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What is a Child Psychologist?

A child psychologist is a mental health professional who specializes in diagnosing mental health disorders in children. After going to school and earning a bachelor’s, and possibly a master’s degree, the child psychologist is equipped with the knowledge they need to treat troubled young clients.

While the child psychologist has general knowledge of psychology, they have specialized knowledge and experience in dealing with young children. Depending on the level of their education, they may also have done research into mental disorders beginning in childhood. They may work in their own practice, in a larger practice in the community, or for a government agency.

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Steps to Becoming a Child Psychologist

Begin by completing several steps that put your name in front of admissions officers at each university in which you are interested. Even though you may put your hardest work into your applications, you may not be accepted into every university. Still, some will be interested in learning more about you.

You’ll have to take college entrance exams (ACT and SAT) and order your official high school transcripts. You may have to write entrance essays.

Once you are accepted into a university, begin enrolling in your classes. Complete your internship, then take licensing exams for your state.

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Step 1: Earn Your Degree

Before anything else, you’ll need to take your ACT or SAT—if you can take these entrance exams as a junior or senior in high school, that is ideal. If you take them while you’re still in high school, you won’t have to worry about this step while you’re trying to get other things done.

Once the test is done, decide on your psychology major if you haven’t already done so. Go through the schools you’re most interested in, then apply for admission to each one. Order your official high school transcripts and have these sent to each university.

The way university education is set up, you have to take your more basic general education classes first. You want to have a base of knowledge upon which you can draw when you move into your core classes in your psychology major. After this you’ll start enrolling in your core classes within your major.

You will have to participate actively in your classes so that you earn the best grades possible. Just as you submit weekly assignments and papers, you should enter into discussions as well. This way, your professors can see whether you understand the material they are teaching.

Step 2: Find an Internship

Some professions require students to take part in an internship. This gives them real-world experience in their chosen fields. Once you begin working on your internship, you will be doing the work for which you’ve been obtaining your education—you may assess incoming clients; sit in on counseling sessions (group and individual); write up case notes; write a treatment plan under supervision; and make recommendations as to possible treatments a client needs.

You will be putting the theoretical learning into action in your internship. You should be doing much more than filing and answering calls.

Step 3: Take Your Licensing Exams, State and National

In your last weeks in school, you should make arrangements to take your licensing exams. These are both state and national. Pay attention to the criteria of each exam—you are expected to pass by the minimum score indicated on each exam.

Without your state and national licenses, you won’t be able to work as a child psychologist. However, you may be able to work for a short time, as long as you have a provisional license. This is a temporary license that legally allows you to practice child psychology until you have taken and passed your exams.

What Does a Child Psychologist Do?

Child psychologists primarily work with children who are either going to be tested for mental disorders, who have already been diagnosed with at least one, or who have suffered from some sort of trauma. In arriving at a diagnosis, the psychologist administers tests that aid them in determining the level of maladjustment the child may be suffering from. Once they have determined the child’s diagnosis or diagnoses, they meet with their young client in regular therapy sessions, which may include just the child, their parents, or family group sessions. You will study, interpret, and record how your clients relate to you, their families, and their environments.

At first, the biggest part of the psychologist’s work is to build trust in the child, so they can talk openly about how they feel and what is happening in their life.

Some child psychologists may work in research at government, academic, or private organizations. Other school psychologists work with children in the school system. These professionals help students to look at their problems and develop performance plans for the child. Along with trust-building, the psychologist views the coordination of a child’s care and recovery to be one of the most important things they will do.

Child Psychologist Skills to Acquire

As a child psychologist, you are working with young children who are hurting or suffering from a mental condition or emotional trauma. You need to have several specialized skills that will allow you to connect and communicate with them.

  • Statistics/Psychometrics
    You need to be skilled with numbers, equations, and statistics. You will be working with quantitative knowledge and data that you must know how to read and interpret.

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  • Communication
    You’re studying and working with human behavior. You want your clients to tell you what they are thinking and feeling.

  • Ethics
    This is important in all professions, but especially when you are working with human emotions. In your position, you are working with one of the most vulnerable populations.

  • Research
    Whether you work with clients or not, you will be actively involved in research. You may be searching for an effective treatment for a client or carrying out experiments.

  • Problem-solving
    You need to have more than one plan in place to deal with problems in treating clients.

  • Critical Evaluation
    Know how to assess what is actually going on, no matter what story you are being told.

Alternative Paths

There is no way around earning your degree if you want to be a child psychologist. You will have to have either a PsyD or PhD so you can obtain full licensure. This allows you to work as a counseling child psychologist. Look for accredited programs at this level. If you are obtaining your bachelor’s in psychology, this gives you the educational background you need for both advanced programs.

Child Psychologist Career & Salary

Where Might You Work?


Child psychologists work in one of several possible settings:

  • Hospitals (local, state, and private)
    7% of child psychologists work in hospital settings

  • Elementary and secondary schools (public and private)
    27% of child psychologists work in a school setting

  • Government
    10% of child psychologists work for government agencies or as part of government programs

  • Self-employed
    24% of child psychologists have their own practices

  • Outpatient healthcare services
    18% of child psychologists work in these types of facilities

Child psychologists are included in the number of clinical, school, and counseling psychologists employed in the U.S., with 147,500 working in their field.

Next, there are some child psychologists who prefer to work solo, consulting with their clients and counseling them. They may work as a member of a healthcare team, working in independent research, or work alongside social workers and doctors as they treat client illnesses and help to promote wellness in each of their clients.

Potential Career Paths

You need to know where you want to work once you graduate. Once you have this settled, you’ll know where to focus your job search.

Your options include research, government employment, foster care programs, shelters, education, and even juvenile probation/law enforcement.

You may also come to the conclusion that you need to continue your education and go on to earn your graduate or postdoctoral degrees.

Licensed Child Psychologist
Workers in this position will provide both testing services or therapy to young clients, especially those younger than 11 years old. Candidate must be licensed in their field and have experience in working or training with children and teens.

Psychologist Child Psychiatry
Workers in this position will provide mental health assessments, diagnosis, and treatment. They will also intervene when the client is in crisis. The children who are seen in practice may present with a wide range of mental health issues after a psychiatric evaluation. The psychologist will collaborate with the treating physician, psychiatrist, and allied health professionals to create a treatment plan. This team also directs each child’s treatment program. You may also provide outpatient psychotherapy to individuals, couples, families, and groups.

Child and Adolescent Psychologist
This professional will provide individual and family therapy. They will also administer psychological and psychoeducational evaluations to children three years old and older and provide therapy to older children and adolescents. Parent consultations are a regular part of the services provided. The psychologist must be able to evaluate, diagnose, and treat mental illnesses as outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V). You also must be able to write comprehensive psychoeducational and psychological testing reports.

In-Home Services Practitioner
These psychologists provide in-home services for clients of a protective services office. They will develop and implement interventions for children and families who are receiving voluntary services to reduce risk to the children and promote the safety of the children in the home. These children may have experienced or be at risk of experiencing child abuse or maltreatment. To qualify, the candidate should hold a master’s in psychology, counseling, social work or sociology from an accredited university.

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School Psychologist
These professionals provide school-based collaboration and consult with other professionals to eliminate or reduce student learning and behavioral problems as they all work together to increase the skill level of parents, administrators, teachers, and other key staff members. The psychologist will evaluate students for diagnosis of disabilities, for educational planning, and to comply with assessment plans. You will be expected to provide primary, secondary, and tertiary mental health services.

Child Psychologist
A child psychologist is needed to provide services to children and their families in a variety of settings. These include at home, day care, a community setting, or in an office setting. This professional will carry out several evaluations or services in accordance with state and county regulations. Duties include providing high-quality evaluations and evaluations that meet Early Intervention requirements. You’ll also attend IFSP meetings and conduct parent education as a member of the evaluation team and provide high-quality individual sessions, which will be evidenced by improvement in parent and child satisfaction.

Career Outlook

The employment outlook for psychologists (overall) indicates that the profession is projected to grow about 14% between 2016 and 2026. This growth is faster than the average for all other occupations. However, growth of employment will vary by specific occupation.

School, counseling, and clinical psychologists should grow about 14% between 2016 and 2026. This is partially due to the larger demand for psychological services in schools, mental health centers, hospitals, and social services agencies.

Looking specifically at school psychologists, growth will go up mostly because of the increased awareness of the link between learning, mental health, and the increasing need for school-based mental health services. These professionals will work with students who have special needs, behavioral issues, and learning disabilities.

School psychologists will also be relied on more because of the need to learn how home- and school-based factors impact a child’s ability to learn. As research in this area increases knowledge, administrators and teachers can use it to improve teaching techniques.

Job candidates with doctoral or postdoctoral work experience, or an education specialist degree, will have the best chance of landing jobs in school psychology, counseling, or clinical psychology positions.

Advancing From Here

If you have a master’s degree, you might want to think about returning to school to work on your doctoral degree. You will find it easier to land your first job choice. And it should take you three months or less to find a job when you graduate with your doctoral degree.

You will be able to specialize in Child Clinical Psychology, School Psychology, or Applied Developmental Psychology. After earning your doctoral degree, you will be able to concentrate on research, teaching psychology, or working for the National Institutes of Health with a focus on psychology or child psychology.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Where do child psychologists work?

Child psychologists work in schools, hospitals, private practices, and government agencies.

What do child psychologists do?

Child psychologists work with children 17 and under to treat and diagnose mental, social, emotional, and behavioral issues.

What is the median salary of a child psychologist?

Child psychologists make around $78,000 on average up to about $120,000 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

What skills does a child psychologist need?

A child psychologist needs to have strong communication, ethics, and problem- solving skills. They need to have a good grasp on statistics, psychometrics, and ability to conduct research.

What is the job outlook for child psychologists?

The child psychologist profession is projected to grow by about 14% between 2016 and 2026.

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