How to Become a Developmental Therapist [2023 Career Guide and Degrees]

What is Developmental Therapy?

Developmental therapy is a specialized field of work that focuses on the manner in which children from birth to five years of age learn and develop. It is a discipline that takes a holistic look at child development, that is, everything from physical growth to mental functioning to personality development and so forth.

Due to the global nature of developmental therapy, it is a service provided to a wide-range of clients. Children with physical disabilities, cognitive delays, sensory processing difficulties, speech delays, and visual or hearing impairments often participate in developmental therapy activities.

Likewise, children with psychological disorders, like Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder are often referred for developmental therapy to be evaluated and treated for their conditions.

The hallmark of many developmental therapy activities is a focus on skills development in the context of play. Play is the “language” of children, so developmental therapy is based on the notion that children can learn how to improve their functioning through the process of playing.

For example, a play-based developmental therapy session might be used to help a child that has poor motor skill development to begin to learn how to coordinate his or her body movements through dance. Likewise, a child that has a decreased attention span might learn how to focus his or her attention on a time-intensive task, like putting a puzzle together.

In that regard, developmental therapy is all about teaching by doing, supporting the child as he or she learns and grows, and improving the child’s functionality in the world in which they live, all in the context of fun and play.

What is a Developmental Therapist?

A developmental therapist is not unlike other therapists with a background in psychology. Their job is to assess the areas of need of their clients as well as identify the strengths of their clients and create a treatment plan that helps their client achieve his or her highest level of functioning.

Of course, a developmental therapist works exclusively with children, specifically those from birth to five years of age. As such, developmental therapists focus their assessments and treatment plans on helping children develop the tools they need to learn, grow, and develop as normally as possible.

For example, a developmental therapist that’s working with a child that has autism might create a play-based activity that helps the child learn how to communicate his or her wants effectively in verbal form. This type of activity would be designed to help the child overcome the communication difficulties that commonly occur with autism spectrum disorders.

What Does a Development Therapist Do?

Developmental therapists spend their careers studying human growth and their areas of study include physical development, cognitive, social, personality and emotional growth.

The duties of a developmental therapist will vary based on a number of factors, one of them being their area of specialty. Some of them will choose to work with a specific demographic and population such as growth delayed children while others will specialize their services on a particular age range, such as adolescent.

Their major roles include;

  • Evaluating and analyzing children’s behavior to determine whether or not they have any developmental problems or disability.
  • Investigating the different ways in which children acquire language skills and whether or not they are able to acquire those skills in the right way and in an effective manner.
  • Determining how moral reasoning develops in children and try to decipher the way children are able to interpret moral reasoning.
  • Develop ways to help elderly individuals remain independent.

Developmental therapists will work in a number of settings; some are involved in educational settings such as teaching at colleges and universities and may also conduct research studies on particular topics.  Others work in government agencies with a number of roles such as evaluation of certain individuals suffering from developmental disabilities.

Other places where developmental therapists can get gainful employment include teen rehabilitation clinics, psychiatric clinics and hospitals and centers for the homeless among others. Some of them even have private practices.

Why is Developmental Therapy Important?

Developmental therapy is important because workers in this field play a critical role in helping children of all ability levels realize their developmental potential.

Naturally, some children are more advanced than others, yet despite their abilities, advanced children need the proper care and education to continue their growth. Developmental therapy provides these children with appropriate learning opportunities that challenge their physical, intellectual, and emotional abilities such that they develop into more well rounded young people.

Of course, children that have developmental disabilities also benefit from developmental therapy. In that regard, this kind of therapy is critically important such that children with delays related to physical or mental abilities, behavior, language, and so forth can develop strategies for overcoming these difficulties.

What’s more, developmental therapy gives parents and other caregivers access to support that they need to properly raise their children. This might include learning how to stimulate intellectual growth in a developmentally disabled child, how to create effective boundaries for a child with a behavioral disorder, or how to provide unique learning opportunities for a gifted child.

In that regard, developmental therapy is important not just for children, but also for the adults that are charged with their continued care and growth.

What are the Educational Requirements to Become a Developmental Therapist?

The first step toward a career as a developmental therapist is to complete a bachelor’s degree program in a related field. Most commonly, prospective developmental therapists obtain their degree in early childhood education, social work, and developmental psychology, though other areas of study that are closely related are typically accepted.

Regardless of the area of study, undergraduate programs typically last four years and require approximately 120 credit hours of study, though this can vary from one major to the next and even one college to the next.

The first two years of a bachelor’s degree program is usually spent taking general education courses in mathematics, science, humanities, and so forth, while the latter two years of the program focus more specifically on the selected major. For example, a student in a developmental psychology program would take psychology courses almost exclusively during the last two years of their studies.

During the senior year of college, future developmental therapists should strongly consider participating in an internship, practicum, or work-study experience that gives them the opportunity to observe developmental therapists and get some real-world experience in the field. This is an important step in being able to obtain certification because credentialing organizations often require a certain number of hours of practical experience.

The last step in becoming a developmental therapist is getting certified or credentialed. This process typically occurs after the completion of a bachelor’s degree program.

What are the Licensure and Certification Requirements for a Developmental Therapist?

Since licensure and certification requirements for developmental therapists are controlled at the state level, the requirements for each varies from one location to the next. However, there are some common requirements that are typical of most state licensure and certification bodies.

Licensure as a developmental therapist is not required in all states, provided that the therapist has been certified. However, in states that do require licensure, developmental therapists are often required to provide documentation that they have successfully completed the required level of education, obtained a degree from an accredited institution of higher learning, and have also completed necessary internship hours before a full license will be granted.

Additionally, to retain one’s license, a developmental therapist must complete continuing education credits, the purpose of which is to ensure that the therapist stays abreast of the latest best practices and current on the latest research in the field of developmental therapy.

To obtain certification as a developmental therapist, one is required to have a bachelor’s degree in a related field – commonly early childhood education, special education, family studies, elementary education, and related disciplines.

Additionally, states often require a certain number of hours of supervised work experience before a full credential will be bestowed, though the number of required hours can vary dramatically.

Futhermore, some states have varying certifications for developmental therapists that reflect the therapist’s area of specialty. For example, in Illinois, a developmental therapist can be certified in the specific discipline of hearing, vision, or orientation and mobility.

What Qualities Make a Good Developmental Therapist?

To be a successful developmental therapist, one must possess certain skills and personal qualities. These include:

Communication skills – Developmental therapists must be able to communicate effectively with children in verbal and non-verbal forms. More specifically, developmental therapists must be able to use language and body language that is on the child’s level, that’s instructive, but that is non-threatening as well.

Organizational skills – Developmental therapists must track the progress of their clients on a variety of measures, in addition to keeping detailed records and case notes for each client. With so much data and paperwork to keep track of, having excellent organizational skills is a must.

Observational skills – Part of the process of developmental therapy is assessing and evaluating the client to determine the cause of their diminished functioning. To do so, developmental therapists must have strong observational skills that help them study their client’s behavior.

Analytical skills – A developmental therapist will have to posses analytical skills that are essential if they are going to be effective in gathering all the information that they will need to make a proper diagnosis.

Emotional intelligence – Some children that require developmental therapy have difficulty expressing and/or recognizing emotions. As a result, developmental therapists must be highly attuned to recognizing and understanding how their clients are feeling, even if their clients cannot verbalize or otherwise express those emotions effectively.

Patience – Developmental therapy can be a long, slow process with finite progress toward established goals. Workers in this field must be able to be patient with the sometimes slow progress of therapy and offer encouragement and support to their clients at all times.

How Much Does a Developmental Therapist Earn?

ZipRecruiter estimates that the average earnings for a developmental therapist in November 2022 were between $29,000 and $117,000 annually.

The earnings will vary from one state to another and will also be dependent on a number of factors such as the level of employment, particular training for the individual developmental therapist and the work setting. The setting matters a lot as private practicing developmental therapists were seen to earn more than their salaried counterparts.

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