The Business of Practice

Developmental Psychology

Developmental psychology focuses on the psychological issues involved in human development across the lifespan. The psychological processes of interest to developmental psychologists include social, personality, cognitive, and neuropsychological development. Some developmental psychologists are interested in understanding developmental processes in young children, whereas others work in adolescent or adult development. 

Developmental Psychology

Developmental Psychologists in the Law

Many developmental psychologists are interested in the law and the legal process and are employed in colleges and universities, teaching and conducting research. Governmental agencies, private foundations, or non-profit organizations employ others. These settings typically involve some combination of advocacy and policy formulation and analysis. Still, others work as independent consultants or, less frequently, in private practices. Occasionally, developmental psychologists may be asked to offer expert opinions in court. Typically this testimony will concern general issues related to human development and will not focus on assessing a given individual.

Developmental psychologists in the law differ from clinical-forensic psychologists as they are more likely to conduct research and formulate and evaluate policy. As a result, a significant body of psychological knowledge directly relevant to juvenile, family, and elder law now exists.  In contrast, clinical-forensic psychologists are more likely to assess and treat people involved in the legal system.

Employment for Developmental Psychologists

The range of activities in developmental psychology and law is broad. Traditional areas of inquiry have involved the welfare of children in various legally relevant situations. Some examples are:

Developmental psychologists may formulate and test theories about:

Competence of Children, Adolescents, and the Elderly

The notion of consent and decisional capacities have long been of interest to developmental psychologists, and much research now exists on these topics. 

Youth Competence

An essential issue in both children's law and elder law is competence. Trial judges, appellate courts, legislators, and policy writers make assumptions about the competence of children, adolescents, and older individuals that are amenable to scrutiny by scientific research. 

For example, a thorny question in many cases involving youth is the degree to which they should be permitted to make binding decisions on matters concerning their welfare (e.g., to seek guidance counseling, to seek an abortion, to refuse or accept medical treatment, to state which parent they prefer for custody, to choose not to attend school) and the psychological capacities required for these decisions. 

A question of concern in juvenile and criminal cases involving juvenile offenders is the extent to which they understand the legal proceedings, the Constitutional protections to which they are entitled, and the implications of various resolutions of their cases. 

Elderly Competence

A problematic issue in many cases involving elderly individuals is the extent to which they can conduct their own financial and personal affairs and whether the court should appoint a guardian to assume these duties. 

Children in Court

Another area of intense interest to developmental psychologists involves children in court – either as witnesses or victims of crime. Here, two concerns typically surface.

  • The child's right not to be traumatized or abused by the legal system. A significant barrier to prosecuting defendants in child sexual abuse cases is the concern about causing the child further distress. Some states now allow a child's testimony to be videotaped for later display in the courtroom. Recent research has been undertaken to understand the effects of children testifying.
  • The accuracy of children as witnesses in court. Can children distinguish fact from fantasy? At what age do children understand what it means to tell the truth? Do children make things up? Despite widely publicized cases involving false accusations, several studies suggest that children rarely make up detailed memories of completely non-existent events. On the other hand, young children can be highly suggestible, especially in response to leading or repetitive questioning. A long history of research on memory development, suggestibility, semantics, and social demand characteristics is relevant to this issue.

Many developmental psychologists are interested in studying the juvenile justice system, particularly non-traditional methods for dealing with delinquent adolescents known as diversion programs.

Developmental psychologists have also developed, implemented, and evaluated interventions to prevent or treat delinquent behavior. Although most states have revised and tightened their juvenile codes to emphasize more punitive responses to juvenile crime, meta-analytic research demonstrates that some rehabilitative interventions can reduce recidivism, even among violent youth. 

Educational and Training Requirements

Developmental psychologists who work on legally-relevant topics are typically trained in traditional developmental psychology graduate programs. However, some have attended formal psychology and law graduate programs with developmental emphasis. During graduate school, they have worked with a faculty member with interests in the law or have developed those interests independently. Some students work with state or local courts, policymakers, or advocacy organizations on research and policy issues. Occasionally, they may acquire a law-related interest during post-doctoral training, although such specialized training is not required for employment. There is no internship or licensure requirement.

Developmental psychologists who work in the legal arena may or may not have formal legal training. Although some law knowledge will result in more sophisticated research and advocacy, formal legal training is required. Many professionals learn about the law by immersing themselves in psychological work related to law and legal processes or collaborating with legal or public policy scholars. Employment at colleges and universities and high-level administrative positions in various agencies and organizations require a Ph.D. degree. Still, individuals with master's level degrees (M.A. or M.S.) can also work in the private and public sectors, although job opportunities may be limited. 

Additional Resources on Community Psychology



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