Special Education Services

The Role of Developmental Psychology in Special Education

Developmental psychology plays a crucial role in the special education process. This area of study helps parents, teachers, and educators better understand children with special needs. Rather than broadly applying the same approach to all students in special education, developmental psychology can assess and identify a child’s specific developmental delays or deficiencies. By studying the development process, a child development specialist can guide parents and teachers with the appropriate techniques for children with unique circumstances. 

As someone with a Master’s degree in teaching focused on special education and behavior disorders, I’ve spent countless hours researching and studying behavioral psychology. I’ve also seen this practice applied first-hand in schools and special education programs. Based on my personal experience, I can confidently say that understanding developmental psychology can truly make a difference in childhood development and ensure the right resources are available to children with unique needs.

I wrote this guide to help inform parents, teachers, educators, and prospective developmental psychologists with as much information about developmental psychology and its role in special education. We’ll start with some background information about developmental psychology before diving deep into the roles of child development specialists and development concepts.

Everything You Need to Know About Developmental Psychology 

The following sections will answer all of your questions about developmental psychology and how it relates to special education:

  • What is Developmental Psychology?
  • What Does a Developmental Psychologist Do?
  • Key Roles and Responsibilities of a Child Development Specialist
  • Core Development Concepts and How They Relate to Special Education

What is Developmental Psychology?

Let’s start with the basics of developmental psychology before we get into the specifics of special education.

Developmental psychology is a scientific study that’s meant to explain growth, change, and consistency throughout a human lifespan. It focuses on how feelings, thoughts, and behavior change at different stages throughout our lives. 

The most significant part of developmental psychology are the theories and studies surrounding childhood development, as these early years are the time when the most changes are occurring. 

Initially, developmental psychology was born when psychologists decided to study the minds of children to see how learning and education could be improved. The first developmental psychology studies can be traced back more than 100+ years to the era of Charles Darwin in the 1870s. Darwin published a brief study based on the observations of his own son, Doddy.

But the best-known concepts of developmental psychology and the discipline of studying children can be attributed to Wilhelm Preyer, a German psychologist. A few years after Darwin’s paper was published, Wilhelm released a book called “The Mind of the Child.”

Modern developmental psychology can be summarized with three main goals:

  • Describe development
  • Explain development
  • Optimize development

To do this, psychologists must study patterns of change and variations of these patterns. While most humans follow similar paths of development, no two people have the exact same development path. 

Based on these studies, a psychologist can determine what’s considered normative development compared to idiographic development. 

We can measure these milestones against common patterns to determine what factors are playing a role in the developmental pace of a child. For example, if a baby isn’t walking by the time they reach 15 months, it could be a sign of a developmental delay or health disorder. A developmental psychologist can take a closer look at this situation to detect the root cause and help treat any psychological factors. This can help get the child back on track on a path towards normative development.

What Does a Developmental Psychologist Do?

Developmental psychologists can work in a wide range of settings. They can hold positions in government agencies, health care facilities, and educational institutions. 

These psychologists assess, evaluate, and treat people with varying developmental disorders or disabilities. Examples of developmental disabilities may include:

Developmental disorders can impair physical, behavioral, language, and cognitive developmental skills in a child’s life. Some disorders may affect a child’s physical ability, like walking. Others can impact their mental abilities, like learning. 

In terms of developmental psychology and its role in special education, our primary focus in this guide will narrow in on developmental psychologists in schools. 

For this type of role, a child development specialist is responsible for finding ways for children to overcome developmental delays or disorders. This process begins with several observations between the therapist and child. The therapist may use tools like gross motor games and mental development tests to make an informed assessment on the child and their development stages.

Once the psychologist has a firm grasp of the child’s specific development path, they’ll work directly with parents, general education teachers, and special education to create a custom therapy plan for the child and their specific needs. 

This plan will include milestone goals related to development. The psychologist will continue working with the child to track progress toward these goals and make the necessary adjustments. 

Developmental therapists may also provide counseling for children, counseling for families, continue with additional assessments, and make referrals to other specialists for specific circumstances. 

Key Roles and Responsibilities of a Child Development Specialist

If you’re interested in becoming a child development specialist, I just want to quickly cover some of the responsibilities and necessary skills for this important role. 

In my experience, the best child development specialists are passionate about their position. While this isn’t technically a prerequisite, it really makes a difference when you’re evaluating children and working one-on-one with families. 

To stay knowledgeable, expect to continue your studies with ongoing education throughout your career. Since most of your day will be spent working independently, you’ll need a strong work ethic and self-motivation. This is not a job for someone who needs constant supervision. 

Examples of key responsibilities of a child development specialist include:

  • Monitoring children who are showing signs of developmental delays
  • Creating treatment plans to correct developmental problems
  • Communicating with parents, teachers, and family members
  • Prescribing treatment plans and therapy for kids with development disabilities

The role of a child development specialist can be very delicate. You’ll be dealing with families who may have concerns about their children, and they’ll likely have lots of questions. It’s important for you to communicate your assessment and plan with care.

By identifying a developmental disorder early on, you can help correct any problems before they lead to long-term complications.

Core Development Concepts and How They Relate to Special Education

Now that you have a firm grasp of developmental psychology and child development’s role in special education, I want to expand a bit further on some key development concepts. This information is useful for prospective psychologists, educators, and parents alike.

Continuity vs. Discontinuity

This concept follows the path of how children become adults. Developmental psychology looks to see if there’s a predictable pattern in areas like thinking, social development, and language. 

Normative development is considered continual and cumulative. Changes become gradual in all areas of development. For example, a child will crawl before they can walk. Then they’ll walk before they can run. 

Discontinuity development is a bit more abrupt. The changes in behavior or development are broken into stages in life with distinct transitions. In terms of psychology, discontinuity says that children will go through the path from childhood to adulthood in the same order, but not always at the same rate. In order to advance from one stage to another, a child must reach a behavioral goal or milestone to proceed.

Nature vs. Nurture

Nature refers to biological factors that contribute to development. The reason why development is so similar from one person to another is because humans share the same DNA. This ultimately guides everyone through the same developmental changes at similar points in our lives. 

Nurture refers to the environment of our development. 

For example, two identical twins could both be diagnosed with the same developmental disorder. Depending on the diagnosis, this might be something biological—which falls into the nature category. But if the twins have different treatment plans to overcome the disorder, that will fall into the nurture category. 

There is a great debate about the roles of nature and nurture and how they’re related to children with special needs. 

Stability vs. Change

Stability says that a child’s personality traits present during childhood remain the same throughout their life. Change theorists say that personalities are impacted by life experiences, family interactions, and exposure to different cultures. 

Developmental psychology uses these theories to better understand feelings, thoughts, and behavior at different development stages in a child’s life. This information can be helpful during an assessment when determining milestones and goals for a child with special needs. 


Developmental psychology plays an important role within the scope of special education. A developmental psychologist or child development specialist can work directly with children, parents, teachers, and educators to help assess and identify potential developmental disorders. Based on their findings, they can set up a plan, establish milestones, and look for ways to correct certain disorders before they lead to lifelong complications. 

If you think your child or student in your classroom has a developmental disorder, seeking advice from a child development specialist as early as possible is important. For those of you thinking of pursuing a career in psychology, becoming a developmental psychologist is a great way to help children in special education.

Leave a comment below or feel free to send me an email! I’d love to hear from you and I’m here to help!

About the author

Emily Cummings

I am a mom of two crazy, amazing, independent, little feminists. They bring so much light to my life and a lot less sleep. Since becoming a mother and increasingly in the last year, I have witnessed parents struggling to connect with their child's special education team with no success. I have become more aware of the gaps in our public school system and how parents may benefit from empowerment and advocacy tools.

My work experiences range from a juvenile detention center to an autism specialist in the Issaquah School District and a special education teacher in a self-contained program in the Lake Washington School District. My master's in teaching focused on special education and behavioral disorders from Seattle Pacific University. I completed my BCBA coursework from Montana State University.

Want to get in touch?

I'm happy to help however I can. Email me at hello at behaviorist .com.

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