Careers in child development give professionals the opportunity to work with children from birth through adolescence and understand how they emotionally, mentally, and physically develop over time. Myriad jobs can be found in this growing field, including in clinical care, education, and research settings. Keep reading to learn about different degree levels, available jobs, and opportunities for continued professional growth.
Why Pursue a Career in Child Development?
Child development careers feature many different opportunities to fit varied skills and interests. Inquisitive, analytical individuals often thrive in these positions, as they allow for continued learning and opportunities to see children grow over time.
Professionals who work in direct care or education settings should enjoy spending time with infants, children, and teenagers. They should also have an appreciation for psychology and the social sciences, as many child development methodologies and frameworks are rooted in these disciplines.
Child Development Career Outlook
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that employment of preschool teachers will grow by 2% between 2019-2029, adding 13,500 new jobs in the field. Positions for preschool and childcare center directors are projected to grow 1% during that time frame. Available careers for a child development major vary depending on an individual's experience and level of education.
Students should consider which child development careers most interest them before enrolling in a program. While a preschool teacher, for instance, may only need an associate or bachelor's degree, a child psychologist must possess a doctorate and license to practice in clinical settings. The following table takes a look at median annual salaries for a few child development positions that require an associate or bachelor's degree.
|Job Title||Entry-Level (0-12 months)||Early Career (1-4 Years)||Midcareer (5-9 Years)||Experienced (10-19 Years)|
|Child Life Specialist||$40,750||$44,180||$45,660||N/A|
Skills Gained With a Child Development Degree
Child development programs equip students with the skills and knowledge needed for careers in education, psychology, criminal justice, social service administration, and a variety of other disciplines. Undergraduate and graduate programs in child development often rely on a combination of classroom instruction and field-based learning experiences.
Communication plays a key role in child development work. Teachers must be able to clearly convey concepts to students, and child researchers need to know how to interview children in order to collect data. Child development programs instruct participants about best practices for communication and provide them with opportunities to interact with children in supervised environments.
- Interpersonal Interaction
In addition to knowing how to best interact with young children, child development professionals must also build and maintain relationships with their colleagues and with the parents/guardians of young children. Special education teachers, for instance, must collaborate with educators, administrators, families, and social workers when developing individualized education programs (IEPs) for students with disabilities.
Children often struggle to express themselves while their language skills are still developing. Educators and researchers must be able to observe children's behavior to better understand their thought processes and identify possible issues. Many child development programs partner with schools or day care centers so students can hone these critical observational skills.
Teaching preschool, kindergarten, and elementary-age children requires a unique instructional skill set. As compared to middle and high school teachers, early child educators rely more on experiential learning. They may also benefit from developing skills related to learning through play, cross-curriculum teaching, and differentiated instruction.
Teachers and scholars need strong research and analysis skills to continuously improve their practice, develop a more thorough understanding of child development, and create interventions to address challenges. Most child development programs — especially those at the graduate level — feature extensive coursework in areas such as qualitative methods, data management, and study design.
Child Development Career Paths
Individuals with a career in child development can find positions in many different industries. Some may gravitate more toward counseling and family support services, while others may find that working in the classroom best suits their interests. The list below describes a few concentrations that help prepare students for specific roles in the field.
- Early Development and Learning
Upon graduation, students who concentrate in early development and learning typically work with children from birth to age five. Graduates may serve as childcare providers, preschool teachers, or early childhood curriculum designers. Coursework in this area explores subjects such as early language learning and supervision in early childhood settings.
- Counseling and Family Services
Many child development students hope to work as family counselors or social service providers. They may study topics such as the sociology of alcohol and drug use, psychological perspectives on death and dying, and theories of personality. They typically complete an internship or practicum, as well.
- Juvenile Delinquency
A concentration in juvenile delinquency positions learners for roles such as probation officer, correctional treatment specialist, or youth victim advocate. Through classes in criminal justice and youth subcultures, students learn to design interventions and programs that reduce criminal behavior among adolescents. They also learn to connect youth offenders with resources that can help them avoid recidivism.
- Management and Administration
Some child development majors plan to lead nonprofit organizations or government agencies that provide services to youth and their families. Students who choose this concentration complete coursework in areas like human resource management, program evaluation, and the foundations of public administration.
- Child Development Research
Some programs offer research-intensive tracks to prepare students for graduate study. Courses in this concentration include advanced statistics, methodology and design, and assessment. Students may also need to conduct original research and write a thesis.
How to Start Your Career in Child Development
A variety of careers are available for child development majors. For example, graduates can work as a preschool or elementary teacher at a public or private school. They may instead choose to work in the nonprofit sector, serving as the director of a childcare center or the head of an organization that runs an after-school enrichment program. Some child development graduates also find employment at local and state government agencies, coordinating the delivery of public services like Medicaid, food stamps, and housing assistance.
Your professional opportunities will largely be shaped by the type of degree you earn. For instance, you typically need to earn a master's to qualify for clinical positions in family counseling or school psychology. The child development career tables below indicate which jobs you can pursue with an associate, bachelor's, master's, or doctoral degree in child development.
Associate Degree in Child Development
Associate programs in child development generally consist of about 60 credits and require two years of full-time study. In addition to completing general education coursework in subjects like English and mathematics, students in these programs examine topics such as curriculum development, early childhood literacy, and the use of technology in the classroom.
While you can qualify for some entry-level roles, such as teaching assistant, with just an associate degree in child development, you must have a bachelor's degree to teach at a K-12 public school.
What Can You Do With an Associate in Child Development?
- Childcare Worker
Childcare workers help feed, bathe, and dress young children. They also oversee play and may provide basic instruction in areas like reading or music. While many work at childcare centers, others may operate as independent childcare providers for one or more families. Requirements vary, but many employers prefer to hire childcare workers with at least some postsecondary education.
- Preschool Teacher
Preschool teachers educate children before they enter kindergarten. They generally focus on the development of motor, language, and social skills through play and experiential learning. Preschool teachers typically need an associate degree, though about half of federal Head Start early education centers now require teachers to hold a bachelor's.
Bachelor's Degree in Child Development
Earning a bachelor's degree in child development may qualify you to apply for state licensure as a public school teacher. It also prepares you for certain careers in nonprofit and public administration.
Child development majors explore subjects such as the cognitive development of infants and young children, behavior and family dynamics, and exceptional learning and inclusion. Most programs also require or strongly encourage their students to participate in an internship or other field-based learning experience. If you plan to become a teacher, you may also need to complete a student teaching program to meet your state's licensure requirements.
What Can You Do With a Bachelor's in Child Development?
- Child Life Specialist
Child life specialists typically work in hospitals or community health centers. They assess child patients, collaborate with doctors and other medical professionals on the provision of care, and provide support to families. They may also serve as a point of contact for ongoing treatment plans. Most of these specialists have at least a bachelor's degree.
- Preschool and Childcare Center Director
Preschool and childcare center directors oversee all aspects of an organization's operations. They hire and train childcare staff, design and evaluate curricula, and create budgets. They also establish policies, communicate with parents and guardians, and raise supplementary funds. Most states require childcare directors to hold a bachelor's, and some require additional certification.
Sources: BLS and PayScale
Master's Degree in Child Development
With a master's degree in child development, you can take on more specialized and supervisory roles. For example, you may serve as a marriage and family therapist, helping children cope with life changes such as their parents' divorce or the death of a loved one. You may also find work as a school counselor, supporting the academic and social development of students.
Master's programs in child development feature coursework in areas like human prenatal development, adolescent psychology, and quantitative design and analysis. Depending on their career path, graduate students may also choose to complete a research-based thesis or a field-based capstone project.
What Can You Do With a Master's in Child Development?
- Special Education Teacher
Special education teachers work with students dealing with various mental, emotional, and physical disabilities. In addition, they often create and implement IEPs to ensure that learners receive appropriate accommodations and support — both inside and outside the classroom. Some schools may prefer to hire special education teachers who hold a master's degree.
- Kindergarten and Elementary School Teacher
Kindergarten and elementary school teachers provide instruction in foundational subjects like reading and math. They help students develop the study habits and critical thinking skills needed to succeed in middle school and beyond. While not required for most positions in this field, a master's degree in child development typically improves graduates' job prospects and qualifies them for a salary increase.
Doctoral Degree in Child Development
To teach or conduct child development research at a college or university, you typically must first earn a doctoral degree. You must also hold a doctorate to qualify for licensure as a clinical psychologist.
Doctoral programs typically begin with 2-3 years of classroom instruction in subjects such as developmental neurobiology, social and emotional processes, and clinical intervention with children. After completing this coursework, students may need to take a comprehensive examination. Learners then spend several months or years working on their dissertation.
The dissertation process involves conducting original research and then summarizing your methodology and findings in a written document — usually 100-200 pages in length. Once finished, you must successfully defend your dissertation before a faculty committee to formally earn your doctorate.
What Can You Do With a Doctorate in Child Development?
- Postsecondary Teacher
Professors and other postsecondary teachers instruct students at colleges, universities, and trade schools. Many also conduct and publish research within their area of expertise. Others may perform additional administrative duties, such as chairing a department in child development. Most postsecondary faculty jobs — especially those leading to tenure — require a doctoral degree.
- Postsecondary Education Administrator
Many postsecondary education administration positions, including provost and dean, require a doctorate. These professionals help decide academic policies, develop budgets, and coordinate activities for a department or school. These administrators often begin their careers as postsecondary teachers.
Sources: BLS and PayScale
How to Advance Your Career in Child Development
Careers in childhood development span the educational spectrum, allowing motivated professionals to continue advancing into new roles over the years as they gain experience. While some of these workers may decide to go back to school to earn a full advanced degree, others may decide that a certification best suits their needs.
Continuing education plays a critical role in child development, and professionals are expected to stay up to date on contemporary challenges, issues, and emerging research in the field. The following sections take a look at how individuals in this field can progress over the course of their careers.
Certifications and/or Licensure
Licensure and certification requirements vary based on individual careers in child development. In some states, for instance, preschool teachers working in public schools may be expected to earn certification from the Council for Professional Recognition. Other states require childcare workers to pass background checks and receive CPR/first aid certification.
To work as a K-12 teacher in a public school, professionals must hold a state-issued license. Those employed by private schools may bypass this step, but they should speak with individual schools to learn more.
Those who aspire to work as child psychologists must seek state licensure in the area where they want to practice, while school counselors may need to hold certification from the American School Counselor Association.
Continuing education can take on many different forms, depending on the type of learning a professional wants to engage in. While many people think going back to school for an advanced degree is the only option in continuing education, several other paths exist.
Certificate programs offer the opportunity to gain niche knowledge in less time than a traditional degree. Many of these programs are also offered online, making it easier for working professionals to further their education. Free online courses, such as massive open online courses (MOOCs), also offer the opportunity to engage in self-paced learning without committing to a full semester of study.
The path for every individual will look different. Consider your professional goals and then decide which options align best with your needs.
Aside from pursuing additional degrees, certificates, certification, and/or licensure, child development professionals can find other outlets for deepening their knowledge. For example, earning continuing education units may be a good option for shorter, more focused learning.
Additionally, networking helps students and professionals meet other professionals in the field, learn about their work, and potentially find a job. By joining professional organizations and associations, members can attend annual conferences, participate in a local or regional chapter, and subscribe to newsletters and publications in the field. These organizations may also offer in-person and online training, professional mentoring, and jobs boards.
How to Switch Your Career to Child Development
Individuals who already have a career but want to move into child development can do so through several means, depending on their level of education and/or experience.
Switching into some child development positions may require returning to school and enrolling in a formal degree program; this is especially true for individuals who do not yet possess a bachelor's or higher. Those with a bachelor's in another field may be able to transfer into certain positions after completing a certificate or training program.
Depending on their desired career, individuals may be able to start work in an entry-level position and complete on-the-job training. This may be possible for positions such as preschool teacher or childcare worker. Candidates may then move up in the field over time.
Where Can You Work as a Child Development Professional?
Child development careers span several industries and locations, making it relatively easy for professionals to find a setting that matches their interests and skills. Many child development professionals work in elementary and secondary schools or child day care services. The section below describes common industries and settings for these professionals.
The industries that employ child development professionals are varied, offering many different options for individuals considering this field. Career options can be found across public, private, and nonprofit settings.
The section below describes popular industries for kindergarten teachers, providing a few examples of common work settings for child development professionals.
- Elementary and Secondary Schools
Private and public elementary/secondary schools hire a variety of professionals, including educators, school counselors, instructional coordinators, and administrators. Public schools often pay more than similar employers in private and nonprofit settings.
Average Salary: $60,750
- Child Day Care Services
Many jobs are available at day care centers for teachers and administrators. In addition to traditional day care settings, workers may also find positions with large companies that offer childcare services for employees.
Average Salary: $40,210
- Religious Organizations
Many religious organizations offer day care and early education services to parishioners and community members. These jobs allow workers to get to know local families and participate in a larger religious community.
Average Salary: $54,460
- Individual and Family Services
These organizations provide social services related to child well-being, including public welfare, adoption services, counseling, and community shelters. These services may be provided by government agencies or nonprofits. These roles may require professionals to offer counseling or provide referrals.
Average Salary: $54,420
- Other Schools and Instruction
Other schools and instruction positions can be found outside of traditional education settings, including in schools located on military bases or in youth detention centers. These roles mostly exist within the government, but candidates may also find jobs at nonprofits.
Average Salary: $48,980
Careers in child development can be found in all 50 states and all U.S. territories, making it relatively easy for these professionals to locate work no matter where they live.
In terms of employment levels, heavily populated states such as California, New York, and Texas employ the most child development specialists. Individuals interested in earning the highest salaries should consider seeking work in states such as New York, Oregon, or Connecticut. Massachusetts and California also offer above-average wages in this field.
As mentioned earlier, membership in a professional organization can help individuals scope out available roles in their region and find a position that meets their professional and personal needs.
Interview With a Professional in Child Development
Michelle Person has almost 20 years of experience in education. After graduating from Skidmore College, she joined the Teach For America program and began her career in New Jersey. She worked in various urban schools, raising test scores, developing curricula, and building relationships. After earning an MA in educational leadership, she became a school building leader.
- Why did you decide to pursue a career in child development? Was it something you were always interested in?
In college, I was talking with a friend and he shared how he hadn't been able to read until the fifth grade. I was dumbfounded. By fifth grade, I was knee deep in the "Sweet Valley Twins" and the "Baby-Sitters Club" books. How did he manage to get that far and not know how to read?
What came next was a story that sounded more like a Lifetime channel "movie of the week" than actual reality: overcrowded classrooms, outdated textbooks, and teachers that didn't care. I decided right then that I wanted to work with children to make sure as many as possible had the same opportunities and experiences that I was fortunate enough to have.
- What is so valuable about earning a degree in this field right now?
A degree in this field is valuable because it is an area where there is a need. Society will always need educators, so job security is generally not an issue. Additionally, as we redefine what child development looks like and how we can best support students as they grow and develop, we are also redefining what the field looks like and what types of jobs are available. It's an exciting time.
- What did your career trajectory look like after you graduated? How did you end up in your current position?
I ended up in my current position quite by accident. I am an alum of Teach For America, an ambitious program that encourages young people to spend two years working in underserved and hard-to-staff schools. Initially, I planned to do my two years and move on — to what, I was not entirely sure. But after my first year, I knew I had to stay. The problems were too large and the stakes too high to walk away after two years.
I spent several years bouncing from school to school teaching different grade levels, at schools with different resources and different educational philosophies, observing how children learn and make sense out of their worlds at different developmental stages. The bouncing was challenging, but it gave me perspective. I saw some really great things, but I also saw some not-great things.
It was important to me to be able to support as many children as possible, so I made the transition from the classroom to the principal's office — all of that bouncing around gave me phenomenal insight on how to best meet the needs of all students.
- What are the pros and cons of working in child development?
Working in this field can often be a thankless job. We work long hours and are not always paid our worth. And we often do not get to see the fruits of our labor, since we normally see children for only one stage of their development.
But the longer you do the work, the more you realize you are planting seeds, and if you hang around long enough, you will get to see them blossom. Children do not forget. They will often seek you out years later to thank you for the small thing you did that had a profound effect on their life. Those moments are why we do what we do.
- What are some necessary qualities and skills for someone pursuing a career in child development?
There is no way you can do this work without a strong work ethic, thick skin, and flexibility. We work with children. Believe it or not, they do not always respond the way we want them to. The ability to stay flexible is key.
Often our work is viewed as easy, simplistic, and requiring no real skill. I mean ... we are working with children, and most adults have children. It can't be that hard, right? It is so important to have a thick skin to block out those who would discount the value of our work, so we can always stay focused on what is most important: the children.
This job is not for the faint of heart. Children do not understand the concept of business hours. There will be long days and even longer nights. Be prepared.
- What advice would you give to students seeking a job in child development?
You will be the happiest when you know exactly in what capacity you want to work with children. Do you want to teach? If so, what age group? Do you want to run an enrichment center where you have more freedom to be creative with the children? Do you want to work with children in crisis and provide them with support? Once you have figured that out, everything else will fall into place.
Resources for Child Development Majors
Educational and professional resources abound for child development careers. Professional associations offer many opportunities for networking, continuing education, and career support. Open courseware and publications allow individuals to learn about cutting-edge research and new findings in the discipline.
- Professional Organizations
National Association for the Education of Young Children: NAEYC works to improve early childhood education by integrating practice, policy, and research. In addition to accrediting early learning centers, the association hosts an annual conference and regular policy forums, maintains a directory of early childhood degree programs, and shares professional development resources on topics such as assessment and working with exceptional learners.
American School Counselor Association: ASCA specifically represents school counselors and counseling administrators. The association helps establish ethical standards and professional competencies for the field, disseminates research and policy updates, and publishes a scholarly journal and a practitioner-oriented monthly magazine.
Society for Research in Child Development: SRCD coordinates research and encourages collaboration within the field of child development. The society organizes a biennial research conference and special meetings on subjects such as learning through play and preventing child abuse and neglect. SRCD also publishes multiple academic journals, offers grants to support innovative research, and posts job opportunities.
Association for Child and Adolescent Counseling: ACAC is committed to ensuring that all children have access to quality mental health services, regardless of their guardians' ability to pay. In support of that mission, the association develops online and in-person communities of youth counselors, shares updates on research and policy, and organizes local and national events.
National Association of Special Education Teachers:NASET serves the professional interests of special education teachers and teaching assistants. Along with overseeing a national board certification process, the association hosts best-practice guides and research briefs in areas such as managing special education classrooms, responding to bullying, and creating inclusive learning environments. NASET's career center includes job listings and online professional development resources.
- Open Courseware
The Best Start in Life: Early Childhood Development for Sustainable Development - Harvard University:The Harvard Center on the Developing Child offers this MOOC to individuals looking to learn more about physical, social, cognitive, and emotional development; how the environment affects child development; and what milestones to look for in this field. Professors from New York University and Harvard University lead the course, alongside a senior advisor from UNICEF.
Understanding Child Development: From Synapse to Society - Utrecht University: Offered through the Coursera platform, this MOOC is taught by Dr. Jorg Huijding — an associate professor of clinical child and family studies. The course investigates many topics in the field from a multidisciplinary perspective. A beginner-level course, students can earn a certificate upon completion. Twenty-five percent of participants said that taking this course led to a tangible career benefit. It takes approximately 23 hours to complete.
Creating an Effective Child Welfare System - University of Pennsylvania:This free course lasts six weeks and requires 2-3 hours per week. Students looking to add a verified certificate of completion can do so for a nominal fee. This self-paced, introductory class touches on topics such as how the child welfare/production system works in the U.S. and factors that support or deter child welfare systems in America. Dr. Richard Gelles teaches this course through edX.
Child Development:Since 1930, the Society for Research in Child Development has published this journal, which is filled with original pieces and research. Released on a bimonthly basis, the journal looks at issues affecting child development from gestation through adolescence. Articles stretching back to 1930 can be viewed in JStor.
Child: Care, Health and Development:The Wiley Online Library provides access to this publication. Interested individuals can get content alerts on subjects that interest them or browse a free sample issue before taking out a membership. The journal publishes every other month and includes original research and findings from leaders in child development and health.
Child Psychiatry & Human Development:Springer offers open-access options for this quarterly academic journal. Recent articles touch on topics such as adolescent posttraumatic growth, school achievement and depressive symptoms in adolescence, and social anxiety status of left-behind children in rural areas.
Child Development Articles and Key Findings:The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintain a child development section online where articles are regularly published and shared. These are free and open to the public with no membership requirement. Users can also review scientific articles from other publications.
Journal of Early Childhood Research:A peer-reviewed academic publication overseen by Sage Journals, this quarterly journal provides an international forum for childhood research across multiple disciplines. Users can review special paper collections in areas such as literacy and early reading, bilingualism and multilingualism, food and health, and inclusion.
Frequently Asked Questions
- Is a degree in child development worth it?
Individuals who enjoy working with children and their families can benefit from earning a degree in this field. Professionals can find meaningful work in several different settings and industries.
- What degree is needed to work with children?
Individuals who want to work with children can pursue different degrees, including options in education, psychology, and child development. Those considering a career that predominantly involves working with children should consider which professional path best aligns with their academic interests and long-term professional goals.
- Is child development a good career?
Child development can be a great career for individuals who feel passionate about understanding the cognitive, emotional, physical, and social markers that define normal and abnormal child development. Individuals who do not enjoy working with children — especially those with special needs — may be better suited for a different field.
- How do I get a job in child development?
The path to a job in child development depends on a worker's specific role. Some jobs may require only an associate degree, while others mandate a master's-level qualification. Some require applicants to hold licensure, while others do not. Research the requirements of specific roles to learn more.
- What do child development jobs pay?
Annual salaries offered by child development roles also depend on the specific job. According to the BLS, preschool teachers earned a median annual salary of $30,520 in 2019, while preschool and childcare center directors brought home $48,210.