I'm interested in careers working with children – what jobs can I do?

A child painting - careers working with children
If you’d like a career working with children there are plenty of choices, whether you want to keep them healthy, help them learn and develop, or protect them from harm.

‘Never boring and at times great fun.’ ‘I get to help people, see the change in them and watch them recover and get their lives back.’ ‘Little things, such as spreading jam on toast, are major achievements.’ These are some of the things people have told us about their experiences of working with children. Are you interested in a career in teaching or nursing children, or considering becoming a paediatrician, child psychiatrist, social worker or playworker? Many careers involve working with children and not all of them require a degree. Read on to find out how to get into some of the most popular careers with children and hear what these jobs are like from people who are doing them.

How to become a teacher

Would-be teachers have plenty of choice about the subject and age group they want to teach and where they want to work. You could specialise in one or two subjects that you particularly enjoy as a secondary school teacher, or teach a bit of everything in a primary school. And if you don't want to work in a school at all, how about teaching children who are in hospital or a young offenders' institution?

To become a teacher you need a degree. You can either study for a degree that qualifies you as a teacher straight away, or take any subject and then do a postgraduate teaching qualification afterwards.

‘Never boring and at times great fun’ – Jane on her career as a primary school teacher

Jane is a teacher at Dorchester St Birinus Primary School. She comments: ‘Teaching is a very valuable and responsible profession. As well as the academic element you play a major part in teaching the child social and personal skills. Parents have handed their child into your care for the major part of the year. You may have to deal with illness and physical and learning disabilities, and at times act as a social worker and mediator.

‘You need to have a genuine desire to work with children and help them to succeed. Teachers need to be very good team players, and good at delegating and working with teaching assistants and other staff members. Flexibility is a must: no one can predict what will happen during the day or week, so you must be prepared to adapt to whatever is asked of you.

‘This is certainly not a nine-to-five job and the workload can be overwhelming at times. However this is a very worthwhile and rewarding profession which is never boring and at times great fun!’

How to become a paediatrician, paediatric surgeon, GP, or child and adolescent psychiatrist

There are several types of doctor who specialise in working with children or babies.

  • Paediatricians deal with a wide range of health problems in children aged up to 16. They are usually based in hospitals.
  • Paediatric surgeons specialise in performing surgical procedures on children, and also talk to children and their parents about their treatment.
  • Child and adolescent psychiatrists are experts in treating mental health problems. (Don’t confuse them with clinical psychologists – see below.)

GPs also see plenty of children, as well as their adult patients.

To get into any of these jobs you need to take a degree in medicine. You'll need good grades in science subjects at A level or in your Scottish Highers or IB to get onto one, as well as relevant work experience. You don't need to decide which type of doctor you want to be until you've finished your degree and done some initial on-the-job training.

How to become a children's nurse, neonatal nurse, or mental health or learning disabilities nurse specialising in working with children

Nurses can also specialise in working with children or babies. Children's nurses work with children of all ages, while neonatal nurses focus specifically on newborn babies – for example those born prematurely.

Neonatal nurses are based in hospitals, for example in intensive care units. Children's nurses can work in hospitals but also in other settings too, such as GP surgeries or child health clinics.

There are also jobs working with children for learning disability nurses, and jobs with adolescents for mental health nurses, though with both of these nursing specialisms you'll first train to work with patients of all ages.

To become a nurse you need to take a nursing degree. You don't need to do this before starting work, but this remains the most common route.

However, there are now some places available on nursing apprenticeships, which give you a paid job in the NHS while you study for your nursing degree; your tuition fees are also paid for you. There are different types of nursing degree depending on the type of nurse you want to become (eg children's nursing), though it is possible to change direction later by taking a postgraduate qualification.

‘You’ll need to understand non-verbal cues’ – Charlie on her career as a children’s staff nurse

Charlie is a staff nurse working with children in a hospital. Her route into her career wasn’t a traditional one: Charlie took a degree in psychology and did several different jobs, including working as a teaching assistant and in a care home, before taking a masters degree in children’s nursing.

She tells us: ‘My job involves taking observations (such as temperature, respiratory rate, heart rate and blood pressure) and assessing and reporting on patients’ conditions and needs. I check doses of medications, draw them up under strict safety and hygiene rules, and administer them. I prepare patients for theatre, support them through various procedures, and support and educate families. I also respond to deteriorating patients, ensuring their safety and dignity is maintained at all times.

‘Children's nursing on a ward can be very rewarding when you help children and their families, and the environment is often very supportive. However, shift work is not for everyone; it can be difficult alternating between days and nights. It is often very physically draining with long hours and limited breaks, and emotionally draining when there are difficult cases.

‘People considering a career in children's nursing need to show empathy and sensitivity as well as being resilient. You’ll need to understand verbal and non-verbal cues as children can’t always articulate their feelings. And you must be aware of children’s social and cultural needs.’

‘Helping people recover and get their lives back’ – Katie on her career as a child and adolescent mental health nurse

Katie works as a mental health nurse and talked to TARGETcareers about her job and how she got into it. ‘I did a degree in mental health nursing,’ she explains. ‘Before this, I took a BTEC in health and social care, but you could also do A levels.’

She comments: ‘I work in a child and adolescent mental health in-patient unit. My job involves assessing young people’s mental health, managing risks and working with them to develop coping strategies and build their resilience. I am also responsible for giving medication, monitoring this medication and assessing for side effects. I work with young people with a range of mental health illnesses, from depression to bipolar disorder to schizophrenia, and support them through their recovery journey.

‘The worst aspects of my job are the budget cuts and high workloads. It can also be a high pressure environment, which can be stressful. But the best bits are that I get to help people, see the change in them and watch them recover and get their lives back.’

How to become an educational psychologist, child neuropsychologist, or clinical psychologist specialising in working with children

The first step to becoming any sort of psychologist is to take a psychology degree that's accredited by the British Psychological Society. Various types of psychologist work with children.

  • Educational psychologists work with organisations such as schools and colleges. They find ways to help children who are struggling to learn for a particular reason – for example due to special educational needs or behavioural or emotional issues. The work includes assessing how children are doing currently and suggesting strategies that will help them, such as changing teaching methods or the classroom environment.
  • Child neuropsychologists help children who have psychological problems thought to be caused by damage or injury to the brain. These can include behavioural or emotional difficulties, or problems with children's thinking, language skills, learning or memory. They assess children and make recommendations that will create improvements or at least make children's difficulties easier for them to live with.
  • Clinical psychologists are involved in assessing and treating people who have mental health problems, problems with addiction, or physical health problems that are having a negative impact on their behaviour or emotional well-being. There are some jobs available that specialise in working with children and adolescents. Clinical psychologists are different from psychiatrists – see above.
  • Find out more about what it's like to study psychology at university, how to get onto a psychology degree and the types of career it can lead to.

How to become a social worker working with children and families, in adoption and fostering, with children leaving care or with young offenders

Social workers work with individuals and families who are facing particular difficulties. They can specialise in different areas and quite a few of these involve children and young people. They include:

  • child protection – working with families in situations where children may be at risk of abuse or neglect
  • adoption and fostering – finding permanent or temporary new homes for children who need them
  • working with young offenders – for example helping to prevent reoffending and getting young people back on their feet when released from custody
  • working with children leaving care – helping those who have lived with foster parents or in care homes to transition to adult life and living independently.

To become a social worker you need to do one of the following:

How to become a nursery worker, teaching assistant or playworker, or get another non-teaching job in education and childcare

Want to help children learn and develop but not keen on going to university? There’s a good range of roles helping to educate and support children and young people that don’t require a degree. For example, you could work in a school as a teaching assistant, care for pre-school children as a nursery worker, or support and encourage children’s independent play as a playworker working for a childcare provider, local authority or charity.

‘Little things, such as spreading jam on toast, are major achievements’ – Noelia on her career as a senior autism practitioner

Noelia took a degree in engineering but decided she didn’t want to be an engineer. She’s now a senior autism practitioner at a residential school for young people with autism. To get a job in this area she comments: ‘You don’t currently need any previous qualifications; enthusiasm and a willingness to help others are more important. Soon, though, you will require an NVQ level 3.’

Noelia describes her job as follows: ‘I work with young people who suffer from severe autism and I help them to become more independent. I support them with their daily life, from preparing their breakfast to getting ready for school, and with their school achievements, for example helping them develop their maths, literacy and handwriting skills. We encourage them to be more active – the school has a swimming pool, swings, trampolines, a rock climbing wall and a gym – and we support them to go into the community by taking them out to a bowling alley, restaurant, museum or a lake, for example. We also help some of them develop in their careers by going out to their workplace with them and supporting them.

The children have really challenging behaviours. It can be difficult seeing how they harm themselves and also when you yourself are at risk. However, every day you get to see your students improve and progress. Even little things, such as being able to spread jam on toast, are major achievements.’

How to get into a career working for a children’s charity

If you want to support children who are particularly in need of help, working for a children’s charity could suit you. In some roles you’ll work directly with children or young people – for example if you’re employed as a social worker, youth worker or playworker. In others you won’t interact regularly with children but will still play an important part in making their lives better – for example you might help the charity to raise money, influence government policy, change public opinion or keep its day-to-day operations running smoothly.

How to become a solicitor or barrister specialising in child protection law

Solicitors and barristers are both types of lawyer – typically barristers represent clients in court and solicitors are mainly office-based. They can specialise in lots of different areas of law, one of which is child protection. This involves providing advice and representing clients in legal cases concerning children's welfare – for example, if a social worker doesn't feel that it's safe for a child to live with his or her parents anymore. You won't always get to meet the children involved, but this is an excellent career if you want to help them.

At the moment to become a solicitor or barrister you’ll need to take either a law degree or degree in any subject followed by a law conversion course, then decide whether to become a solicitor or barrister and take a relevant training course. You’ll then need to apply to work for organisations that specialise in child protection law.

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