When students show a need for special education services, classroom teachers may be asked to work with a variety of specialists to identify students’ challenges and create a plan for services. General education teachers may be very familiar with special education teachers and even school therapists, but they may find that the school or parents ask them to work with a child development specialist.
A general education teacher who has their education degree likely took a course in child development, so they may wonder, “What is a child development specialist and what services do they provide that I do not already offer to my students?”
A child development specialist is trained in identifying development and psychological disorders in children. They work one-on-one with children during the diagnosis phase of identification and counsel parents and teachers on best practices for supporting students. If you have a passion for learning about how people learn, you should consider exploring what it takes to become a child development specialist.
What Does a Child Development Specialist Do?
Child development specialists are involved in all aspects of supporting children with developmental and psychological disorders along with their families, caretakers and teachers. They perform a number of functions, including:
The work of a child development specialist is focused on learning about children. They spend time observing children at home, at school and in social situations. Child development specialists may devise activities or crafts for children to engage with in order to see how children solve problems, attend to tasks and deal with setbacks or challenges. They also observe children in social settings to gauge how well they get along with others and how they communicate.
Designing Support Programs
Once a child development specialist has observed and engaged with a child, they can identify areas of challenge or concern. They will devise a therapeutic program to address the child’s needs. These plans can include a range of treatments, such as counseling to learn new coping and social skills, training to support peer interactions and dietary modification suggestions to encourage a healthy mind and body.
Educating Parents and Teachers
A child’s support team is instrumental in helping them work through the therapy plan outlined by the child development specialist. Parents, teachers and caretakers will meet with a child development specialist to learn how to support the child. The child development specialist may hold a workshop or offer individual counseling for families so that they understand what it will take to help their child make progress toward their developmental goals.
Connecting Families With Specialists
Some children require the help of specialists such as occupational therapists, speech and language therapists or psychologists and psychiatrists. A child development specialist will help families connect with the right specialist for their child’s treatment. When families cannot afford specialists, a child development specialist will help them find organizations that may offer the necessary services at little to no cost, or connect them with donors who can help offset the costs of treatment.
As a child development specialist works with and observes children, they keep detailed notes and records. They also review children’s medical records and school records. This documentation is important for keeping detailed accounts of their work with children. They also document family conversations and counseling sessions, information about training or workshops for teachers and caregivers as well as giving referrals to specialists.
Where Do Child Development Specialists Work?
When you work as a child development specialist, you may be able to choose from a wide range of settings. Where a child development specialist works is usually determined by what ages of children, development disorders, or programmatic training they specialize in. Child development specialists are often employed by:
- Head Start programs
- Elementary schools
- After-school programs
- Government agencies
- Pediatric and children’s hospitals
- Social service organizations
- Community organizations
- Private families
How To Become a Child Development Specialist
A child development specialist should have a minimum of a bachelor's degree in a field related to child development, such as psychology or special education. If possible, earning a concentration in a field such a child advocacy or educational psychology will help prepare you for a career as a child development specialist.
Most organizations require child development specialists to have a master’s degree in childhood counseling, child advocacy or in a related field such a social work or education. This advanced degree is often required because of the nature of the work — the identification of developmental disorders and development of a treatment plan.
What Do Child Development Specialists Study?
When you earn your child development specialist degree, your program will focus on all aspects of supporting children with development disorders. You may take classes in:
- Human development
- Child development
- Developmental disorders
- Behavioral disorders
- Child psychology
- Family psychology
- Anatomy and physiology
- Brain development and neuroscience
- Child neglect and abuse
- Intervention and treatment strategies
- Autism spectrum disorder
- Social and emotional learning
Child Development Specialist Requirements
There is not one governing body that certifies child development specialists. However, if you are interested in earning certificates in the field, you can pursue a Child Development Associate (CDA) credential. Child development specialists who earn a CDA credential work in childcare settings with children under five years old. The receive special training and then must pass an exam to earn the credential.1
If your goal is to work with children more than five years old, employers like to see Certified Child Life Specialist (CCLS) certification. This is offered through the Child Life Council. You can begin to earn this certification after graduating with a bachelor's degree, completing certain courses and supervised hands-on clinical experience and passing the CCLS exam.2
Skills of Child Development Specialists
As a child development specialist, you need specific knowledge of child development and the treatment of childhood disorders. You also need to work with children, families, caretakers, teachers and other practitioners to support the children on your caseload. Being part of a caretaking community requires you to possess and grow several important skills, including:
Child development specialists must come up with engaging and fun lessons to assess and support children. In addition, when you work with children with development disorders, each one may require a different approach. Creativity will aid you in differentiating how you work with each child.
Working with all children requires patience, but child development specialists may need more than the average teacher or caretaker. Children with developmental disorders may be inconsistent and unpredictable; a child development specialist cannot rely on routine and structure to make the day more predictable. Instead, you must rely on your patience and ability to pivot to support the children you work with.
Children with developmental disorders come from all backgrounds. Their families and caregivers have various levels of experience and understanding about what their children are going through. This can lead to frustration and emotional reactions. As a child development specialist, you will need to be understanding about the personalities and parenting styles of the children and families you work with.
Supporting children with development and psychological difficulties requires sensitivity and awareness of how children and caretakers react to news and treatment plants. In addition, when you work with this population, you must be empathetic to the stress that families are under while caring for their children and the frustrations and difficulties they have while navigating a sometimes-confusing healthcare system.
A child development specialist communicates with a wide range of individuals. Initially, they may work with families and teachers to understand what is happening with the child. They may also communicate with medical doctors and other specialists who work with the child to implement parts of the treatment plan. To be successful in this role, you will need to feel comfortable communicating professionally with children and adults who may be either novices or experts in the field.
The many facets of a child development specialist job mean you have to stay organized. You will plan lessons, assess, write and keep records, track communication, make connection between families and specialists and much more. Doing all these tasks requires strong organizational skills and the ability to keep track of many pieces of information about several different children and families at the same time.
Anybody who works with children knows that you must be agile and ready to pivot at any given moment based on their interest level, attention span and achievement. Being a child development specialist is no different. Children with developmental and psychological disorders can be quick to upset, tire or anger. When you work with them, you will need to be ready with new activities, treatments and assessments to keep them motivated and performing.
Why Become a Child Development Specialist?
If you are already thinking about working with children as a career, becoming a child development specialist may be an interesting and exciting field for you to consider. Here are seven top benefits to this career:
1. Experience Variety
Child development specialists work in many different locations, from preschools to hospitals to community centers. If you want to work with children but do not want to be tied to a classroom, this could be a great career choice. In addition, every child you work with is different and has different needs, so you will always be working through different treatment plans and creating new options for families.
2. Work One-on-One With Children
Many future educators love working with children, but being responsible for 20 or more in one classroom can be overwhelming. As a child development specialist, you get to focus on one child at time to truly determine what they need as an individual.
3. Make a Difference
Your work as a child development specialist makes a significant difference for children, their families and their teachers. The treatment plan you develop may be the first time someone has made a real effort to know the child and consider the vast range of their symptoms and behaviors all at once. This type of individual attention can make a difference to a child for the rest of their life.
4. Join a Community of Caretakers
As a child development specialist, you join a community of caretakers who want the best for the children they work with. You will get to know medical doctors, occupational and physical therapists, speech therapists, special education teachers, parents, babysitters and a whole host of other people who care about children.
5. Contribute in a High-Demand Area
Child development specialists fall under the broader category of healthcare educators and specialists. By pursuing this career, you have the potential to fill a role in the healthcare industry that desperately needs workers.
6. Enjoy the Benefits
Child development specialists will continue to be a growing field, with the job outlook rising much faster than average. These organizations and institutions may also provide benefits such as health insurance and retirement contributions.
7. See the Outcomes
Perhaps best of all, child development specialists often get to see the results of their work. Once they create a treatment plan and connect families to services, they can find out how a child is progressing. Other educators must wait years to see their students demonstrate significant growth, but when you work as a child development specialist, you stay connected with families and learn about children’s successes right away.
If you are interested in becoming a child development specialist, consider earning your Bachelor of Science in Special Education degree at Grand Canyon University. The courses you complete will help you build a foundation for working with children with developmental and psychological disorders and prepare you for advanced clinical work in the field.
1Council for Professional Recognition, About the CDA, in June 2022.
2Association of Child Life Professionals, Certification, in June 2022.
Approved by the Program Director for the College of Education on Sept. 15, 2022
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.