A doctoral degree in Child Development can be a rewarding choice for those who want to make the difference in the lives of children. A PhD can help prepare you for a leadership role in behavioral professions, education, or government agencies.
There are many types of doctoral degrees for those who want a leadership career working with children. The most popular are a PhD and an EdD. Knowing the difference is important when choosing a doctoral program. A Doctor of Philosophy degree in Child Development or Early Childhood Education involves conducting original research that helps professionals develop and test new theories. During their studies, PhD candidates apply theories to the real world. Most of those who pursue a PhD plan careers in academia, social policy, or research.
Doctor of Education degrees in Child Development and Education focus on helping education professionals learn to solve problems. Most educators who pursue an EdD want a hands-on leadership role in PK-12 education, institutions, or government. They learn to apply existing research within schools and organizations.
20 Best Online PhDs in Child Development
There are many different careers open to those who complete a doctoral degree with a focus on child development. Some of those include:
- Training and Development Managers
- Teacher Educators
- Special Education Managers and Directors
- Curriculum Specialists and Supervisors
- Behavioral Center Directors
- Principals, Superintendents and Administrators
- Policy and Advocacy Professionals
- Education and Child Development Consultants
- College Professors
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, careers working with children will see faster-than-average growth by 2026. For example, Training and Development Managers can expect salaries more than $108,000 per year with about a 10 percent growth rate. Instructional Coordinators will see an 11 percent growth rate in the same timeframe. The PhD and EdD in Child Development is also suggested for those who plan careers as school principals. As of May 2017, the BLS reports the median annual salary for principals is $94,390.
There are various professional associations that represent those involved in child development, behavior analysis, and education. Those organizations offer professional certifications and support during the research process and for professionals. Some professional associations include:
- Board Certified Behavior Analyst-Doctoral. The BCBA-D is a designation for behavior analysts, offered through the Behavior Analyst Certification Board, which shows doctoral level training and continued certification.
- Alliance for the Advancement of Infant Mental Health. The Alliance includes infant mental health associations and a credential process.
- Council for Exceptional Children is for educators working to advocate for the success of exceptional children. CEC sets standards and offers ongoing professional development.
- The Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate. This is a consortium of more than 100 college and schools of education. CPED strives to increase rigor in EdD programs. It works to make the degree more applicable for education professionals.
There are several systemic accreditations that rate schools providing training in child development and education. Those include:
- The Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation provides evidence-based accreditation for those pursuing careers in P-12 student learning. CAEP is the premiere accreditation for schools and recognized by CHEA for promoting outstanding educator preparation. This accreditation evolved from the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education and the Teacher Education Accreditation Council.
- The National Association for the Education of Young Children. NAEYC promotes high-quality learning for those involved in educating children. It encourages the combination of practice, policy, and research. The NAEYC accreditation program can help students select a program of study. There are both NAEYC-Accredited and NAEYC-Recognized programs.
- The Wallace Foundation created leadership standards for educational leaders. The Inter-state School Leadership Licensure Consortium sets policy standards for what is expected of school leaders.
We base our ranking of the 20 Best Online PhDs in Child Development on many factors, with information derived from the National Center for Education Statistics College Navigator, Payscale, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The schools we considered offer either a PhD, an EdD, or both with an emphasis on Child Development or Early Childhood Education. To find our top 20 programs, we examine student-to-faculty ratio, graduation rate, tuition, and accreditation. One of these 20 Best Online PhDs in Child Development may help launch your educational leadership career.
20. Endicott College – Beverly, Massachusetts
EdD in Education: Pre K-12 Educational Leadership
The Van Loan School at Endicott College offers an Education Doctorate with a concentration in PreK-12 Educational Leadership. The EdD program combines research-based theory with practice. The school aims to help students become socially responsible educational leaders. Endicott's Mentored Cohort Model encourages intellectual discussions and research. The 51-credit hour program includes an ongoing mentoring relationship and two-semester apprenticeship. It combines online study, weekend instruction, and residency. Required courses include Principles of School Finance, Educational Policy, and Leading in a Technological World. The year-long apprenticeship gives candidates a chance to handle administrative responsibilities with supervision. All students complete an original research dissertation.
19. Fielding Graduate University – Santa Barbara, California
PhD in Infant and Early Childhood Development
Fielding Graduate University offers a PhD in Infant and Early Childhood Development. The multi-disciplinary program combines online learning with regional workshops and national sessions. Fielding's program emphasizes mental health and developmental disorders. Students explore mental health, education, speech and language development, therapies, and the neurosciences. The PhD program prepares students for careers in child and family development. The multi-disciplinary doctoral program includes foundations in Human Development and Family Systems Theory. Students take courses in Leadership, Research, and electives, including at least one Intervention course. All students must pass comprehensive examines and complete a dissertation. There are at least 11 optional concentrations for PhD candidates. Concentrations can include Community College Leadership, Dual Language, Evidence Based Coaching, and Media, Technology and Innovation. Fielding's IECD program partners with the Alliance for the Advancement of Infant Mental Health.
18. Capella University – Minneapolis Minnesota
Online PhD in Special Education Leadership
Capella University offers the online PhD in Education, Special Education Leadership specialization. The doctoral program helps leaders oversee special education services. It also guides them through their own child development and education research. The program includes five core courses and ten specialized courses. All students must complete three residencies, a comprehensive exam, dissertation, and internship. The 92-credit hour program offers both core and specialized courses. Specialization courses include Special Education Administration, Leadership, Law and Ethics, and Funding. Under Capella's GuidedPath format, students take one to three courses every 10-week quarter. Students have weekly assignments and take part in courseroom discussions. Capella's PhD in Education trains candidates to become scholars and practitioners. It examines administration, law, finance, and instructional strategies. The curriculum aligns with standards set by the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium. You can work with Capella's Licensure Support to help navigate the licensure process. CEC recognizes the specialization and the program is CAEP-accredited.
17. Walden University – Minneapolis, Minnesota
PhD in Education: Early Childhood Leadership and Advocacy
Walden University offers both a PhD and an EdD in Education with a specialization in Early Childhood Leadership and Advocacy. Students review current research about the influences on child development and learning. Students register for two courses every 11 weeks. The 86-quarter-credit NAEYC-recognized program includes foundation courses, specializations, research, and the doctoral dissertation. The PhD program requires four 4-day residencies, two of which can be virtual. The EdD program requires 76 quarter credits and one 3-day residency. Coursework includes Leading the Future of Education, Evaluating and Leading Effective Early Childhood Programs, and Child Development.
16. Portland State University – Portland, Oregon
EdD Educational Leadership
Portland State University offers an EdD in Educational Leadership. The program is ideal for those who want to blend educational research and leadership. The College of Education is a member of the Carnegie Project for the Education Doctorate. Students in the Educational Leadership program choose a specialization: Curriculum and Instruction, Administration, or Special Education. Portland State's doctoral program is a hybrid model, combining online and on-campus learning. Students complete the core courses as a larger cohort. They complete specializations in smaller cohorts. During each 11-week quarter, students meet every other week for face-to-face sessions. Those sessions meet on Friday night and Saturday, enabling students to continue their careers. During the non-residency weeks, learning is completely online. All students must pass a core comprehensive exam by January 1 of the second year. They must also complete a dissertation proposal and dissertation.
15. University of Alabama – Tuscaloosa, Alabama
EdS in Elementary Education
Through "Bama By Distance," The University of Alabama offers an online EdS in Elementary Education. The 30-credit hour program focuses on research and practice. Students complete educational research and present findings in their own classrooms. Regular UA faculty members teach the online classes. Required courses include Research Seminars in Science, Social Science, and Mathematics. All students must pass a comprehensive written exam. Admission into the EdS in Elementary Education program requires a master's degree, GRE or MAT, and a current Alabama Class A certification or equal certification. The program helps prepare students for Alabama Class AA certification. Enrollment in the EdS in Elementary Education program is ongoing throughout the year.
14. University of Miami – Coral Gables, Florida
Doctor of Education in Applied Learning Sciences
University of Miami offers an online Doctor of Education in Applied Learning Sciences. The 2.5-year program focuses on learning theory, also giving students hands-on experience. Doctoral candidates examine ways to improve current learning environments and install new solutions. They must complete one course at a time every seven weeks during the 45-credit program. Rather than complete a dissertation, students must finish a final project to receive the EdD degree. The project gives students a chance to apply principles learned in the program to the real world. Students choose a focus that enables them to examine specific professional interests. Those interests include research in higher education, design for learning environments, and design for workplace environments. Admission into the EdD program requires either a GRE or GMAT. All students must complete two one-week residencies on the Florida campus. This gives students a chance to connect with faculty and their peers. It is also a time to lay the foundation for the cumulative final project.
13. University of Massachusetts – Lowell, Massachusetts
Doctor of Education (EdD) in Leadership in Schooling
University of Massachusetts offers an online Doctor of Education in Leadership in Schooling. The EdD, designed for professional educators, helps those who want educational leadership roles. The UMass Online EdD focuses on developing scholar practitioners. There is also an available STEM education option. The EdD is a cohort program, which begins in mid-May and takes three years to complete. Students take two courses each semester. There is also a one-week, on-campus residency each summer. During the first year, students complete courses in Applied Research Design, Organizational Learning, and Strategic Partnering. The second year includes Systems Leadership and two comprehensive exams. The third year is for completing the Doctoral Dissertation. Those selecting the STEM option must complete STEM courses during the second year.
12. Oakland University – Rochester, Michigan
Education Specialist in Leadership
Oakland University offers a 100 percent online Education Specialist Degree in Leadership. The EdS is a cohort program for those seeking educational leadership roles. OU's program focuses on current K-12 education issues for professionals. Students can complete the 34-credit hour EdS in Leadership degree in 22 months. It helps students understand how to apply theory through practical assignments. The EdS program also includes a 2-year internship. During that time, students work with a mentor of their choice. Coursework includes School Business Management, Curriculum and Staff Development, and Human Resource Management. In their first course, students set up an online academic portfolio. During the program, they add courses, field work, and the internship to the portfolio. Candidates present the portfolio during the final seminar. Students may elect to apply 28 of the 34 EdS credits to a PhD in Education with a major in educational leadership.
11. University of Northern Colorado – Greeley, Colorado
Special Education PhD
Students can find a flexible online PhD in Special Education from University of Northern Colorado. UNC encourages active, self-regulated learning. Candidates each have an advisor and doctoral committee. Individualized studies include theory, pedagogy, practice, research, and collaboration. Students complete 77 to 83 credits, which usually requires three to five years. During their PhD program, students take core courses and then select an area of special interest. Special interests can include transition of children with exceptionalities; special education; curriculum development; or university teaching and research. All PhD candidates complete a research core, an externship, a comprehensive exam, and a dissertation. PhD students may also complete the BCBA-related Applied Behavior Analysis Graduate Certificate. Those who complete ABA certification can sit for the BCBA certification exams.
10. East Tennessee State University – Johnson City, Tennessee
Doctor of Philosophy in Early Childhood Education
East Tennessee State University offers a mostly online PhD in Early Childhood Education. The NAEYC-accredited program develops both scholars and leaders in early childhood education. The PhD in Early Childhood Education requires 69 to 72 credit hours for completion. The 36-credit hours of coursework include current trends, diversity, and professional development. A 3- to 6-credit apprenticeship can include teaching or early childhood leadership. Finally, there are 30 credit hours required in research and statistics, leading to the dissertation. Students have seven years to complete the program from enrollment to dissertation. Program applicants must have a master's degree in Early Childhood or a related field and a GRE taken within the previous five years.
9. Northcentral University – San Diego, California
Doctor of Education (EdD) in Early Childhood Education
Northcentral University offers an online Doctor of Education in Early Childhood Education. You can start any Monday throughout the year at NCU and the schedule is completely flexible. NCU faculty members all hold doctoral degrees. There are weekly assignments, no scheduled lectures, and no group assignments. The EdD in Early Childhood Education helps students become education leaders. They learn early childhood theories, conduct research, and apply that to the dissertation. Coursework covers a range of topics including child development, literature, and program administration. The 54-credit hour program requires 18 courses. Five of those courses must be in the specialization. Specializations can include Early Childhood Program Administration and Language and Literacy Education. NCU estimates that it will take about 40 months to complete the program. Students must complete the EdD within seven years of admission.
8. Regent University – Virginia Beach, Virginia
Online Doctor of Education (EdD) in Special Education
Regent University is a Christian school based in Virginia. It ranked #1 Best Online Graduate Education Programs by U.S. News & World Report. Regent offers the online Doctor of Education with a concentration in Special Education. The program provides advanced training for special education teachers seeking Christian leadership positions. Regent also offers a PhD in Education with an emphasis in areas including Special Education and K-12 School Leadership. The PhD goes beyond the EdD, preparing students for careers in academia. The EdD focuses on practice and policy while the PhD examines theories and teaching methods. All programs offer training for education leaders from a Christian worldview.
7. New Mexico State University – Las Cruces, New Mexico
EdD in Curriculum & Instruction: Early Childhood Education
New Mexico State University offers a hybrid PhD in Curriculum and Instruction. The program includes three two-week sessions over consecutive summers along with online instruction. The PhD program presents theory in curriculum and instruction. Then, students apply theory to design and implementation of learning environments. NMSU students develop professional leadership through innovative thinking, publication, and research. Students begin the program in the on-campus program during the summer. Courses the first year, delivered online, include Technology, Society & Education and Qualitative Research. The second year includes Social Policy and Literacy Education. It concludes in a final on-campus Qualitative Research Designs Seminar. The PhD program requires at least 66 credit hours. All students must complete a dissertation. There are four options available: Bilingual/TESOL, Critical Pedagogies, Early Childhood Education, and Language, Literacy & Culture. Students may also select a concentration in Educational Learning Technologies.
6. Liberty University – Lynchburg, Virginia
PhD in Education – Curriculum and Instruction
Liberty University is a Christian institute offering an online PhD in Curriculum and Instruction. The 60-credit hour program usually takes three years to complete. Each eight-week class helps develop skills necessary for an educational leadership career. Liberty University offers both a PhD and an EdD in Education. The PhD program is for those who plan Christian-based academic careers. The PhD program explores administration, curriculum development, and learning theory. Students also conduct original research and put theories to use in the classroom. Although the degree is completely online, students can take optional weeklong, on-campus intensives. These classes enable students to take part in campus life in Lynchburg, Virginia. They have a chance to connect with peers and faculty. Courses include Learning Theory, Learning Technologies, Curriculum Theory, and Curriculum Design. All students also take research classes and courses to assist with the dissertation process.
5. Georgia State University – Atlanta, Georgia
PhD in Early Childhood and Elementary Education
Students can complete a PhD in Early Childhood and Elementary Education from Georgia State University. The PhD program prepares students for careers as educational leaders and researchers. PhD students at Georgia State learn educational theory and then apply it to real-world settings. Areas of emphasis include research, curriculum development, literacy, and multicultural education. The 63-credit hour program includes research coursework and psychology of learning. Students also study courses in Child Development and Scholarly Inquiry. Students complete at least 15 elective courses, which can include Poststructural Inquiry and Socio-Cultural Issues in Early Childhood. There is an optional K-5 Mathematics Endorsement available.
4. Old Dominion University – Norfolk, Virginia
PhD in Educational Leadership: PK-12 Educational Leadership
Old Dominion University offers an online PhD in Education Leadership. The PhD program trains leaders for PK-12 administration, higher education, and policy-making careers. The doctoral program requires 48 credit hours plus at least 12 dissertation credits. There is an Executive PhD Educational Leadership Cohort program for those with educational leadership jobs. Those in the program begin studies each fall and complete it in approximately three years. Students take classes as part of a cohort. The program includes both educational practice and policy. Students conduct research, complete studies, and advance change in their own organizations. The 60-credit hour Executive PhD program is a hybrid program. Students complete online courses along with one weekend on-campus each semester. Old Dominion also offers an online EdS in Educational Leadership, which leads to full Virginia Licensure in Educational Administration and Supervision, Pre-K-12.
3. University of Houston – Houston, Texas
Professional Leadership EdD – Literacy Education Emphasis
University of Houston offers an online doctoral program for urban educators. The Executive Doctor of Education in Professional Leadership with a Literacy Education emphasis is a 51-credit hour program. The program offers both research and applied learning with a focus on urban education. Students develop skills for instructional leadership, developmental reading programs, and community programs. EdD candidates take part in collaborations and problem-solving courses. They conduct research activities to help deal with urban education problems. Online courses last 15 weeks. All students complete a four-week Practical Laboratory of Practice courses, applying real-world situations to studies.
2. Ball State University – Muncie, Indiana
Doctorate of Education (EdD) with an Emphasis in Special Education
Ball State University offers an EdD in Special Education. The 90-credit hour program is a combination of both in-person and online coursework. Students may transfer up to 30 credits earned in a master's program. EdD candidates work with the department to create a Doctoral Committee. The committee consists of two members from Special Education, one from outside the department, and a member for each area of study. The doctoral program provides training in evidence-based education. Students choose one or more of the available focuses: Applied Behavior Analysis and Autism; Teaching and Learning in either Low or High Incidence populations; Teaching and Learning Emotional and Behavioral Disorders; Systems, Teaching, and Learning Multi-Tier System of Supports; and General Special Education. The EdD program includes a research component, comprehensive examination, and dissertation. Ball State also offers an on-campus PhD in Educational Psychology. The PhD trains those who wish to pursue research in human learning, cognition, and development.
1. Concordia University Chicago – River Forest, Illinois
PhD, Leadership: Early Childhood Education
Concordia University Chicago offers an EdD/PhD in Leadership with an Early Childhood Education specialization. Both EdD and PhD programs are available online and built on the student's work in the field. Concordia University's NAEYC-recognized program gives students a chance to combine practical experience and theory. All students begin with a foundation layer of classes, including Leadership/Supervision in Early Childhood, Diverse Learners, Curriculum Models, and Legal Issues in Early Childhood Education. Those wishing to continue the doctoral program with a focus as a practitioner can pursue the EdD. Courses include Research Design, Quantitative Analysis, and Qualitative Research. Researchers can seek a PhD. That program includes extra courses in statistics, a comprehensive exam, and a dissertation. Recent program graduates accepted positions as university education leaders and government researchers.