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Early Childhood Education

As an early childhood educator, you can have a positive impact on the social, emotional and cognitive development of the next generation. Read on for a description of what an early childhood teacher does, the degree, courses and requirements you may need to work in the field, online programs that may benefit you and what a career in early childhood education earns.

Early Childhood Teacher Job Description

While the job description for early childhood teachers is not always the same in every school, all early childhood educators provide care and instruction for children aged three to five years, preparing them emotionally, socially and academically for elementary school and beyond. Many preschool teachers work a 10-month schedule with two months off for summer vacation. Early childhood educators in a daycare setting, though, typically work year-round.

Finger painting and story time still figure prominently in preschool instruction, but today's preschool teachers also draw on a wealth of research to craft developmentally appropriate instruction in letter recognition, phonics, math, science and social studies.

Instruction at this age level is accomplished through a combination of play, experience and formal teaching. The delivery method may include:

  • small and large group activities
  • one-on-one instruction
  • exposure to literature, music, art and dance.

How to Become an Early Childhood Teacher

Early childhood is the time when children go through a rapid phase of growth and development. As their brains grow quicker than ever, children at this age learn social skills, self-esteem and how to perceive the world around them. As an early childhood educator, you may need patience, creativity, sensitivity and communication skills to connect with young children. Requirements in this highly specialized field vary based on state, the type of institution you wish to work in and the level of degree you hold. 

Featured Online Programs:

Online programs may not be available in all states

Early Childhood Education Degree Requirements

Training requirements for early childhood educators vary from state to state and even from program to program. Some private preschool programs require only a high school degree and experience working with young children. Other institutions, particularly state-funded programs, require coursework at a community college or that you have an early childhood education degree.

The National Association for Early Childhood Teacher Educators advocates that teachers in state-sponsored pre-K and kindergarten programs be required to hold an early childhood certification and/or endorsement from a qualified teacher-training program.

Requirements may also vary based on the type of institution (preschool, childcare center, etc.) you plan to work in. For example, you may find an entry-level job in a daycare with an alternative teacher certification or an associate degree. A private Montessori school requires a bachelor's, while a church-sponsored preschool often requires a high school diploma or GED plus babysitting experience. Preschool teachers in Head Start programs need an associate degree. Some schools may require a degree in child development, however, a bachelor's degree generally qualifies you to teach up to the third grade. Many preschool and Montessori teachers begin as teaching aids to gain practical experience before becoming teachers.

Early Childhood Education Programs by Degree Level

  • Associate in Early Childhood Education - If you want to work as a nanny, in a daycare or in a preschool setting, an associate degree can be earned in around two years either in-person or online.
  • Bachelor's in Early Childhood Education - If you want to teach your own classroom of students, you may want to earn your bachelor's degree. The common entry-level requirement in the field, this degree takes about four years and focuses on the educational issues surrounding pre-kindergarten through third graders.
  • Master's in Early Childhood Education – Directors and management positions are available with a master's degree and offer higher salaries. In an administrative role, such as a principal, you may have a say in curriculum development, finances and program development. Master's and Ph.D. holders are considered experts in their field.
  • Alternative Teacher Certification in Early Childhood Education – You can enroll in a certification program with a high school diploma if you want to find an entry-level position in a daycare or similar childcare setting.

Early Childhood Educator Curriculum

The curriculum in early childhood education programs helps you create goals and plans for young children to acquire the skills and knowledge they need through activities, experiences and opportunities. Through both classroom and hands-on experiences, such as shadowing and student teaching, you will learn to provide meaningful learning experiences for children and the families in your community.

With many approaches to early education and theories of development to choose from, your courses may include a review and analyzation of implication for each practice. This may help you sort out what type of institution you want to teach in as well. Lastly, your curriculum will depend on the type of degree you obtain. If you want to teach in a classroom setting, you'll need a bachelor's degree. However, if you want to begin working in a daycare, you can do so with an associate.

Early Childhood Education Courses

A major component of early childhood education includes setting the foundations of a child's introduction to learning outside the home. An environment for learning must incorporate different education styles to accommodate the uniqueness of each individual child and how they explore their world. Some of the required early childhood education courses may include the following:

Introduction to Early Childhood Growth and Development

Experiences in the preschool years prepare children with the foundations for lifelong learning. The socialization of children to their environment is influenced as they learn to interact with peers, teachers and pets. This course can introduce prospective teachers to a child's physical, intellectual and emotional development from birth to eight or nine years old that relates to learning. 

The recognition of children's psychosocial, cognitive and language in the early stages of development can provide teachers with the assessment skills to evaluate appropriate milestones and expected maturational processes. Through developmental theory models, you can observe children and evaluate their individual differences and characteristics of development in various stages. 

Learning the Principles and Practices of Teaching Young Children

Prospective teachers can learn to use theoretical principles to develop appropriate programs for children of various ages. Teaching strategies are supported by the promotion of healthy relationships, adult-child interactions and a child's individual learning style. Teachers can learn to provide environments for children in the classroom that foster exploration and are age appropriate. 

Teachers can also learn to organize a classroom schedule that allows enough time for children to initiate and complete assignments, engage in activities and explore their creativity and self-expression. Educators learn how to use theory and research to implement appropriate programs for children, apply advocacy and learn teaching ethics related to education. 

Child Literacy Development

Literacy is a skill set comprised of speaking, reading, writing and listening. Children form values and beliefs at home, school and in the course of their social interactions. Teaching children a valuable language structure, reading skills, vocabulary and self-expression is an important component of early childhood development and the formation of abstract ideas. 

This course concentrates on the theory-based learning models that teach children to form concepts and express their identity. Educators learn to plan and implement programs and exercises that are grounded in evidence-based learning research that teach children literacy that is appropriate for their age and maturation. 

Learning Disabilities and Special Needs

Teachers need to recognize the physical and emotional learning barriers that children may experience in the development process. The identification of children with special needs is imperative in early childhood to address concerns before learning disabilities affect the emotional aspect of the school-age child. 

This course instructs prospective teachers on the identification of common disabilities, referral to appropriate team members for possible testing applications and the adaptation of the learning environment for special needs children. In addition, students learn how to dialogue with parents and discuss the concerns of children in a positive and constructive manner. 

Curriculum Design and Evaluation

Early childhood educators are autonomous professionals that design and construct their programs for their students. Teachers identify individual needs in their students and devise learning assignments and activities that meet their unique needs and level of maturity. Learning theories and research guides the teacher to successfully apply the learning techniques to the individual child. 

This course provides educators with the knowledge to identify and construct individual assignments to meet the needs of children. With evaluation tools grounded in a research-based framework, teachers can revise and assess their learning strategies with success. 

If you are ready to pursue new opportunities in early childhood education, start comparing programs by using our free directory and resources for educators. Be sure to compare multiple programs in your search to choose the right one for you!

Early Childhood Education Degree Online

As you conduct your search for an early childhood education program, consider exploring online programs. There are programs for all degree levels—certificate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate. Look for online programs that are accredited by a professional organization such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) or the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP). Note that many online programs include a real-world component.

Why Choose an Online Program?

There are a number of advantages to choosing an online program:

  • Flexibility: You can fit courses into your own schedule, which is important if you need to work or have other life commitments.
  • Pacing: You can learn at your own pace. Often this means taking more time to complete the degree in order to accommodate your life situation and goals. However, it might also mean speeding up the process by taking more courses than would be available in a given semester at an on-campus school.
  • Review: You can go back and re-watch lectures at your convenience.
  • Study environment: You can choose a study environment that works best for you—at home, at your local library, or at your favorite coffee shop.
  • Cost: You can save money on transportation, housing, and other on-campus costs.

If you think that these advantages will be beneficial to you, continue reading to find out how to choose an online program.

How to Choose an Online Early Childhood Education Program

There are a number of online colleges for early childhood education. The key to your success is to choose one that matches your lifestyle and goals. Here are some things to consider:

  • What type of early childhood education career do I want, and when do I want to begin my career? Deciding this will help you determine what degree you might want to pursue. For more information, see the section below about “Types of Degrees.”
  • Do I need a program that includes real-life childcare experiences? Will I need help in finding such experiences? Depending on the career you are pursuing and the college you choose, you may need to complete a real-world childcare experience. Consider how much help you will need in finding such an experience. For example, if you live in a relatively isolated area, or are new to an area and would have trouble knowing where to start, you should try to find an online college that will assist you in setting up the real-world component of your program.
  • Do I have a tight budget, and possibly need financial aid? There is a wide range of costs for online programs; if that is one of your primary considerations, make sure to compare a number of schools. In addition, look for schools that can help with financial aid.
  • Do I want to take classes all year round? Or mostly during a specific time of year? If you have scheduling limitations, make sure you investigate the course calendar of the schools you are considering. Some may be more limiting than others — especially at certain times of the year.

Types of Degrees

Before you start looking at online colleges for early childhood education, you need to know what kind of degree you want to pursue. This decision is often related to the kind of job you want to get and the amount of time you can invest in getting your degree.

Following are brief summaries of degree types and what you can do with them.


Online Early Childhood Education Certificate

A certificate in early childhood education, also known as an ECE certificate, may be right for you if you are seeking an entry-level position in a day care facility, after-school program, private home, or children's summer camp. Getting a certificate generally takes six months to one year.

Receiving an ECE certificate can be a good way to determine whether you might want to continue your education by earning a college degree. With a degree, you can go on to teach in public or private preschools or elementary schools.

Online Early Childhood Education Associate Degree Program

An associate degree in early childhood education might be a good fit if you are looking to work in a wider variety of childcare settings. Some common careers include preschool teacher, teacher assistant in an elementary school, and daycare worker. You can generally complete an associate degree in two years.

Early Childhood Education Bachelor’s Online

With a bachelor's degree you can qualify to work as a preschool, elementary, or childcare center teacher; childcare advocate; child development instructor; or childcare administrator. If you have an associate's degree, you can earn your bachelor’s in about two years. Otherwise, a bachelor’s degree program is generally a four-year program.

Early Childhood Education Master’s Online

If your goal is administration or teaching in public or private elementary schools, a master’s degree may be the right choice for you. Having a master’s might also help you negotiate a higher starting teaching salary than a candidate with only a bachelor’s degree. You will need a bachelor’s in order to be eligible to pursue your master’s. You can usually get your master’s in two years.

Continuing Your Early Childhood Education Online

Once you complete your ECE program, it is important that you stay informed about your field through professional development. You may actually be required by your state or place of employment to engage in professional development. But even if it isn’t a requirement, professional development provides an opportunity for you to expand your knowledge and skills, which can lead to a more fulfilling and successful career.

You can engage in professional development both in-person and online. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) works to promote and advance the early childhood education profession, and support all who care for, educate, and work on behalf of young children. It is a good resource for finding professional development opportunities. NAEYC’s annual Professional Learning Institute is an event designed for all early childhood education professionals. Each year NAEYC presents the latest information and research in the field. The institute offers more than 200 sessions of specific ECE professional development and exhibits all the latest award-winning publications, early childhood resources, and classroom supplies.

Early Childhood Education Colleges to Consider

There are many college choices to consider that offer early childhood education degrees. Some popular schools include:

  • Western Governors University was the first online teacher licensure degree program to be accredited by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education. Its 122-credit Bachelor of Arts in early childhood education is aligned with the standards of the National Association for the Education of Young Children and designed for those who want to work with children from birth through age eight. This program includes a teaching practicum.
  • Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, offers an online Bachelor of Science in child development and family living. This program is based on the principles of the Head Start program and accredited through the American Association of Family & Consumer Sciences. It focuses on teaching students to nurture the social and cognitive development of young children.
  • If you'd like to move out of the classroom and into administration, consider Post University's online certificate program in early childhood education administration. This program includes courses on the developmental needs of young children but also focuses on the business aspects of managing early childhood education programs.
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Early Childhood Education Career Outlook

With numerous studies that have purported the importance of early childhood learning, the Insight Center  has indicated that over the past decade an increasing awareness into the long-term benefits of early childhood education has grown the industry, offering more teaching jobs with young children as well as other forms of child care in the U.S. This demand has shifted employment trends in favor of early childhood and preschool teachers.

Job opportunities for early childhood educators should be plentiful over the next decade. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that employment for preschool teachers will grow faster than the average through 2026 at a rate of 10%, which is faster than K-12 teachers (2017).  Because turnover is high in preschool education, there will be plenty of openings for qualified candidates. Job outlook is also high due to the continued focus and importance of early childhood education.

Average salaries for early childhood educators are lower than those of teachers in elementary and secondary schools, regardless of their importance. The BLS reports that the median annual salary for preschool teachers was $28,990 in 2017. The bottom 10 percent of preschool teachers earned less than $20,000 per year, while the top 10 percent averaged just over $57,780 annually (BLS, 2017).

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