What is a Human Development Degree?

Human development practitioners understand how humans grow and develop throughout the lifecycle. While they apply their knowledge in a wide variety of settings, their goal is always the same – to support the health and wellbeing of individuals and families in diverse communities.

Degree programs in this field explore physical, cognitive, and psychosocial development through each stage of human life – prenatal, infancy, early childhood, middle childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, middle adulthood, late adulthood, and death and dying.

The physical domain is concerned with growth and changes in the body and brain, the senses, motor skills, and health and wellness. Cognitive human development comprises learning, attention, memory, language, thinking, reasoning, and creativity. Psychosocial development involves emotions, personality, and social relationships. Students learn how these three domains of human development influence and impact every aspect of our lives – from self-respect and self-esteem to how we interact with family, peers, and society at large.

Program Options

It is important to note that some schools do not offer a standalone human development degree. In these cases, human development may be offered as one of the concentrations available within the developmental psychology, family studies, or sociology department.

Bachelor’s Degree in Human Development – Four Year Duration
At the undergraduate level, human development majors typically complete preparatory/foundational courses in anthropology, general biology, physiology, genetics, history, philosophy, psychology, and statistics. Programs generally include at least one internship in a community or institutional/educational setting.

The following are examples of courses which make up the core human development curriculum:

  • Human Sexuality – terminology, structure, and function of the reproductive system; sexual response; prenatal development, pregnancy, and childbirth; development of sexuality; rape and sexual assault; birth control; sexually transmitted diseases; homosexuality; establishing and maintaining intimacy; sexual dysfunctions; cultural differences in attitudes towards sexuality
  • Infancy and Early Childhood – biological, social, and cultural influences in the psychological growth and development of children, prenatal through age six
  • Middle Childhood and Adolescence – biological, social, and cultural factors in the emotional, cognitive, and social development from middle childhood through adolescence
  • Adulthood and Aging – biological, cognitive, and psychosocial aspects of adult development; patterns of ‘successful aging’
  • Cognitive Development – theories, methodologies, evidence, and debates in the field of cognitive development: nature/nurture, constraints on learning, adaptability/plasticity; attention, memory, concepts of the physical and social world, and language
  • Social and Personality Development – social and personality development of children, infancy through adolescence: development of personality, achievement motivation, self-understanding, sex-role identity, and anti-social behavior
  • Cross-Cultural Study of Children – cross-cultural studies of children in developing countries and among minority groups in the US
  • Children in Families, Schools, and Communities – children’s social contexts from birth through adolescence: family, peers, school, neighborhood, community culture; development and environmental challenges from birth through adolescence: poverty, maltreatment
  • Families in Communities – family member’s roles, interactions, and development; how families are impacted by the larger community and society in which they live; topics and issues addressed include gender, race/ethnicity, parenting, marriage, grandparents, divorce, cultural assimilation, and migration
  • Contemporary American Family – factors influencing the contemporary American family: changing economic conditions, changing sex roles, divorce, and parenthood

Other possible undergrad classes include:

  • Family Stress and Resilience
  • Longevity
  • Research Methods in Human Growth and Development
  • Psychological Assessment
  • Developmental Psychopathology (Mental Disorders)
  • Individual Differences in Cognition
  • Health Behaviors across the Lifespan
  • Communication and Interaction with Young Children
  • Field Study with Children and Adolescents
  • Field Study with Emotionally Distressed Children and Adolescents
  • Field Study with the Elderly
  • Social Aspects of Aging
  • Cognitive Neuropsychology in Adulthood and Aging
  • Development in Adulthood
  • Adolescent Behavioral and Emotional Development
  • Theories of Behavioral Development
  • Physiological Parallels of Behavioral Development
  • Cognition and Aging
  • Children’s Learning and Thinking
  • Peer Relationships during Adolescence

Master’s Degree in Human Development – Two to Three Year Duration
The master’s degree is the most common credential in the field of human development. At this level students can design their program in consultation with a faculty member, to focus on their particular area of interest. Because of the breadth of the human development discipline, students have a variety of areas from which to choose a concentration. To review the field’s principal subject areas, please refer to the bachelor’s curriculum above. An internship is often a component of a master’s program in human development. The program’s culminating requirement is a thesis based on original research.

Below are some examples of master’s level courses. These will vary depending on each student’s chosen area of focus.

  • Human Development, Learning, and Diversity
  • Cultivating Supportive School and Classroom Environments
  • Cognition, Language, and Literacy Processes in Education
  • Cultural Perspectives on Learning, Development, and Media
  • Fostering Self-Regulated Learning
  • Motivation in Education
  • Social and Emotional Development in Education
  • Legislation and Policy in Human Development
  • Program Planning and Evaluation in Human Development
  • Grant Development in Human Development

Doctoral Degree in Human Development – Four to Five Year Duration
The master’s program involves a lot of taught courses. It emphasizes the transition from pure subject learning to independent research. On the other hand, the doctoral degree is like a very long dissertation project. Ph.D. students have a great deal of independence. They have the benefit of supervision from a faculty advisor and may complete some taught classes, but their focus is on their independent research, on contributing original – new – knowledge to the field of human development.

The Ph.D. in human development is aimed at students who aspire to high-level careers as researchers, educators, program developers, and policy makers.

Here is a sampling of doctoral research areas in the field:

  • Risk, Resilience, and Developmental Psychopathology
  • Treatment, Intervention, and Prevention Science
  • Emotional Development, Self-Regulation, and Emotion Regulation
  • Adult Development and Aging

Degrees Similar to Human Development

Child Care Management
Degree programs in child care management prepare students to work at and manage day care centers, preschools, and other child care services. The typical curriculum covers child psychology, education theories, health and safety, staff management and administration, and budgeting.

Child Psychology
Degree programs in child psychology prepare students to work in one or more of the three main concentrations in the field.

Adolescent psychology is focused on issues relevant to children and youth between the ages of 12 and 18. These issues include behavioral problems, learning disabilities, depression, and eating disorders.

Developmental child psychology is concerned with the emotional and cognitive developments that impact children as they age. Among these developments are language, formation of identity, and understanding of morality.

Abnormal Child Psychology focuses on the treatment of children and adolescents dealing with atypical issues like physical abuse, trauma, personality disorders, and sociopathy.

Early Childhood Education (ECE)
A degree in early childhood education provides students with ECE fundamentals and helps them develop leadership and advocacy abilities, as well as the administrative skills required to work in the field. Typical coursework in degree and certificate programs focuses on child growth and development, behavior guidance, supporting children and families, children with exceptionalities, and effective curriculum planning.

Students who major in education study the learning and teaching processes. Among the courses they take are educational psychology and teaching techniques.

Family and Consumer Science
Family and consumer science education programs teach students how to help people make informed decisions about their wellbeing and relationships. Topics included in the curriculum include human development, family studies, food science and human nutrition, health and wellness, personal finance, and design and merchandising.

Gerontology is the study of the human aging process, from the physical, mental, and sociological perspectives. Programs look at how adults change as they age, how an aging population changes society, and how this information is used to develop and implement policies and programs for older adults.

The scientific study of the mind and behavior is the focus of psychology degree programs. In simple terms, psychology students study the way that humans and animals act, feel, think, and learn.

Social Work
Social work is about helping people solve and cope with problems and challenges in their everyday lives. Students who pursue a degree in the field gain the knowledge and skills, as well as the ethics and values, to work for social justice for individuals, families, organizations, and communities. The typical curriculum examines issues such as child welfare, mental health, poverty, aging, domestic violence, and marginalized groups.

Degree programs in sociology are focused on studying groups, from two people and beyond. Sociology students examine human behavior patterns and relationships at both the micro-level and the macro-level. They study interactions between individuals as well as in families, peer groups, cultural groups, gender groups, racial groups, religious groups, and social classes.

Special Education Teaching
Graduates with a degree in special education are qualified to teach students with physical or mental disabilities. They help students develop basic life skills and must be prepared to adapt their curriculum to do so.

Skills You’ll Learn

  • Awareness of and sensitivity to diversity and human differences
  • Better understanding of children
  • Better understanding of one’s self and of others
  • Deeper understanding of what is normal and what is not
  • Greater appreciation of development throughout life
  • Personal development tools
  • Understanding of how to interact with kids

In addition to these human development competencies, which help people in every aspect of their lives, graduates of the field also learn:

  • Research and Research Design Skills:
    Defining issues and designing research questions and surveys are fundamental processes of human development study. These skills are also valued by companies and organizations that need studies designed to find answers to the challenges they face.
  • Communication:
    Students who successfully complete a human development degree program learn how to break down subjects and conversations into digestible, understandable pieces – an ability that is valued in virtually all professional and social circles.

What Can You Do with a Human Development Degree?

How we grow and develop has implications for every aspect of our lives. It is not surprising, therefore, that human development practitioners are called upon to apply their knowledge in a variety of roles and settings within the public and private human services sector:

  • Adolescent counseling centers
  • Adult day care centers
  • Child care centers
  • Child Protective Services
  • Crisis nurseries
  • Domestic violence services / battered women’s shelters
  • Early childhood education centers
  • Family crisis centers
  • Government agencies
  • Group foster homes
  • Hospice and bereavement
  • Hospitals
  • Mental health clinics and agencies
  • Non-profit organizations
  • Nursing homes
  • Parent education organizations
  • Parks and recreation programming
  • Pre-schools
  • Public health
  • Public policy
  • Rehabilitation centers
  • Schools
  • Senior centers
  • Social work
  • Special education centers
  • Special needs services / home care services
  • The criminal justice system / correction services
  • The juvenile justice system / probation offices
  • Youth programs

For many students, a degree in human development lays the foundation to pursue an advanced degree in behavioral and social sciences, education, social work, family law, or health sciences.


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