What Is a Developmental Psychologist?

A developmental psychologist studies human development, from infancy to late adulthood. Behavior and development in humans are significantly different than in any other animal. Developmental psychologists explore what makes us so different, and how humans adapt and grow through the many areas of development, including the physical, social, perceptual, cognitive, behavioral, and emotional.

In this article, learn more about developmental psychologists, what conditions they treat, types of evaluations they may make, and training and certification.

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Concentrations

Developmental psychology is a type or subspecialty of psychology. While psychologists typically are focused on understanding and explaining emotions, feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, developmental psychologists primarily look at human development.

Developmental Milestones

Human development typically follows predictable patterns, what are also known as developmental milestones. Researchers have learned that the first three years of a child's development are critical to overall development.

Most children, for example, follow similar patterns of development, such as learning to walk by 15 months. But sometimes children reach developmental milestones at a different pace. Developmental psychologists help assess whether these children are experiencing a simple delay in development or if there is another cause, such as a medical issue.

Working with children, adolescents, and older adults, developmental psychologists can help with intervention strategies to improve development, support growth, help with issues of aging, and assist people in reaching their full potential.

Conditions Treated

Developmental psychologists who work in colleges and universities are typically focused on teaching and research, while those working in medical facilities or mental health clinics may help with assessments, evaluations, and treatment options for people who have developmental issues.

Developmental Delays

Developmental psychologists typically diagnose developmental delays. While many focus their practice on children and adolescents, there are developmental psychologists who work with adults and study aging.

Among the areas a developmental psychologist may treat are:

  • Cognitive development (the ability to think, explore, and reason) for children, adolescents, and older adults
  • Learning disabilities
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Developmental delays
  • Emotional development
  • Motor skill development
  • Speech and language delays
  • Developmental challenges
  • Auditory processing (hearing) disorders
  • Autism spectrum

Procedural Expertise

Developmental psychologists typically screen and evaluate people.

With children, this usually involves an initial intake visit to obtain a medical and family history from parents or caregivers. At subsequent visits, depending on age, the child may be observed playing and interacting.

Developmental psychologists may also go through a series of standardized tests to measure development in key areas such as cognitive, social/emotional, physical/motor, and intellectual development.

If the assessment determines that there is a delay of some type, development psychologists will suggest a treatment plan. This may include referrals to other providers, such as speech pathologists, mental health practitioners, and physical or occupational therapists.

When to See a Developmental Psychologist

Intervening as soon as possible on behalf of a child demonstrating a delay or challenge in development will significantly improve the issue. At most routine medical checkups, healthcare providers will ask parents about their child's developmental milestones. If the healthcare provider believes milestones are not being reached within a predictable time frame, they may recommend early intervention programs and a more thorough assessment by a developmental psychologist.

While developmental psychologists frequently treat children and adolescents, they can also treat older adults facing developmental issues with aging or cognitive decline.

Training and Certification

Training to be a developmental psychologist requires several years of education.

An undergraduate degree should be obtained, usually in psychology. Then some programs enable students to go immediately into a doctoral (PhD) program in developmental psychology, while other programs may require a master's degree prior to entering the doctoral program.

After obtaining the necessary degrees, all states require psychologists and other mental health professionals to be licensed in the state they are working in.

Appointment Tips

Your healthcare provider may suggest a referral to a developmental psychologist if a developmental delay or issue is suspected.

What to Expect

If the appointment is for a developmental issue, try to plan ahead and even jot down a few notes. It can be helpful to provide relevant details of what you have observed in all areas of your child's life.

Because assessments are more in-depth than a typical medical or therapeutic appointment, the assessment may be performed over the course of several visits to allow adequate time for testing, observation, and information gathering. With enough information, a psychologist can provide an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan.

Insurance Coverage

Because psychologists are not medical doctors, it's important to check with your insurance provider to see if their services will be covered. It's also important to see if a referral by a primary care provider is needed first.

How to Find a Developmental Psychologist

Finding a specialist like a developmental psychologist may begin with a referral from a mental health provider, general healthcare provider, or pediatrician.

The American Psychological Association provides resources for finding developmental psychologists. You may go online to their Psychologist Locator to find a professional near you.

Summary

Developmental psychologists are primarily focused on how people develop over the many stages of life. When children, adolescents, or aging adults demonstrate developmental delays or issues, a healthcare provider may make a referral to a developmental psychologist for an assessment and treatment.

A Word From Verywell

Learning that you or your child needs to see a developmental psychologist may naturally bring on feelings of uncertainty or apprehension. Keep in mind that developmental issues occur for lots of reasons.

Developmental psychologists have made significant strides in understanding human development. This has dramatically changed how developmental issues, even small ones, are managed. Intervening as early as possible can make a significant difference in development.

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5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. American Psychological Association. Pursuing a career in developmental psychology.

  4. NYU Langone Health. Diagnosing developmental delays in children.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Child development - developmental monitoring and screening.