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Child Development Degrees

Child development degrees focus on the physical, psychological, and emotional changes in a child from birth to the beginning of adulthood. Understanding these developmental milestones prepares child development professionals to help children confront individual challenges and succeed later in life.

Professionals may work with toddlers, adolescents, or teens, along with their families. Graduates with child development degrees may go on to work in schools, daycare centers, social service agencies, or research institutes.

If you’re interested in working with children and guiding them in their journey to adulthood, then a child development degree may be right for you.

Read on to learn about child development degrees, jobs and credentials; child development courses; online learning opportunities; and salary and career outlook for child development professionals.

How Are Child Development Degrees Different From Early Childhood Education Degrees?

Both early childhood education and child development focus on the support and welfare of children. Both are geared toward helping children unlock their potential and live full, productive lives. But while there may be overlap, the degrees differ in their area of focus.

Child development degrees concentrate on how children develop naturally. They identify developmental milestones and potential roadblocks to healthy development and teach strategies for navigating them.

A degree in early childhood education is primarily focused on the education of children, both formally and informally, from birth to about third grade. An early childhood education degree prepares you to teach young children.

What Can I Do With a Child Development Degree?

Child development professionals work in a wide range of environments and institutions. The type of career available to you will depend partly on the type of degree you have, your experience, and your areas of interest. You can get a bachelor’s, master’s, or Ph.D. in child development. You may choose to work with very young children or with teens, in a school environment, or for a social welfare agency. Following are examples of careers you may choose, based on the degree you get.

Bachelor’s degree:

Those with a bachelor’s degree in child development should be prepared for the following positions:

  • Preschool Teacher: Preschool teachers work at private or public schools helping young children learn, mostly through play and social interaction.
  • Curriculum Development Specialist: Curriculum development specialists create new curricula or make recommendations for improvements to existing curricula.
  • Social Worker: Child welfare social workers protect and support vulnerable children and their families. Child welfare social workers must hold at least a bachelor’s degree in social work or a related field such as child development. To become a licensed social worker, you’ll need a master’s degree.

Master’s degree:

Students interested in taking on leadership positions or becoming licensed social workers may want to pursue a master’s degree. Examples of careers a master’s degree should prepare you for include:

  • Case Manager or Counselor: Child development graduates work for social service agencies as case managers and counselors. They may hold positions in administration, program development, research, or other areas.
  • Preschool or Daycare Director: With a master’s degree, you may qualify for a job as a preschool or childcare center director. Your responsibilities would typically be to supervise staff, prepare budgets, develop educational programs, interact with parents, and oversee the daily operations of the center.
  • Program Administrator or Coordinator: Local, state, and federal government agencies (such as the Department of Health, Education and Welfare), military child care programs, women’s protective agencies, and mental health agencies hire people with a master’s degree in child development to coordinate and evaluate programs, do research, or advocate for legislation to benefit children.
  • Child Advocate Social Workers: Many child advocate social workers are employed by non-profit organizations and government agencies. They help develop solutions to improve children’s circumstances. Many child welfare social workers hold a master’s or a doctoral degree.
  • Health Care: Having a master’s in child development can open doors to jobs at hospitals and other health care facilities. You may be asked to serve as an educator or a child life specialist. A child life specialist works with children and their families to facilitate healthy childhood development. They help teachers and parents learn to use behavior modification techniques.

Doctorate degree:

Those earning a Ph.D. in child development often go on to careers in research and academia or as leaders in their chosen specialization. Examples of careers for those with a Ph.D. include:

  • University Professor: College professors prepare course materials and teach classes to graduate and undergraduate students. Many also conduct research in their field.
  • Childhood Development Consultant: A childhood development consultant provides analysis and makes recommendations for effective policies and practices to ensure kids have a chance to fulfill their potential. They may conduct research and publish findings, lead trainings, and prepare briefings for policymakers and other stakeholders, including schools, government agencies, non-profit organizations, and private companies.
  • Clinical Researcher: Research work that furthers understanding of child development can be a fulfilling application of a child development degree.
  • Program Administrator: Many employers needing an administrator for programs focused on children — such as preschool and childcare organizations, non-profit programs, and government agencies — seek to hire an individual with the expertise and credentials a Ph.D. in child development provides.
  • Curriculum Development Specialist: Large school districts and higher-level education departments often prefer to hire a Ph.D. to lead curriculum development and make recommendations to improve curricula and course content.

Salary and Career Outlook for Child Development Careers

There can be great variances in salaries for those in the child development field. There are many factors that play into this, including the degree held, years and type of experience, geographic location, sector, and more. Below you will find examples of the salary and career outlook for three child development careers.

Preschool or Daycare Center Director

The median annual wage for preschool and childcare center directors, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics was $47,940 in May 2018.

Top paying states for this occupation:

StateHourly Mean WageAnnual Mean Wage
New Jersey$36.74$76,410
New York$35.85$74,580

A review of job listings on large online job boards shows that in April 2019 those who hold a master’s degree and head preschool or childcare center programs could receive an annual salary ranging from $42,000 to $94,000 depending on the degrees held, years of service, and other factors. The beginning annual salary for those who hold a Ph.D. ranged from $89,000 to $175,000. Directors at this level often served as local, state, and federal officials.

According to the BLS demand for preschool and childcare center directors is projected to grow at 11% between 2016 and 2026, which is higher than average.

Postsecondary Teachers, University Instructors, and Professors

Most postsecondary positions require a Ph.D. However, a master’s degree may suffice to obtain a position as an instructor at the community college level. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that in May 2018 the median annual wage for postsecondary teachers was $78,470 and projects job growth of 15% for this field, which is much higher than average.

Top paying states for this occupation as of May 2018 were:

StateAnnual Mean Wage
New York$91,680

Child Life Specialist

A child life specialist at a children’s hospital helps children and families understand and cope with a child’s hospital experience. They may also work as healthcare social workers in hospitals. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2017 the median annual wage for healthcare social workers was $60,380 (which was significantly higher than the $37,690 median annual wage for all workers during that period of time). Job growth for child life specialists is projected to be 7%, which is about average.

BLS reports that in 2018 the top paying states for this occupation, including all hospital social workers were:

StateHourly Mean WageAnnual Mean Wage
District of Columbia$33.93$70,580

How to Get a Child Development Degree

There are several education paths you can take in order to work in the field of child development.

Bachelor’s Degree in Child Development

To be admitted into a bachelor’s degree program in child development, you’ll need to have completed your high school general education requirements. Some colleges may also require standardized test scores and a personal essay as part of the application process.

Completing a bachelor’s degree in child development usually takes a full-time student four years, although the timeframe may vary somewhat depending on class loads, schedules, and availability of courses. Some programs may grant a limited number of credit hours for life or work experiences relevant to a chosen field.

Child development courses at the bachelor’s level may include:

  • Child Development — Gain understanding of the social, emotional, behavioral, cognitive, and language development milestones of young children and factors that may impact progress.
  • Child Safety, Nutrition, and Health — Gain knowledge of factors that can affect the health, nutrition, and safety of children.
  • Child Psychology — Focus on the development of a child’s language, personality, thinking, and factors that affect development, including home and school environments.
  • Language Development — Learn how children develop and use language and what influences their speech and writing.
  • Child, Family, and Community Relationships — Explore formal and informal communication strategies and the impact of family, culture, and community on children’s development and learning.

Master’s Degree in Child Development

A master’s degree in child development explores the physical, mental, and emotional elements in the growth and development of children. Some students choose to focus on a specific age group, such as infant, early childhood, or adolescence.

To apply for a master’s degree in child development you must hold a bachelor’s degree, and along with your application you should be prepared to provide:

  • Official transcripts from all institutions attended
  • Letters of recommendation (from former instructors, classmates, bosses, or co-workers)
  • GRE scores

A master’s degree typically takes a full-time student about two years to complete.

Many master’s degree programs allow you to choose an area of focus that interests you. You may choose to focus on a specific age group or on a field (such as education, psychology, or child growth and development), depending on your career interests.

Child development courses at the master’s level may include:

  • Research Methods — Learn principles of research for quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods
  • Quantitative and Qualitative Research Design and Analysis — Learn how to structure and conduct a research study, analyze data, and articulate conclusions.
  • Theories of Child Development — Study the major theories, stages, and milestones of child development.
  • Child Psychology — Examine the development of physical, social, conversational, and emotional skills from infancy to adolescence.
  • Adolescent Psychology — Study the biological, psychological, cognitive, emotional, personality, and social changes that occur during adolescence.

To complete the degree, graduate students may be required to complete a master’s thesis or capstone project. Both of these culmination activities require extensive fieldwork, data analysis, and the ability to make recommendations, draw conclusions, and articulate findings.

Doctorate Degree in Child Development

Admission into a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) program in child development requires a bachelor’s or a master’s degree in child development or a related field. Most programs require transcripts from all institutions previously attended, GRE scores, a resume (or CV), and letters of recommendation. Applicants may also be required to sit for an interview.

Completing a doctoral program in child development generally takes three to six years. Timeframes can vary significantly depending on many variables, including one’s dissertation. Most doctoral students choose a focus area such as psychology, social work, or education.

The doctoral curriculum focuses on theories in emotional, social, and intellectual development and on developing the student’s ability to conduct sound, effective research. Courses might include:

  • Cognitive Development — Discover how the mind operates, with emphasis on the formative years of life.
  • Language Development — Explore how children learn to speak, the major speech and language milestones, and theories about how these complex skills develop.
  • Advanced Statistics — Learn to apply statistical analysis to the field of child development.
  • Behavioral and Cognitive-Behavioral Intervention for Children and Adolescents — Focus on theory, research, client diversity, ethics, and practical aspects of conducting therapy with children and adolescents.
  • Ethical and Professional Issues in Child Psychology — An overview of the ethical and professional issues involved in psychological research, instruction, and practice.

By pursuing and completing this highest level of education, students prove they are goal-oriented, willing to work hard, and can persevere to reach an objective. These strengths can provide considerable advantage over other job candidates. Plus, many professionals who earn a Ph.D. will earn significantly more money over their lifetime than those who don’t hold advanced degrees.

Child Development Specializations

Child development students may choose to specialize at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Often students will choose to specialize in a certain age group, target population, or type of intervention based on their career interests. If you choose a specialization, you will usually be required to take a certain number of credits in that area.

Common child development concentrations include:

  • Child Life Specialization
  • Youth and Family Studies
  • Early Childhood Development
  • Education
  • Children with Special Needs
  • Child Development Administration
  • Social and Community Development

Online Child Development Classes

A degree in child development can be earned at both traditional colleges and online. There are also programs available that take a hybrid approach, combining online classes with some required time on campus. There are pros and cons to each of these approaches.

On the plus side, online courses provide flexibility — you can work at your own pace and according to you own schedule. The programs may also cost less: Even when tuition is the same, online programs let you save money on gas, automobile costs, parking, and eating out. And, you can complete classes (or re-watch lectures) when it’s convenient for you.

But taking an online course requires self-discipline and time-management skills. If you procrastinate, it’s easy to get behind and become overwhelmed. If you fall behind, it’s easy to give up. That’s one of the reasons some students don’t finish online programs. Also, some people are more successful when they have face-to-face interactions with the instructor and other students.

Choosing a Child Development Program

Committing to get a degree is a big decision. Deciding which school to attend is just as important. There are a number of things to think about. Before you apply for admission into a child development program, consider these important questions:

  • Is the program accredited? Accreditation means an institution has been recognized by local, state, and national agencies as providing high-quality education. Some employers require degrees from an accredited institution, such as programs accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) or the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).
  • What is the total cost of this program? You need to determine how much tuition you can afford. And remember, tuition is only part of the cost of getting a degree. Find out about all fees and additional costs.
  • Is financial aid available? Federal and state grants and loans may be available to help you pursue your degree, so make sure to ask about available resources.
  • Are academic specializations/concentrations available? If you have a specific career in mind – for example, working with toddlers or students with special needs – make sure the program offers a specialization in that area.
  • How does the school handle internships or practicums? Does the school have established agreements with local social service programs or child development centers? Do they set up the on-site, practical experience, or is the student responsible for locating and getting approval for a local site placement? Internships often provide a pathway to employment after graduation.
  • Will credit hours be accepted for a graduate degree program? Make sure the college credits you earn will be recognized and accepted for graduate work at other institutions.

No matter what school you choose, your child development degree program should prepare you to understand the fundamentals of childhood growth and development.

Licensing Requirements

Does a career in child development require a license? That depends. Licensing requirements vary depending on the job and the state you’re in.

If you want to be a teacher, you will likely need to be licensed or certified in your state. This can include completing a teacher education program in early childhood education and passing an approved Praxis examination. Check your state’s licensing and certification requirements.

If you are interested in becoming a child social worker in addition to getting your bachelor’s or master’s degree in child development, your state may also require you to pass a licensing exam.

What Is a CDA (Child Development Associate)?

The Child Development Associate (CDA) credential is a professional designation. It’s the most widely recognized credential in early childhood education.

A professional credential like the CDA can be advantageous to your career. It can be a deciding factor when a potential employer is considering you and other candidates. Your credential gives an employer confidence that you have the knowledge and skills needed to do the job well and that you understand developmentally appropriate practices. It shows a commitment to your field.

CDA Requirements

Before you can apply for the CDA, you will need:

  • High school diploma (or be a high school junior or senior in an early education/child development career and technical program)
  • 480 hours of experience working with young children (within three years of applying)
  • 120 hours of professional education covering the growth and development of children ages

Once you meet all of the eligibility requirements, the CDA credentialing process will include:

  • Submitting a professional portfolio, including family questionnaires
  • Taking the CDA Exam
  • Completing a CDA Verification Visit with an approved professional development specialist during which you will be observed working with children in a specific age group

The initial CDA assessment fee is $425 and renewals cost $150. If you apply online there is a $25 discount.

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