More Than Child’s Play: Degrees Working with Children

Helping Kids Learn, Keeping Them Safe and Healthy, and Advocating for Them
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When it comes to finding a degree working with children, some people think the list begins and ends in with education degrees. In reality, there are many degrees that will prepare you for a job helping kids learn, keeping them safe, and teaching them how to lead happy, healthy lives. Many of these positions involve direct, day-to-day interactions with children. However, some child-focused careers, such as public health advocacy, can support children in a broader sense by crafting policies or creating programs that improve their health and development.

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25 Degree Pathways for Working with Kids


For some people, there’s no greater joy than performing and creating art for children. Whether it’s performing, visual, or some other kind of art, art requires no specific degree, per se, as talent, training and apprenticeships may take the place of formal education. Degrees in the arts begin at the certificate and associate level–in fields like graphic design–and progress to a bachelor's degree in fine art or a bachelor of art with concentration in a field such as ceramics. A Master of Fine Art (MFA) is considered the terminal degree in this field.

Arts Education

Teachers of art combine their passion for art with a desire to teach children. The three most common degree pathways are: bachelor's degree in education, a bachelor's degree in your subject area and teaching certificate, or a specialized degree in arts education.

Athletic Trainer

With physical education programs being cut in some schools, parents need to look to other avenues for their children to get supervised exercise. More gyms are offering kid’s programs in an effort to get them up and moving. A certificate, bachelor’s, or master’s degree is required for trainers, along with licensure in most states.


The world can be a confusing place for children and counselors try to help them make sense of it all. Mental health and family therapists need a master's degree in a mental health field such as psychology, counseling, or family therapy along with state licensure and required clinical supervision.

Criminal Justice

When most children come in contact with the legal system, it’s usually because something has gone wrong. What they need most during that time are caring people who make sure they don’t fall through the cracks. On-the-job training is appropriate only for the most entry-level criminal justice positions. Degrees in criminal justice range from an associate degree to a bachelor's, while a master's degree is required for certain advocacy or leadership positions.

Early Childhood

Most child advocates agree that early childhood education for all children should be a right, not a privilege. Educating children at a younger age is a calling and one of the most important jobs in the world. Degrees available in this field range from non-degree certificates or associates degrees. A bachelor's or master's degree can be required for certain positions, especially in public institutions or leadership positions.

Elementary Education

We all remember our favorite teacher. A good teacher can change the course of a child’s life. For those who desire to have the same impact on students, a bachelor's degree in elementary education is considered standard, though some teachers pursue a teaching certificate after completing a bachelor's in a subject area such as English or math. Elementary education master's degrees include Master's of Education (M.Ed.) or Masters of Art in Teaching.


The legal system can trap some children, but the right people and representation can ensure this doesn’t happen. This degree path begins with an appropriate bachelor's degree, such as prelaw, history, or government. To practice law, you must obtain a juris doctor (J.D.) and pass the state bar exam.

Library Science

Libraries have taken a hit in recent years as a result of budget cuts in many communities. Libraries still continue to be a place of learning and discovery for children, particularly those who come from families where there may not be much money for entertainment. Entry-level certificate and associate degrees may be appropriate for lower level positions such as technicians or pages. Generally, a master's degree in library science (MLS) or master's in information studies is required. School librarians may need an additional degree in education or teaching certificate.

Medical Assisting

Kids go to the doctor a lot, and medical assistants become a friendly and familiar face as they make that familiar trek to the doctor’s office for vaccinations, check-ups and more. Commonly, those interested in medical assisting earn a certificate or diploma from a medical assisting program. Some pursue a two-year associates degree or, on the other end of the spectrum, simply receive on-the-job training.

Non-profit Management

The impact that non-profit managers can have in the lives of children can’t be measured. From homeless shelters to crisis call centers, non-profit managers work hard to ensure the needs of children are met in the community and nationwide. Non-profit managers will often pursue a degree in non-profit management or business administration, while others will simply move into a managerial role through experience and on-the-job training.


When a child is ill enough to need hospitalization, it’s the nurses they and their families rely on the most for the day-to-day medical issues and needs that must be addressed. Licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses need to complete a certificate or diploma program and pass the NCLEX-PN. Registered nurses need an associate degree (AND), bachelor's degree (BSN), or diploma from an accredited nursing program. They also need to pass the NCLEX-RN exam.

Nutrition and Dietetics

The obesity epidemic among children has become a real public health concern over the last several years. Beyond that, we’ve come to greater understanding about the nutrition needs of children with food allergies, diabetes and more. To help children understand nutrition and meet nutritional needs, a bachelor's degree in nutrition, dietetics, clinical nutrition or public health nutrition is required. Certified Nutrition Specialists must have a master's or doctoral degree. Registered Dietitian Nutritionists must complete a Dietetic Internship.

Occupational Therapy and Assisting

Kids love doing things by themselves and being independent. These professionals show children and adults how to live independent lives. Occupational therapists need a master's degree in occupational therapy and state licensure. Occupational therapy assistants need an associate's degree in occupational therapy and, often, state licensure.


Paralegals do a lot of the legwork for lawyers, including conducting research and interviewing witnesses. There are certificate and associate degree pathways into paralegal studies. Alternatively, a bachelor's degree in a related subject, such as history or prelaw, is required along with on-the-job training.

Physical Education

For some kids, P.E. class may be the only exercise they receive. To teach kids about the importance of physical movement, physical education teachers will need either a bachelor or master's degree in physical education as well as state licensure.

Physical Therapy and Assisting

Physical therapists and assistants help adults and children overcome injuries sustained from sports, accidents and more. A doctor of physical therapy (DPT) degree and state licensure is needed to practice. Assistants need an associate degree and state licensure.


Child psychology is a place where you can make an immediate and deep impact on children who need it the most as you help them through trauma, grief and developmental disorders. Though some psychologists may practice with only a master's degree, most positions require a doctoral degree–either a Ph.D. or Psy.D.–in psychology or school psychology.

Public Health

Vaccinations, underage drinking, drugs, teen suicide, childhood obesity, bullying and more are all public health issues. Contribute to public health policy and decision making in this field to make an impact in children’s lives. On-the-job training, certificate, or associate degrees offer entry into community health field. A master's or doctoral degree is required for public health education.

Reading Specialist

It’s hard to believe we still have illiteracy in the U.S., but the truth is, 32 million adults in this country can’t read. If children don’t learn to read, their lives are greatly limited. Teaching children to read is akin to handing them the keys to the universe. Reading specialists typically have an undergraduate degree or certification in teaching along with a master's degree in education (M.Ed.) or postgraduate certification in reading.

School Counseling

School counselors serve several crucial needs. They help students who are having trouble in class, and they also help meet the needs of children who may need help outside of class as well. These professionals need a master's degree in school counseling plus state licensure. Some states require teaching degree and certification.

Secondary Education

High school teachers are tasked with preparing our youth to successfully transition to adulthood and college. Teachers at the secondary level typically need a bachelor's degree in a subject area such as math or history. They also need to earn a teaching certificate and pass a competency exam such as the Praxis. Secondary teachers may pursue a master's degree in education or go on to earn certifications in areas such as gifted and talented.

Social Work

When you hear the stories about a child falling through the cracks of the child welfare system, do you wish there was something you could do? Social workers are the last line of defense in making sure children’s basic needs are met and they are safe. There are bachelor’s- (BSW), master’s- (MSW), and doctoral- (DSW or Ph.D.) level programs in social work. Licensed clinical social workers must have an MSW, two years of clinical supervision and pass a licensure exam.

Special Education

Working with children with developmental delays can be challenging, but the rewards are tremendous. A bachelor's degree and teaching license is the minimum threshold to teach special education in public school. Many states require a master's degree such as a master's in education (M.Ed.) or Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT). There are also programs that address the specific needs of this student population, such as a master's (MSEd) or post-baccalaureate certificate in special education.

Sports and Recreation

Even with all the other activities available to children today, they still love to play. Organized sports, summer recreation programs, and public health initiatives are just some of the sectors that need people dedicated to bringing physical activity and sportsmanship to kids. Undergraduate degrees, both associate and bachelor's level, are available in sports and leisure studies, recreation management, recreation therapy, and sports management. Recreational therapy may also require state licensure.

Map the Way to a Degree Helping Children


Legal professions deal with the laws and rights of being a citizen. While many work in the legal profession through criminal justice system or courts, others are engaged in advocacy or work for organizations or institutions dedicated to child welfare.


This broad field encompasses all levels of teaching from preschool through university. It covers a swath of topics just as broad, from fine art to physics. Most people associate the field of education with traditional public school teachers, though teachers can work in private schools, museums, childcare centers, camps, publishing houses and tutoring facilities.

Psychology & Counseling

Psychologists and counselors help individuals and groups to work through mental health, behavioral, emotional, social and organizational issues. They make assessments, teach skills and advocate for their clients in a variety of settings. Psychologists and counselors may specialize their practice in areas such as school, family or substance abuse counseling.

Health & Medical

Healthcare professionals can choose careers that focus on the health and well being of children. Entry-level healthcare training such as certificate in medical assisting or licensed practical nursing can prepare you to working in pediatrics or with pediatric patients in a hospital setting.

Degree Spotlights for Working with Children at Every Level

Numerous certificates in early childhood education are available. You can also pursue an associate degree in early childhood education. Note that a bachelor's degree is required for certain state-funded programs such as Head Start.

Certificate or Associate Degree: Early Childhood

Certificates in Early Childhood Education

  • Early educator certification (EEC)
  • Early childhood education (ECE)
  • Child development associate (CDA)
  • Early childhood administration (ECA)
  • Childcare licensing (CCL)
  • Certified childcare professional (CCP)
Certificate Programs
Time to Complete Certificate Programs: 1 year (2 semesters)
Sample of Certificate-Level Courses:
  • Early childhood nutrition
  • Child development
  • Infant and toddler care
  • Supervised practicum
Time to Complete Associate Programs: 18 months to 2 years
Sample of Associate-Level Course:
  • Math for young children
  • Child development
  • Curriculum development
  • Early childhood science
  • Supervised practicum

Studies show the importance of early childhood education. They point to improved gains in IQ for lower income students, higher scores on achievement tests in later grades, and lower instances of grade retention. And, these benefits last well into adulthood with research showing that, as adults, the kids who participated in preschool were more likely to have stable jobs, higher wages, and were less likely to get in trouble with the law.

* Source: Preschool: The Most Important Grade by W. Steven Barnett and Jason T. Hustedt, Educational Leadership, April 2003

Early Childhood Education Jobs

Teacher, childcare worker, teaching assistant

Salary & Growth

Annual median wage for preschool teachers as of May 2014 was $28,120.
Projected job growth 2014 through 2024 for preschool teachers is 7 percent. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), formal education leads to better job prospects.

Associate Degree: Physical Therapy Assisting

PT assistants help kids and adults heal from accidents and injuries. They may also help kids with congenital or developmental issues, disease or disability to gain fuller range of movement and improve strength, stability, and muscle tone. To become a physical therapy assistant, you'll need an associate from accredited physical therapy program.

Time to Complete Associate Program: 2-3 years
Sample of PT Assistant Courses:
  • Anatomy & physiology
  • Kinesiology
  • Behavioral Science
  • Communication
  • Ethics
Additional Requirements: CPR certification, clinical internship completion

Salary & Growth

41% job growth 2014 through 2024. Median annual wage was $54,410 as of May 2014 (BLS)

Bachelor’s Degree: Education

Teachers do more than just impart knowledge to their students. They teach social and soft skills, build classroom and school community, advise and mentor students, and keep kids safe and healthy while at school.

Teaching in a public or private school requires at least a bachelor's degree. Public school teachers will need a degree in education or a subject area such as math or English along with a teaching certificate. Public school teachers will also need to pass a proficiency exam such as the Praxis.

Time to Complete Bachelor’s Degree & Teaching Certification: 4-5 years
Sample of PT Assistant Courses:
  • Learning and cognition
  • Child development
  • Curriculum and instruction
  • Exceptional Learners
  • Assessment and evaluation
  • Teaching practicum

Teaching Careers

Teachers can find jobs in public or private elementary, middle and high schools. Some may work in childcare centers or camps. Non-classroom jobs include curriculum development, creating or publishing educational materials, educational consulting, and corporate training.

Salary & Growth

Job growth for teachers is projected at 6% 2014-2024. Annual median salaries in May of 2014 were $28,120 for preschool teachers, $53,760 for kindergarten and elementary teachers, $54,940 for middle school teachers, $56,310 for high school teachers, and $55,980 for special education teachers (BLS).

Master’s Degree in Social Work (MSW)

Social workers help families and children work through issues that affect their health, wellbeing, and ability to thrive. Family social workers may help parents and children through times of crisis involving substance abuse, death, or divorce. Child welfare social workers might help students tackle issues related to their families or themselves, like learning disabilities or behavioral disorders. School social workers create safe and healthy learning environments for all kids.

A master's degree in social work (MSW) is helpful and often required for certain careers in social work. Only licensed clinical social workers (LCSW) can go into clinical social work or private practice.

Time to Complete MSW: 2 years full time
Sample of MSW Courses:
  • Human behavior
  • Individual & group practice
  • Family practice
  • Social welfare policy
  • Research methods
  • Field practice
Additional Requirements:

Licensed clinical social workers must complete additional training–two years of supervised practiced and passing state licensure examinations.

Social Work Careers

An MSW opens the door to case manager positions in human services, social services, family services, and child welfare. An MSW may qualify you for counseling positions, though not independent practice, in family and marital counseling, substance abuse, or other mental health counseling. Social workers may specialize in healthcare, including geriatrics or palliative care. Social workers may also work in schools or as adoption counselors.

Salary & Growth

Job growth for social workers is expected to grow by 12% 2014-2024, largely due to an increased demand for healthcare social workers. Child, family, and school social work is projected to have 6% growth. The annual median wages for all social workers in May of 2014 was $59,100. Child, family, and school social workers earned median wages of $42,120 (BLS).

Doctorate: Counseling/Psychology

Psychologists help children and families work through behavioral, developmental, learning, social, and emotional issues. They may provide individual and family counseling. School psychologists work with students, families, and schools to address learning and behavior issues.

Graduate Degrees in Counseling & Psychology

Doctorate of Philosophy in Clinical Psychology (Ph.D.)
Time to Complete: 4-7 years
Sample Courses:
  • Research methodology & statistics
  • Behavioral medicine
  • Child psychopathology
  • Mental health policy
Doctorate of Psychology (Psy.D.)
Time to Complete: 4-7 years
Sample Courses:
  • Neuropsychological assessment
  • Clinical interviewing
  • Child assessment
  • Cognition and perception
  • Behavioral analysis
  • Clinical practicum
Educational Specialist degree (Ed.S.)
Time to Complete: 2 years post-graduate
Sample Courses:
  • Qualitative methods in literacy research
  • Educational measurement and assessment
  • Curriculum design

Psychology and Counseling Careers

Clinical psychologists, psychological counselors, marriage and family counselors, behavioral counselors, and school psychologists

Salary & Growth

Demand for clinical, counseling and school psychologists will grow by 20% 2014-2024. The median annual wage for psychologists in May of 2014 was $92,110. However, clinical, counseling, and school psychologists came in at $68,900 (BLS).

Quiz: Is a Degree Working with Children for You?

You love to be around kids. But, how do you know if you'll be successful in a career working with children? Before you dive in, take this quiz to see if you have what it takes.

Do you enjoy spending time with kids or adolescents?
Are you comfortable setting boundaries and limits?
Are you willing to make children's health and safety your top priority?
Do you feel comfortable multitasking?
Do respond calmly to stressful situations?
Are you interested learning about children's growth and development?
Will you honor diverse learners and learning styles?
Are you willing to pursue the necessary training you'll need to work with children–degree, certification or licensure?
Are you willing to complete an internship or supervised practice?
Are you willing to take professional development courses even after you're established in your career?

Steps to Working with Children

Are you ready to get serious about finding a degree working with kids? Here are some concrete steps you can take to get your career off the ground.

Do Your Research

Some people are born knowing they want to be teachers. But, it's not quite as clear cut for others. If you aren't entirely sure what kind of job you want, do some investigating:

  • Talk to an academic advisor, career, or college counselor.
  • Set up an informational interview with someone who's doing a job you find interesting.
  • Ask to observe in a classroom, hospital or other setting.
  • Take introductory courses in education, social work, and psychology.
  • Research degree and certification pathways for specific positions.
Find an Education or Training Program

Many careers working with children require some form of formal training or education. Find a program that will help you meet your goals.

  • Research a variety of schools and programs.
  • Talk with a college or enrollment counselor about your financial aid options. Make sure you clearly understand how much you can afford to pay and the financial realities of taking on student debt.
  • Create a list of schools where you would like to apply. As a general rule of thumb, choose at least is one safety school–somewhere you know you will be accepted. Choose a couple of schools that seem like the right fit in terms of academic rigor and tuition costs. It's also a good idea to apply to a school that is a reach for you–either academically or one you could only afford given the right level of financial aid.
Set Realistic Goals

Set yourself up for success by setting realistic goals. It's great if you can jump right in to an education or training program, but it may not be realistic for you to go to school full time for four years to get a degree working with children. So, consider your options.

  • One option is to find a hybrid or distance education program that allows you to work while you are training for your ultimate goal.
  • Another path may be to start with a lower level degree or certificate. For instance, it can take up to four years to become a pediatric registered nurse, while it only takes about a year to become a licensed practical nurse. You can begin your career in nursing while gaining valuable experience that will help you achieve your ultimate goal. Some schools offer LPN-to-ADN that allow you to apply your previous credits toward a future degree.
Get Experience

Don't press the pause button just because it will take some time for you to reach your ultimate career goal.

Before you apply to be a barista, consider finding an entry-level job in your general field. You may not be qualified to be an art teacher or school counselor yet, but you can find child-focused jobs with a lower threshold for entry. You'll gain great experience working in childcare centers or after school programs and having those jobs on your resume can make you more attractive to future employers.

Other ways to gain experience and contacts are:

  • Volunteering
  • Joining student and professional organizations
  • Interning
Follow Through

Sometimes our lives take unexpected turns. Prepare for this before you start. Ask yourself what you'll do if, for instance, your spouse suddenly needs to relocate to another state or you need to take some time off to take care of a sick relative.Be prepared to make a Plan B. Perhaps you'll need to transfer to a new school or finish your degree through distance education. Whatever you do, don't give up.

From the Expert: Laura Giammusso

Interview with Laura Giammusso

How did you decide to become a teacher?

When I was working in counseling, I discovered that I found the most enjoyment working with children in school settings. Also, my mother is a retired special educator who showed me the importance of making a difference in the lives of children and families.

What are some of the unique challenges of working with children?

It is so important to meet individual students’ needs and provide instruction that will help all learners make progress and feel motivated to do their best.

What are the rewards?

It is wonderful to feel the excitement when students are engaged in the learning process and connecting with others. I love seeing students push themselves to grow as learners and feeling motivated by the results of their hard work. I especially enjoy hearing my students’ ideas, questions, and insights.

In what ways have your master's program helped you in your career?

My master’s program has provided me with opportunities for deeper reflection on my current practice, which helps me to set personal goals and improve my teaching. I have greatly enjoyed collaborating with other teachers, especially sharing resources, lessons, and ideas.

What advice would you offer someone interested in pursuing a career working with kids?

My advice would be to find ways to incorporate the things that you find most important and that bring you happiness into your daily practice, whether it is art, the outdoors, or helping your community. I also think that one of the best ways to inspire students to be lifelong learners is to pursue new opportunities in your own learning.

Resources for Working with Children

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