Careers in Early Childhood Education

High quality early childhood education results in long-term developmental, social and economic benefits for children and the communities in which they live. Find out how you can make a difference in the lives of young students by becoming a preschool teacher.

How to Become an Early Childhood Educator

Preschool is often referred to as the most important grade. Early childhood education has become a topic of intense public interest in recent years, with everyone from the president to national advocacy groups touting the importance of high-quality preschool programs for the nation’s youngest learners. With more children being enrolled in preschool than ever before, the demand for qualified early childhood educators has never been greater.

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According to the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill, the quality of early childhood educator training programs is deeply influenced by the institutional setting, specific program and degree type, and the resources that are made available to students preparing to become pre-k teachers. As graduates enter the early childhood classroom as teachers, the preparation they have received influences their conduct, which impacts child and family outcomes.

The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) echoes this sentiment in their State of Preschool 2013 publication, which states that high-quality preschool education produces long-term social, economic, and educational benefits, but only when teachers are professionally prepared and adequately compensated.

Thanks to state and federally funded preschool programs, more children age three to five have access to high-quality early childhood education than ever before. As of 2013, the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) reported a total enrollment of nearly 1.39 million children in state preschool programs. State funding for pre-k programs increased by more than $30 million in the 2012-13 school year, and 20 states increased their total enrollment during this time. To date, just 10 states do not have state-funded preschool programs in place.

Researching Career Options in Early Childhood Education

Preparing for a career in early childhood education is not as straightforward as it would be for a primary or secondary school teacher since different types of preschool programs can fall within the purview of different state regulatory agencies, from the state’s Board of Education to its Department of Public Health and Human Services. Because preschool teachers may work in public and private programs, for school districts or federally funded programs, requirements for working as a pre-k teacher often differ from one employer to the next. What is universal, however, is that some type of education or training is required to serve as a preschool teacher, regardless of the setting.

Pre-k teachers most often work in the following settings:

  • Public pre-k programs
  • Private preschool programs
  • Childcare centers
  • Family childcare homes
  • Head Start programs

Preschool teachers in public school settings are generally expected to hold a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education while private preschool teachers or those found in childcare settings may only be required to have an associate’s degree.

In most public and private preschools, those designated as lead teacher, supervisor, or administrator are required to hold a bachelor’s or even a master’s degree in early childhood education or a closely related field.

The Child Development Associate (CDA) credential is also a typical requirement for teacher assistants in pre-k settings. The CDA credential requires, among other things, at least 120 hours of professional education and at least 480 hours of professional experience.

Earning a Degree in Early Childhood Education

Once a career route has been determined, the completion of a degree program in early childhood education is standard.

Degree programs in early childhood education may include:

  • Associate of Arts (A.A.) in early childhood education
  • Associate of Arts (A.A.) in early childhood development
  • Associate of Science (A.S) in early childhood education
  • Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in early childhood education
  • Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) in early childhood education
  • Master of Science (M.S.) in early childhood education
  • Master of Arts (M.A.) in early childhood education
  • Post-baccalaureate (ECE certificate program) in early childhood education
  • Master of Education (M.Ed.) in early childhood education
  • Ph.D. in early childhood education

A typical undergraduate degree in early childhood education is designed to prepare students to apply best teaching practices in a variety of educational settings. As such, these programs teach students to employ research-based practices that encourage learning and promote social development.

Graduate degree programs in early childhood education focus on advanced principles in early childhood education. Curriculum in a master’s degree program is often focused on child psychology and the atypical learner. Learning theories with a focus on special education or supervisory skills are commonplace.

Pursuing State Licensure or Certification

Teaching preschool in a public school setting generally requires the completion of an educator preparation program, passing content-specific examinations, and meeting other state-specific requirements for initial licensure.

A state-approved teacher preparation program in early childhood education will result in a bachelor’s or master’s degree or post-baccalaureate certificate. Since state-approved teacher preparation programs satisfy all pedagogy course requirements and include a student teaching experience, they are the most streamlined approach to initial licensure. However, most states also have alternative teacher preparation programs for recent college graduates or career professionals.

Upon completing a teacher preparation program, candidates are usually required to successfully complete pedagogy and content examinations in early childhood education to demonstrate subject matter mastery. Most state teacher licenses allow preschool teachers to teach young children from birth through age eight.

State licenses/certificates must be renewed regularly, and most states require the completion of professional development hours during each renewal period. It is typical for teachers in the public school setting and elsewhere to pursue a master’s degree in early childhood education to meet professional development requirements and advance in the profession.

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