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A master’s in child and adolescent development offers a variety of career choices to professionals in a variety of fields.
Three Capella University educational psychology faculty in the Harold Abel School of Social and Behavioral Sciences provided a closer look at this growing discipline: Dr. Cheri Gilman, Dr. Nancy Longo, and Dr. Jessica Emick.
“The field of child and adolescent development is different than clinical or psychological counseling,” says Gilman. “It’s a unique specialization, more focused on research linked to development, and what’s involved in making ethical decisions and policies that are related to children and adolescents.”
Development research can influence practitioners who work with children, whether directly (teacher or counselor), or indirectly (nonprofits or government advocates focused on children’s issues). It’s an exhaustive field of study. “We study everything from prenatal to puberty to the completion of adolescence, which we define as around age 25,” said Longo. “We look at every aspect of a person’s life, at every stage: physical, mental, cognitive, psycho-social. We’re studying development in the context of society, family, and culture. Everyone has specific influences bearing on them, and we need to understand the effects of those influences, whether it’s bullying or access to health care. Every phase has an impact on life—someone’s experience as an infant can have an effect on them when they’re an adult.”
“We study everything from prenatal to puberty to the completion of adolescence, which we define as around age 25,” says Longo. “We look at every aspect of a person’s life, at every stage: physical, mental, cognitive, psycho-social. We’re studying development in the context of society, family, and culture. Everyone has specific influences bearing on them, and we need to understand the effects of those influences, whether it’s bullying or access to health care. Every phase has an impact on life—someone’s experience as an infant can have an effect on them when they’re an adult.”
“Anyone working with children and adolescents needs to use best practices. Their work can’t just be based on experience—they need empirical evidence,” says Longo. “Without research, there’s no solid foundation in working with children.”
That’s why the broad approach, looking at internal and external factors, is so important. “It’s not just nature and it’s not just nurture,” says Emick. “In order to really understand what’s happening now, and what’s going to happen in the future, we need to understand how to make outcomes better for children, families, and society. Research is fundamental to that.”
Emick points out that understanding adolescent psychology has led to some important strides, including the realization that brains aren’t fully formed until about age 25 (it was previously believed that people were fully mature at age 18). She also points to a recent program that, using research, realized the best way to reach out to pregnant teenagers to warn them about the dangers of drinking while pregnant was not to send them a brochure, but a text message.
The field continues to evolve, and that’s likely a constant for the foreseeable future. “For instance, we’re still learning about resiliency,” Gilman says. “Why are some kids resilient and some not, even if they’re in the same circumstance? When we can understand through research what conditions create resiliency, maybe we can help a child develop that attribute.”
There are some obvious career synergies with this type of education. People who work directly with children and adolescents, like teachers and psychologists, would gain insight and value from this program.
“But there are so many areas, so many directions someone can go,” says Longo. “From prenatal counseling to government advocacy work to nonprofits that focus on children and adolescents. A master’s degree also opens up the possibilities of teaching, whether at the K-12 level or at a community college.” All three faculty members pointed to advocacy as an area that’s poised for growth.
That could explain why Capella’s faculty sees such a diverse background in students who enroll in this program. “I’ve had students who are social workers and want more background on what they’re doing,” says Emick. “There have been paraprofessionals, like daycare workers and school aides. There are students who have been volunteering at youth-based nonprofits, or those who want to work in advocacy or at a government level, or who want to develop educational materials. We’ve had students who are licensed counselors who want more insight into developmental issues.”
What all of these students have in common is a passion for children and adolescents and the desire to work with or on behalf of them. “They need that excitement,” says Emick, “and this program really gives them a solid foundation from which to explore what’s possible for a career and the many capacities in which they can help kids.”
On its own, a master’s in child or adolescent development does not qualify someone to become a licensed counselor. But this specialization can be a stepping stone to a clinical psychology PsyD or PhD that would open up a career in counseling.
Learn more about Capella’s Master of Science in Psychology, Child and Adolescent Development degree.