Developmental psychologist: expertise and specialties

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

In this article, learn more about developmental psychologists, the conditions they treat, the types of assessments they can perform, as well as training and certification.

Serr Novik / Getty Images


Developmental psychology is a type or sub-specialty of psychology. While psychologists typically focus on understanding and explaining emotions, feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, developmental psychologists are primarily concerned with human development.

Development stages

Human development generally follows predictable patterns, 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 developmental patterns, such as learning to walk at 15 months. But sometimes children reach developmental stages at a different rate. Developmental psychologists help assess whether these children are experiencing a simple developmental delay or whether there is another cause, such as a medical problem.

Working with children, adolescents, and the elderly, developmental psychologists can help with intervention strategies to enhance development, support growth, help resolve aging issues, and help people reach their full potential.

Conditions processed

Developmental psychologists who work in colleges and universities typically focus on teaching and research, while those who work in medical facilities or mental health clinics can help with assessments, assessments, and options. treatment for people with developmental problems.

Development 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.

Some of the areas that a developmental psychologist can cover are:

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

Procedural expertise

Developmental psychologists typically screen and assess people.

With children, this usually involves an initial admission visit to get a medical and family history from parents or caregivers. On subsequent visits, depending on age, the child can 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 some type of delay, developmental psychologists will suggest a treatment plan. This may include referrals to other providers, such as speech language pathologists, mental health practitioners, and physiotherapists or occupational therapists.

When to see a developmental psychologist

Intervening as early as possible on behalf of a child with a developmental delay or challenge will significantly improve the problem. During most routine check-ups, health care providers will ask parents about the stages of their child’s development. If the health care provider feels that milestones are not being met within a foreseeable time frame, they may recommend early intervention programs and further assessment by a developmental psychologist.

While developmental psychologists frequently treat children and adolescents, they can also treat older people who are facing developmental issues related to aging or cognitive decline.

Training and certification

Training to become a developmental psychologist requires several years of study.

An undergraduate degree must be obtained, usually in psychology. Then, some programs allow students to immediately enter a doctoral program (PhD) in developmental psychology, while other programs may require a master’s degree before entering the doctoral program.

After graduating, all states require psychologists and other mental health professionals to be licensed in the state in which they work.

Dating advice

Your health care provider may suggest a referral to a developmental psychologist if a developmental delay or problem is suspected.

What to expect

If the appointment is for a development issue, try to plan ahead and even take some notes. It can be helpful to provide relevant details about what you have observed in all areas of your child’s life.

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

Insurance cover

Since psychologists are not doctors, it is important to check with your insurer to see if their services will be covered. It is also important to see if a referral from a primary care provider is needed first.

How to find a developmental psychologist

Finding a specialist such as a developmental psychologist may begin with a referral from a mental health care provider, general health care provider, or pediatrician.

The American Psychological Association provides resources for finding developmental psychologists. You can go online to their psychologist locator to find a professional near you.


Developmental psychologists focus primarily on how people develop through the many stages of life. When children, adolescents, or aging adults have developmental delays or problems, a health care provider may refer them to a developmental psychologist for assessment and treatment.

A word from Verywell

Learning that you or your child needs to see a developmental psychologist can naturally lead to feelings of uncertainty or dread. Keep in mind that development problems arise for many reasons.

Developmental psychologists have made significant strides in understanding human development. It has radically changed the way development issues, even the smallest, are handled. Intervening as early as possible can make a significant difference in development.

Comments are closed.