guidance of a licensed professional.
  7. Continuing education: Child psychologists must engage in continuing education to maintain their licensure and stay up-to-date with the latest research and therapeutic techniques in the field. Continuing education requirements vary by state.

Start Your Journey Toward a Child Psychologist Career

There are a number of different fields of psychology you could pursue for your career. But if you’re passionate about helping children maintain their health and happiness through assessment, prevention, and intervention, you could thrive as a child psychologist.

Interested in taking the next step? You’ll probably need to pursue additional training. Depending on where you are in your educational journey, you may be starting your path toward a psychology career from different points.

Haven’t earned an undergraduate degree yet? Check out UMass Global’s Bachelor of Arts in Psychology with a Child Psychology concentration program. Already have a bachelor’s degree? Learn how you could continue working toward your career goals with a graduate-level education by considering the MA in Educational Psychology and Ed.S. in School Psychology with PPSP Credential program. Request more information or apply for one of our child psychology programs today.


Become a Student

Have questions about enrollment, degree programs, financial aid, or next steps?

Further your education with a few questions

Student Type
Please enter your zip code to proceed.
Please enter a valid zip code to proceed.
Please select a degree type
Please select your area of interest
Please select a program type
Please select a session
Have you served in the U.S. Military or are you a Military Dependant?
Please enter your name
Please enter your last name
Please enter your email to proceed
Please enter a valid email address
Please enter your phone number to proceed.
Please enter a valid phone number.

UMass Global is partnered with hundreds of employers like yours—learn if you’re eligible for tuition discounts by providing your work email address.

Please enter a valid work email address
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

About UMass Global

Earn your bachelor’s degree, master’s degree or certificate at UMass Global, a regionally accredited university.

We value your privacy

By submitting this form, I agree that UMass Global and/or Kaplan North America, LLC may contact me about educational services by voice, pre-recorded message and/or text message using automated technology, at the phone number provided, including wireless numbers. I understand that my consent is not required to attend University of Massachusetts Global. Privacy Policy