Earning a degree in child development allows you to work in many fast-growing fields. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that employment opportunities for school counselors will increase by 13% from 2016 to 2026, nearly twice the average rate of growth for the rest of the economy. Similar occupations, including middle school teacher, special education teacher, and instructional coordinator, should all experience above-average employment growth over the same time period.
In addition to strong job prospects, child development careers often provide excellent compensation. For example, kindergarten and elementary school teachers earned a median salary of $57,980 in 2018, almost $20,000 more than the median salary for all other occupations.
This page provides an overview of careers in child development, including information on the types of degrees available and advice on finding a job after graduation. It also features a list of professional resources for child development majors and an interview with a school principal.
Skills Gained in a Child Development Program
Child development programs equip students with the skills and knowledge needed for careers in education, psychology, criminal justice, social service administration, and a wide range 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 students in 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 parents, guardians, and colleagues. Special education teachers, for instance, must collaborate with educators, administrators, families, and social workers in the development of 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 daycare 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 childhood educators rely more on experiential learning. They may also benefit from developing skills related to learning through play, cross-curriculum teaching, and differentiated instruction.
- Finally, teachers and scholars alike 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 like qualitative methods, data management, and study design.
Why Pursue a Career in Child Development?
Working in child development gives you the opportunity to support young people and their families in a variety of ways. Hospital-based careers, for example, allow you to help children with physical disabilities or motor impairments. A career in teaching provides the opportunity to shape young minds and transform society for the better.
Child development jobs also offer strong earning potential and ample opportunity for advancement. According to the BLS, school counselors earned a median salary of $56,310 in 2018, roughly $17,500 more than the median pay for all other occupations. The top 10% of earners in this role, typically those with the most education and experience, made more than $94,690 that year.
Some child development professionals continue their education in order to become school, research, or clinical psychologists. In master's and doctoral programs, these individuals develop the expertise needed to diagnose and treat mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. They may also specialize in helping students manage or overcome specific learning disorders, such as fragile X syndrome. The BLS projects that the demand for trained psychologists will increase by 14% from 2016 to 2026, in part because of the growing need to provide mental health services within school settings.
How Much Do Child Development Graduates Make?
As a child development graduate, you salary will depend on a variety of factors, including the type of degree you earn. According to Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, early childhood educators with a graduate degree earn, on average, about $14,000 more per year than those with just a bachelor's. PayScale reports that those with a bachelor's in child development earn an average salary of $52,000.
Michelle Person is a dynamic professional with almost 20 years of experience in urban education. After graduating from Skidmore College, she joined AmeriCorps' Teach For America program and began her career in Newark, New Jersey. Over the next few years, she worked in various high-performing charter and mainstream urban public schools, successfully raising test scores, developing curriculums, and building relationships.Michelle obtained her MA in educational leadership and made the transition to school building leader.
Michelle is also an accomplished children's author and has written four books that celebrate diversity and prominently feature characters that look like the students she serves. Her company, Just Like Me Books, is a multimedia production and development enterprise that stresses the importance of literacy, culturally relevant reading material, and active learning experiences.
- 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 they 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.
How to Become an Elementary School Teacher
Earn Your Degree
To become a teacher at a public elementary school, you must first earn a state-issued license or certification. While requirements vary, most states mandate that teachers hold at least a bachelor's degree in a relevant field.
Child development majors often become teachers through alternative certification pathways. These systems allow individuals with an undergraduate degree from a four-year institution to qualify for a provisional teaching license, assuming they can also pass a background check, a general teaching certification exam, and a knowledge assessment in the subject or grade level they plan to teach. Provisionally licensed teachers must work under the close supervision of a mentor teacher for at least one year. They may also need to complete supplementary coursework in subjects like classroom management and instructional strategies.
If you hope to serve in more specialized or supervisory roles, such as school counselor or assistant principal, you will likely need to earn a master's degree.
Finally, to teach or conduct child development research at a college or university, you must earn a doctorate.
How Many Years of College Does It Take to Become an Elementary School Teacher?
Most bachelor's programs in child development consist of 120 credits that full-time students typically complete in four years. As a part-time student, you may need 6-8 years to meet all of your program's graduation requirements.
Some online childhood development programs may offer accelerated tracks to graduation that allow students to advance through their coursework as soon as they demonstrate mastery of core concepts and skills, usually through exams or portfolios of work.
Master's programs may require an additional one or two years of full-time study, while earning a doctorate can take 4-7 years.
Concentrations Available for Child Development Majors
- Early Development and Learning
- Upon graduation, students who concentrate in early development and learning typically work with children from birth to age five. They may serve as childcare providers, preschool teachers, or early childhood curriculum designers. Coursework in this area explores subjects like 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 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.
What Can You Do With a Child Development Degree?
A variety of careers are available for child development majors. You can work as a preschool or elementary teacher at a public or private school. You 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, or 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 more clinical positions in family counseling or school psychology. The child development career lists 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 60 credits and require about two years of full-time study. In addition to completing general education coursework in subjects like English and mathematics, students in these programs also examine topics like 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.
- 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 both play and experiential learning. Preschool teachers typically need an associate degree, though 50% of federal Head Start early education centers now require their teachers to hold a bachelor's.
Bachelor's Degree in Child Development
Earning a bachelor's degree in child development qualifies 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 like the cognitive development of infants and young children, understanding 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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 in and outside the classroom. Some schools may prefer to hire special education teachers with 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 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 may improve your job prospects or qualify you 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 approximately three years of classroom instruction in subjects such as developmental neurobiology, social and emotional processes, and clinical intervention with children. After completing this coursework, students must pass a comprehensive examination prior to working on their dissertation.
The dissertation process involves conducting original research and summarizing 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.
- Postsecondary Professor
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 more administrative duties, such as chairing a department in child development. Most higher education faculty jobs, especially those leading to tenure, require a doctoral degree.
- Social and Community Service Manager
Social and community service managers lead nonprofit organizations and government agencies. They hire and train staff, create budgets, evaluate programs, and represent their organization to funders and community members. A doctorate in child development may help position you for senior leadership roles at larger nonprofits or in state and federal government.
Where Can I Work as a Child Development Graduate?
Child development graduates work in a variety of industries across the country. For example, you can work as a special education teacher, supporting students with developmental disabilities in a rural school district. You may instead choose to work as a family therapist in a large city, helping children process grief or deal with trauma.
Your professional opportunities will largely be shaped by the type of degree you hold, where you live, and the industry in which you choose to work.
Employment for child development professionals varies considerably from state to state. For example, graduates who hope to teach young children may find the most job opportunities in California, where more than 162,000 elementary school teachers worked in 2018. Wyoming, by contrast, was home to only 2,600 elementary grade teachers that same year.
Where you live also affects your earning potential. Elementary school teachers working in New York made, on average, just over $83,000 in 2018, while those in Oklahoma earned only $40,450. However, rural areas generally boast a lower overall cost of living.
When deciding where to live and work, remember also to consider factors like quality of life and educational opportunities for you and members of your family.
- Elementary and Secondary Schools
Roughly 1.4 million elementary school teachers work in public and private schools across the country. They provide instruction in basic subjects like math, reading, and science to children ages 5-10.
Average Salary: $62,240
- Religious Organizations
About 2,500 elementary school teachers work for religious organizations, including churches and parochial schools. They may teach nonreligious classes such as reading or math or lead after-school Bible study programs.
Average Salary: $53,230
- Local Government, Excluding Schools and Hospitals
Some educators work directly for local government agencies. A current or former teacher may, for instance, serve as a liaison between a school district and the municipal offices that support free-lunch programs and school transportation services.
Average Salary: $61,640
- Employment Services
A smaller number of elementary school teachers work for employment firms. They work closely with private organizations and public school districts to find suitable candidates for open teaching positions.
Average Salary: $51,300
- Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools
Some colleges and universities employ their own teachers to provide early education to the children of faculty, staff, and advanced graduate students. Owing to the relatively small pool of students, these teachers generally work with children in multiple grades.
Average Salary: $47,460
How Do You Find a Job in Child Development?
Before you begin your search, consider building or adding to a portfolio of work that you can use to demonstrate your experience and skills to potential employers. For example, special education teachers may include curriculums and lesson plans they have developed for their students.
Many websites advertise job opportunities in child development. To find nearby openings for teachers, review your local school district's online career center. Your state's department of education or department of mental health may also share job opportunities. Major job search engines such as Indeed and ZipRecruiter list job postings from across the country in a wide variety of industries. Finally, make sure to check the job boards hosted by the professional associations listed below.
Professional Resources for Child Development Majors
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.
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 both a scholarly journal and a practitioner-oriented monthly magazine.
SRCD aims to coordinate research and encourage collaboration within the field of child development. The society organizes both a biennial research conference and special meetings on subjects like 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.
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 both local and national events.
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 like managing special education classrooms, responding to bullying, and creating inclusive learning environments. Its career center includes both job listings and online professional development resources.