Developmental psychologists are having a positive impact on public policy through advocacy. Jessica Emick, PhD, Developmental Psychology faculty member at Capella University, talks about her own experience in advocacy and why it’s a growing specialty.

Q. What is developmental psychology? What are career options with a PhD in the field?

A. Traditional developmental psychologists focus on understanding developmental processes and creating and measuring programs designed to enhance development.

Professionals with a PhD in Developmental Psychology can be found in a range of places from nonprofit organizations to universities. Developmental psychologists also commonly serve as consultants to agencies including school districts to help develop and evaluate programs for children and families.

Q. Why is advocacy becoming a growing specialty?

A. Advocacy is an emerging need in the broader field of psychology as a whole, and some developmental psychologists are finding a niche influencing larger systems and policies (rather than just the individual).

Developmental psychologists are experts in combing through the available research and applying that information. All too often policy and programs are created without a true understanding of what the research says about best practices and without an understanding of development.

For example,  developing a program to educate middle schools about STD prevention should look different than an STD prevention program geared toward high schoolers. A developmental psychologist can help shape materials and curriculum based on their expertise of logical reasoning, socialization processes, and other developmental factors

In this way, developmental psychologists can educate and advise policymakers and activate real change.

Q. What are some examples of advocacy in this field?

A. I have three examples to share:

  • Serving on local boards of community agencies for children with developmental disabilities. Using psychological expertise, advocates can help create developmentally-appropriate policies within agencies that enrich the lives of the families in the local community.
  • Educating lawmakers about the developmental benefits of certain public policies. Advocates can be instrumental in drafting legislation that would provide needed support to infants and their families, like paid maternity leave.
  • Joining a task force. As an example, the Task Force on Physical Punishment of Children, developmental psychologists from the American Psychological Association (APA) collaborated with members from the Society for Child and Family Policy and Practice to review literature to answer the question, “Is spanking beneficial for children’s development?” The task force concluded that spanking was not an effective strategy for discipline and supported the use of positive parenting strategies. By having sound empirical evidence and theory to support their conclusions, the task force was able to translate complex research outcomes into discrete and straightforward information that could be used to build policy and programs. Their conclusions are cited widely by government agencies, schools, and other institutions that support children and families.

Advocacy can also entail writing letters and placing phone calls to legislators in support of developmentally sound policies. The APA has some great tips for how to advocate to your representatives and a list of advocacy issues.

Q. How did you begin your involvement in advocacy?

A. I became interested in advocacy through my work with children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. As a young pediatric psychologist, I learned that insurance companies often denied payment for services related to a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder, which prevented many children from getting needed assessment and treatment.

Through my state psychological association, I joined a committee of psychologists advocating to ensure that children and families were getting the services they needed. We shared our knowledge of the research and best practices interventions with legislators and provided feedback on the proposed bills. The experience of shaping policy and advocating for children and families was both challenging and invigorating.

Q. What lessons did you learn from your early advocacy experience?

A. I learned that it takes a lot of time and energy from dedicated and knowledgeable advocates to make change. The laws related to mental health parity that I advocated for took several years to be revised and then took several more years to be expanded to include needed early intervention and behavioral analysis treatment. I now know that change in large systems can be a slow and imperfect process. As an advocate, it takes tenacity and patience.

I also learned about the legislative process in my state. Having a basic knowledge of how a bill becomes a law was useful in the advocacy process. Ultimately, I found that legislators were eager to accept help in understanding what children and families needed, but often it was challenging to make our voices heard over competing pressures (e.g., lobbyists) in a busy legislative agenda.

Q. Who is a good candidate to become an advocate using developmental psychology?

A. Advocacy is a great field for those interested in considering the broader impact at a systems level and with the ability to apply developmental concepts in real world situations. Having taught courses at Capella that include advocacy components, I’ve noted that the students most passionate about advocacy are those who have experienced the need for advocacy in their own lives and want to pave the way for others. These may be people who have experienced hardships first hand or watched a family member struggle.

Personally, I believe that my education and first-hand experiences as a psychologist gave me credibility as an advocate. I could be certain I was supporting best practice policies. Advocacy is an exciting and growing area for developmental psychology. Anyone who applies their knowledge of development and research with passion can make a difference.

Learn more about Capella’s PhD in Developmental Psychology program.