Complete Guide to a Child Development Degree Online

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Quick Facts
Accreditation: APA
Degree Levels: Associate, Bachelor's, Master's, Doctoral, and Certificate
Avg Tuition: $23,451

Students of an online child development degree will learn to monitor the cognitive development of children as they grow older. Child development is a particular branch of developmental psychology that analyzes the psychological, emotional, and perceptional changes within children. This can include many different aspects of behavior, such as problem-solving skills, moral understanding and personality. Child psychologists consider three major contexts during their analysis of a child's mental development: social, cultural, and socioeconomic.

Students interested in a career in this field should research credentialing requirements for child psychologists, as they vary by state. Students should also ensure that the schools they consider are accredited by the APA. For prospective students and potential employers, accreditation by the American Psychological Association indicates that a college or university is legitimate. Read More

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Comprehensive List of Schools for an Online Child Development Degree ( 16)

Overview of Available Online Child Development Degrees

Degree programs in child development are available at the bachelor's, master's, doctorate, and certificate level. The bachelor's program includes courses in brain and behavior, cognitive psychology, human memory, childhood and adolescent development, and human sexuality. While some choose to continue on for more schooling, graduates at this level can go on to become child advocates, social workers, teachers, and social services managers.

A master's degree is the minimum requirement to become a licensed counselor specializing in school or child psychology. Master's programs include advanced theoretical coursework, as well as clinical practicums that require interviewing and counseling patients. During the developmental psychology doctorate program, students usually work on a research project while also interning in a child psychology treatment setting. Working professionals may choose to attend a certificate program in child psychology to extend their knowledge of the field.

The educational and training requirements to become a licensed child psychologist are extensive and require much more than a four-year degree. A master's degree is the absolute minimum to practice as a child psychologist, though this is highly dependent on state laws; most states require that licensed child psychologists hold a PhD or a PsyD. Along with an advanced degree, those pursuing this career will need to complete a doctoral fellowship and a set amount of supervised clinical training hours.

Online Associate Degrees in Child Development

Associate degrees in psychology are generally similar, as they don't tailor to specific areas of focus, such as child psychology. Some associate programs will allow students to have a focus in child psychology with elective courses on early childhood development. Associate programs admit students with a high school diploma and usually take two years to complete. As a precursor to the child psychology field, an associate degree will provide students with psychology basics and fundamental information. General education courses will include English, history, math, fine arts, speech, composition, and biology. Psychology courses may include an introduction to psychology, developmental psychology, human behavior, child development, and history of psychology. Associate degrees are often tailored toward students who plan on continuing their education and receiving a bachelor's or master's degree.

Almost all psychology careers, especially those in child psychology, will require a minimum of a master's degree, although many will require a PhD. Child psychologists will need to also be licensed to practice. If practicing in a school, licensure will come from the National Association of School Psychologists, and if practicing independently, licensure will need to be obtained from the state board. An associate degree will help students get jobs as administrative assistants or other entry-level positions in psychology offices until they advance their education.

Since an associate degree program in child psychology mainly covers introductory courses in psychology, most or all of the training in an online program is typically Web-based with Internet support tools and accommodating faculty. More advanced programs in the field, such as a master's or doctoral degree, are likely to involve a balance between online coursework and on-site laboratory instruction.

Online Bachelor's Degrees in Child Development

A Bachelor of Arts (BA) in child psychology provides students with an understanding of the mental and behavioral development of children; it is often used as a stepping stone in the process of earning a master's degree. Applicants must have a high school education, and these programs take four years to complete.

The undergraduate child psychology curriculum contains a broad overview of the major facets of child development. Students study the developmental, behavioral, and learning disorders that can affect children at various stages in their lives, and they learn how a child's social or cultural environment affects his or her development. In addition to a foundation in psychology, bachelor's degree students also take courses in English, history, math, science, foreign languages, and other humanities areas before narrowing their focus during the last two years of the program. Many child psychology programs require students to complete an internship in a setting where they can observe child behavior, such as in a school or day-care setting.

Although the bachelor's degree is quite flexible and will prepare student for many different career paths, graduates will not yet be qualified to work as a psychologist, since that requires a doctoral degree along with licensure. They may choose to work for a social service organization or as a substance abuse counselor or child care worker. With a child psychology bachelor's degree, some graduates become elementary school teachers, provided they earn a teaching certificate. Preschool teachers and day-care operators do not need certificates but can benefit from a child psychology background. Other graduates work as social and human services assistants or go on to earn master's degrees in counseling.

Online Master's Degrees in Child Development

A Master of Arts degree in child psychology provides graduates with an advanced understanding of childhood mental, emotional, and intellectual development. Applicants typically have bachelor's degrees in a relevant social science area; however, programs may accept applicants with other backgrounds, provided they have had foundational psychology coursework. Most programs last two to three years. Individuals who are interested in school psychology could alternatively pursue an Education Specialist (EdS) master's program in school psychology. Students must complete a thesis and research project during this degree program, as well. These programs discuss education theory and techniques, as well as psychological principles. They take about two years of full-time work to complete.

Coursework for child psychology master's students is structured around research and mastery of theory. Courses explore topics such as adolescent mental health, juvenile delinquency, addictive disorders, and learning and cognition. The thesis is a major part of most master's degree programs. Under the supervision of professors, students select an original research topic and may even lead original research projects or case studies to support a thesis. The thesis must then be presented and deemed adequate by a panel of faculty advisers prior to graduation. When studying child psychology via online courses, it will be very important for students to have on-site training in their field through an internship, externship, or apprenticeship. The training that students will receive from their on-site experience is essential to their overall experience in the program.

Although master's graduates won't be able to pursue a career as a child psychologist until after they complete a doctoral program, they will be eligible to apply for counseling licensure in many states. State counseling licensure generally requires completing a master's degree and many hours of fieldwork training in addition to passing a nationally administered exam. Licensed counselors may work with children in schools and in other counseling settings but cannot provide medical advice or dispense medication. Some counselors open their own practices and specialize in a specific facet of child psychology, like learning disabilities or grief counseling.

Online Doctoral Degrees in Child Development

The Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) and Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) programs in child development and psychology are intensive, research-based degrees that prepare graduates for a career as a licensed child psychologist or professor. The PhD includes training in psychology research as well as professional practice, while the PsyD focuses more on professional psychology practice. Courses in the programs discuss interviewing patients, assessing their problems, and coming up with treatment plans. Students spend a significant amount of time in a clinical internship working under a licensed psychologist.

Depending on the doctorate program, applicants must have a master's degree, along with previous foundational coursework in psychology and statistics. Prior experience conducting research projects may be just as important as prior education. Students may spend between three and six years completing their degree, with the latter years of the degree focused on conducting a research project and writing a dissertation. Students will defend their thesis conclusion before a panel of professors and/or professionals. Most doctoral programs in child psychology also require a year of clinical work after the student's dissertation is complete. The doctoral degree is the minimum educational requirement for licensure as a clinical psychologist across most of the United States.

The curriculum of a doctorate program in child psychology explores high-level theory, as students are expected to already have a broad knowledge base. The curriculum will introduce students to various approaches used to deal with children in psychology. Many accredited colleges have developed online psychology doctorate degrees so students can study psychological theories and research via online courses. These programs may require short, intensive residencies, in which students come to campus to do clinical practicums and work on research projects. Online students still have to complete a clinical internship, which lasts at least one year; the school helps students set up an appropriate supervised internship in their local community. The most important thing to keep in mind when completing an online doctorate is whether the program is recognized by your state's psychology board. Attending an accredited program is necessary for earning a state psychology license.

Online Certificates in Child Development

Child psychology certificates provide clinical practitioners with a deeper understanding of child development and behavior. These certificates are graduate programs and typically require four to eight courses. Many programs require that applicants possess a bachelor's or master's degree in counseling or a related area, as well as a counseling license. Other programs are open to social workers, teachers, or noncertified child care professionals. Child psychology certificates geared toward licensed counselors focus on treatment strategies for working with children, adolescents, and their families. These classes discuss topics like family treatment, interviewing skills, and other applied techniques. Other courses explore topics like abnormal child psychology and developmental psychology.

Other certificates discuss child psychology and interventions that are appropriate for professionals without a clinical counseling background. These certificates might touch on topics like child and adolescent trauma, research in child psychology, and support services for young populations. Graduates typically use these certificates to support current careers in counseling or the helping professions. Current counselors and clinical social workers can use the program to shift the focus of their practice to better serve children and adolescents. Professionals in non-profit organizations, public service, child care, or similar settings can use the certificate to deepen their understanding of the motivation and behavior of children in order to better serve them.

The Importance of Accreditation

While it is important to ensure that a school has earned institutional accreditation from a respected regional or national agency, those interested in career in psychology should also verify programmatic accreditation. In the same way that institutional accreditation reflects the quality of the school, programmatic accreditation ensures that specific postsecondary education programs conform to certain standards of quality, set by the individual agencies tasked with determining such a status. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation recognizes the APA as the accrediting authority for schools offering training in psychology. The American Psychological Association (APA) Commission on Accreditation (CoA) endorses programs in professional psychology, clinical psychology, counseling psychology, school psychology, and combined professional-scientific psychology.

Child Psychologist Credentialing Requirements by State

Child psychologists who deliver patient care in any setting must possess a state-issued license. The exact requirements and laws for attaining this license vary from state to state, although most require that applicants have a doctorate in psychology, along with a passing score on an exam and two years of supervised professional experience. The American Psychological Association is an important accrediting body for doctoral programs in child development and psychology, and the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards has specific information about state licensing.

In order to practice in school settings, school psychologists must be credentialed (often referred to as licensure or certification). Some states issue their own license for school psychologists, while others recognize the National Association of School Psychologists' credential, Nationally Certified School Psychologist, or NCSP. Many states offer an entry-level license that is necessary and sufficient for working in the schools, with higher levels available as future options, while other states have a sequential series of levels that school psychologists are expected to traverse in order to become fully credentialed (e.g., moving from provisional to permanent status). Still other states distinguish between types of licenses (e.g., master's and doctoral levels). The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) provides a complete list of each state's school psychology credentialing requirements.

What Students Will Learn in an Online Child Psychology Program

Depending on whether students pursue an undergraduate or graduate degree in child psychology, they will be exposed to a wide variety of theories, courses, and fieldwork experiences. While associate or bachelor's degree students may study the basic concepts of cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, statistics, or general humanities courses, master's and doctoral students will be exposed to more advanced topics related to children's cognitive and emotional development.

Here are a few examples of the courses that undergraduate child psychology students may take:

  • Child Development: This is a common course within the degree, as it examines the cognitive and developmental stages of children from birth to around adolescence. Students will delve into the various theories and philosophies regarding what affects a child's ability to learn.
  • Children and the Family: This course explores children's development within the family and how environmental factors play a key role in cognitive and emotional maturity. The class looks at communications within the family, culture, and family crisis such as divorce and illness. 
  • Developing Language: Students learn about language acquisition and the developmental stages of putting words together. They may also take a look at the benefits of bilingual households and how children learn languages much faster than adults.
  • Educational Psychology: This course explores the ways in which social, cognitive, and behavioral development factor into a child's education. It focuses on early development, in particular.
  • Introduction to Psychology: An introductory psychology course provides an overview of psychology and its history. The course places emphasis on rudimentary terms used in the field and specializations in the field. Individuals also gain an understanding of how psychology relates to and overlaps with other sciences.

Graduate programs will require students to complete a core of classes in developmental psychology along with courses in research methods and statistical analysis. Students must also design a research project focusing on an area of child psychology; the results of this research will result in a thesis or dissertation. Here are a few examples of the courses that students in a child psychology graduate program may take:

  • Behavior Management: This course will introduce students to some of the behavioral problems that children experience and discuss how to manage them. Students will learn how to develop behavior management plans to implement during treatment and while children are at home and school.
  • Infant, Child, and Adolescent Development: This course provides students with a basic overview of the intellectual and physical development of infants, children, and adolescents as they grow through different stages.
  • Introduction to Assessment: This course provides an introduction to the assessment process when meeting and diagnosing a new patient. Students will learn pertinent evaluation skills to assist them during this process.
  • Personality Assessment: This course will teach students about the basics of evaluating a patient's behavioral, emotional, and social characteristics and will focus on different personality traits and disorders.
  • Research Methodology and Statistical Analysis: These subjects prepare graduates to design and run a research project that will provide significant results. The course Statistics for Social Science Research covers the theories and models that social science researchers can employ in their work. The class Design Methods for Qualitative Research, on the other hand, discusses the ways that interviews and other nonquantitative data can be incorporated into psychological research.

Child Development Careers

Students of varying degree levels may pursue a wide variety of careers to utilize their education, experience, and desire to improve the lives of children and their families. 

Here are some examples of careers that graduates of undergraduate and graduate degree programs in child development may be qualified for:

  • Child Psychiatrist: Psychiatry is the medical branch of psychology where the practitioners are licensed to diagnose, treat, and prescribe medication to their clients. Child psychiatrists, much like child psychologists, are dedicated to helping improve a child's well-being.
  • Child Psychologist: Child psychologists work with children and teens to help them address and overcome emotional or mental challenges. They may meet with children who are dealing with short-term issues, such as divorce or death, as well as children facing more long-term mental health or behavioral disorders. They help children with issues that can disrupt everyday life, such as attention problems or anxiety. Child psychologists may have their own private practice or work in elementary and secondary schools, hospitals, or medical schools. In most states, child psychologists must have at least a doctoral degree, as well as a few years of professional experience in order to obtain a license.
  • Learning Disabilities Specialists: Child psychologists may choose to specialize in helping children with learning disabilities and designing treatment plans to help them overcome or adapt to those disabilities.
  • School Counselor: School counselors fulfill a variety of roles within an elementary, middle, or high school setting. Their daily activities can include parent meetings, one-on-one sessions with students, and working with a special education population.
  • Social Worker: Like psychologists, social workers help their clients overcome difficulties in their lives. While social workers cannot diagnose or treat their clients' mental health issues, they may provide counseling, career advice, or other information that may be helpful to them. Along with providing counseling, social workers may also assist clients with financial, emotional, or situational issues.
  • Substance Abuse Counselor: Substance abuse in minors presents a unique set of challenges. These specialists are experts in the causes and treatments of substance abuse in the youth population, as well as designing and implementing prevention techniques.


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