Does creative play seem like a good thing to do during a workday? Are you interested in the processes involved in learning? Do you enjoy activities like lesson planning or helping kids to learn? If so, you are probably an ideal candidate for a career in early childhood education.
Early childhood education usually refers to what takes places at childcare centers, but also covers education up to grade three. You can use what you learn in your training to shape a career in many different areas. From public schools to administrative roles, people who study and earn degrees and certification in early childhood education have a lot of options.
What you need to study, which degrees or certificates are required, and the total amount of education you must pursue will vary according to the state in which you want to work. Some can start to work with an associate’s degree, or even less. Some need to continue to the highest levels of education to reach their career goals.
However, all who work in early childhood education share a passion about helping children learn and grow during one of the most critical developmental stages of human life. Working in this field is really playing a lead role in the future.
What is early childhood education?
It is the education that children receive from birth to age eight. It can come from their daycare providers, preschool teachers, kindergarten experience, and their first three years of schooling. It is not the same as a traditional teaching career because the emphasis is on preparing kids for education. This is why it involves physical movement and creative play, and why the role of an early childhood educator can include assessing children’s progress and development as well as teaching them.
Do I need to get a bachelor’s degree to work in this field?
No. In fact, you may not even need an associate’s degree to begin, but if you are interested in advancing your career, higher education is essential. Every state has different requirements, and what course you follow relates directly to the career you want. For example, if you want to teach in an elementary school, you will need a bachelor’s degree and probably even more certification in order to teach.
How do I know I have the right personality for this career?
Those who succeed best in early childhood education careers are usually people comfortable assuming leadership roles, and who really enjoy a lot of interaction with others. They can stay calm when things get a bit chaotic, and yet they are also playful people who really appreciate the opportunities for creative learning and movement that are part of early childhood education. Organization is important, and being an observant person is a very valuable trait.
Can I become an early childhood educator through online programs?
While you can do a tremendous amount of coursework online, almost all degree programs require that you work in a classroom or professional setting. Documented hours of experience are part of almost all degree programs, and so you cannot get your full certification or degree online due to the six to twelve months as a student teacher most are required to accomplish.
Every level of academic degree is available to those in early childhood education, including undergraduate and graduate certificates. You can pursue an associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate level degree, but will have to choose your path according to the type of setting you want to work in, which state you’ll work, and if you are interested in public or private schools. Remember too that childcare centers and preschools may demand a Childhood Development Associate (CDA) credential. This is not a certificate or a teaching credential, and it can often be earned while the student is still in high school. We discuss this a bit later, but it too can be part of the educational requirements.
- Certificates: Available at undergraduate and graduate levels, but they do not have the same value as teaching licenses or the CDA. The hours will apply toward an undergraduate or graduate degree program.
- Associate’s (AA or AS): Both are similar programs with the AA focused more on liberal arts and the AS on the math and science core. This is a two-year degree. There is also the AAS or Applied Science degree that helps you jump right into the workforce rather than transferring into a four-year program.
- Bachelor’s (BA or BS): Similar to the associates level programs, the differences between BA and BS are really just the core classes you want to study. The BA is a humanities oriented program while the BS is focused on math and science. It is a four-year program. Upon completion you should be able to teach in a preschool or serve in a lead role in a childcare center. If you also pursue a state teaching license you need to find a teaching internship and sit for your state exam.
- Master’s (MA or MS): One of the most common reasons for an early childhood educator to obtain their masters degree is because they must pursue CEUs or continuing education units per state licensing guidelines. However, some also pursue this graduate level degree in order to become an administrative level professional. There is also the Master’s of Education (MEd), which is not a teaching degree but a graduate level track most effective for those interested in administrating a school. This level usually requires one to three years of study.
- Doctorate (PhD or EDD): The PhD is the highest level of schooling for an early childhood educator and allows them to assume leadership roles at any level. This is a path followed by those interested in administrating schools or even university programs. The EdD is a Doctor of Education degree that is not a teaching degree and ideal for those who want to do research in the field of education.
Online Degrees & Accreditation
Remember you can always pursue a tremendous amount of your degree work online, but to graduate with your early childhood education degree, you will usually need time in a classroom and under observation. There are some “hybrid” opportunities allowing basic coursework to be completed through an online program and then real world training in the appropriate settings, however, these are very uncommon. If you are pursuing a bachelor’s degree or higher, you may want to avoid the online degree options because few have student internship opportunities – and these are essential for anyone looking to become an teacher in a public school setting.
One significant factor to keep in mind is that any teaching certification you wish to obtain must be through an accredited program. No public schools will hire teachers of any level trained in programs that are not through accredited institutions.
Additional resources for researching accredited degree programs of study:
If you are interested in finding accredited programs visit the National Association for the Education of Young Children website and view their long list of accredited programs.
The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education is also helpful.
Course of Study
Associate’s and bachelor’s degrees are the most common pathways to earning a degree in early childhood education. The courses that these programs emphasize will be based on whether you pursue the arts or the science core.
In the case of the AA or the BA, your coursework will emphasize the humanities as well as the general education studies (math, science, etc.). When it is the AS or the BS, the focus is on the math and science areas with general requirements and also includes some humanities.
All students in early childhood education programs will have to learn about child development, child psychology, educational technologies, special education principles, child health, safety, and classroom management principles. A four-year program will include a teaching internship. Some associates programs also incorporate this component.
You may complete your course of study with the need to take the state-licensing exam, or you may pursue your CDA.
Careers With a BA or BS Degree in Early Childhood Education
You may find that your state allows you to assume this role with an associate’s degree or even a certificate. You will work in a daycare setting, as a home care provider or even in a preschool setting.
Elementary teacher (first to third grade):
Your BA or BS will prepare you for providing children up to age eight with an introduction to education. You will work alone or with teaching assistants in a formal classroom setting, chart each child’s progress, create lesson plans, work with the administration, and interact with colleagues and parents.
With the BA or BS and your teaching credential you can begin working in a public or private kindergarten introducing students to their first years of formal education. You will prepare lesson plans and chart each child’s progress, working with special education when needed and interacting with colleagues and parents.
The BA or BS prepares you to enter your career as a teacher upon completion of your teaching exam. Do note some states allow the AAS graduates to assume teaching roles at the preschool level, but you will have to determine if this applies to your location.
Careers Requiring Advanced Degrees or Degrees in Other Fields
Though you may obtain advanced degrees in early childhood education, if you do not obtain teaching certification, you will be unable to find work in a public school system. Ensure your programs are accredited as well since advanced degrees from colleges lacking accreditation also null the option of using those degrees to advance in your career.
An MA or MS in early childhood education will provide you with the training needed to become a teacher. You may also be well qualified to serve in an administrative role, handling everything from curriculum to assessments.
The work you did to obtain an MA or MS would prepare you for advanced research projects and theses. Because of this, many who pursue this degree will also be more interested in writing about or teaching others about early childhood education.
It is usually only with a doctorate in early childhood education that you can teach at the university level.
Licensing, Certifications, and Exams
To become an early childhood educator, you will need training. The most basic would be the CDA or a certificate program. The requirements vary according to state, and whether or not you wish to work in a public or private setting and because early childhood educators also work in childcare centers and preschools, they too might have specific demands for their staff.
The most basic requirements are:
- Associates degree in early childhood education, though the bachelor’s degree is now becoming more significant and relevant.
- CDA or Childhood Development Associate credential. Although, this will not get you into schools, many preschools and childcare facilities require this national credential from the Council for Professional Recognition. However, you must have 120 hours of early childhood education and 480 hours of experience to apply.
- Teaching license. Every state has a requirement for a teaching license, and most require that you have a bachelor’s degree and that you complete the state’s formal teaching program. You will work in a classroom setting, with a mentor, to qualify for the test, and you will also need CEUs to maintain your license throughout the years you work.
Additional Resources for Certification information
Future Outlook for Primary Career
Noted as a growth industry, early childhood education is expected to grow by almost 20% over the next decade. This, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics points out is, “Faster than the expected growth for all occupations.”
Because this industry is known for having a high turnover rate (because many early childhood educators decide to advance to higher grade levels), it is a relatively easy field in which to find employment.
However, although it is seen as a remarkably important and rewarding field, it is also known to be a low paying industry. Though earnings do vary according to location and the level of education that the individual has obtained, most agree that it is those with bachelor’s level degrees (or higher) taking the higher paying positions with the better benefits options.
The median earnings for someone working as an early childhood educator in 2012 were $27,130 per year. This is someone with an associate’s degree working in a preschool setting. However, the elementary school teachers in the BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook were noted as earning a median income of over $41,000 per year. What this tells us is that those studying early childhood education that are willing to take the lengthier programs are going to experience an increase in earning potential.
The early childhood education student is going to learn a great deal about many different things during their years of study. This knowledge base can be seen as a range of marketable skills. These skills include:
- Project planning
- Substitute teaching
- Teaching assistant
- Behavioral and developmental assessments
- Learning disability support
- Creative play
- Creative movement
If you are interested in earning a teaching license you are required to do a teaching internship within an approved program. You will have to work with your school and according to state guidelines before you can obtain an internship, but it is invaluable towards your degree and career.
You may also want to pursue other internship options during your years of study. Remember to carefully document any such experiences in order to have them count toward a degree. The following is a list of internship possibilities for an early childhood education major:
- Childhood education centers
- Daycare centers
- Summer camp programs
- Library programming
- Community center programs with children
- After school programs such as sports or cultural programs
- National Association for the Education of Young Children
- National Childcare Information Center
- Council for Professional Recognition
Suggested Online Degree Programs
- Kendall College – Chosen as a top accredited institution for online learning, the Illinois Board of Education also approved its program.
- Post University – Consistently recognized as a top provider of online education, it allows credit transfers into its early childhood education program.
- UMASS – The University of Massachusetts is one of the few hybrid programs with an option for substituting up to 30 hours of credits with hands-on fieldwork.