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

Today’s early childhood educators are leaders and changemakers, influencing our nation’s youngest learners and leaving positive outcomes in their wake. Because their value in our educational system has never been greater, their credentials have risen to the occasion.

As state preschool systems grow, thanks to lawmaker support and expanding budgets, strict credentials in the form of early childhood education degrees (and often state teaching certifications) aren’t just preferred, they’re often required.

Make no mistake—despite the giggles, finger paints, and story times on the classroom rug, preschool education is serious business. Here’s what you’ll want to know as you explore the path to becoming an early childhood educator.

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Early childhood education—or, rather, the importance of it—has become a topic of intense public interest in recent years, with everyone from the president to national advocacy groups touting the value of providing high-quality preschool programs for the nation’s youngest learners. And it’s no wonder; a growing body of evidence shows that children exposed to early childhood education enjoy long-lasting benefits well into adulthood.

And, fortunately, support for the creation and growth of state-funded preschool programs has been largely bipartisan, with both ‘red’ and ‘blue’ states supporting preschool initiatives in recent years.

In fact, as of 2019, all but six states (Idaho, Indiana, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming) offered state-funded preschool, and total state funding for preschool programs topped $8.75 billion – an increase of $301 million from the year before.

With more children enrolled in preschool than ever before (1.3 million four-year-olds, as of 2018-19 – an increase of more than 35,000 from the previous year), the demand for qualified early childhood educators has never been greater.

‘Qualified’ may mean something different depending on the employer, but the general trend in the early childhood education field is toward the bachelor’s degree in an effort to align preschool teacher qualifications with their K-12 colleagues. In many private settings, an associate’s degree is the preferred education, although in recent years, there has been a shift toward the bachelor’s degree in these settings, as well.

Researching Career Options in Early Childhood Education

So, what does a career in early childhood education look like, and what degree will get you there?

There’s no single answer to this question, as qualifications vary from one setting to the next. While educational and teaching certification requirements vary between states and between public and private programs, in general, preschool teachers in public school settings are required to hold a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education, while private preschool teachers may only be required to hold an associate’s degree.

In most public and private preschools, those designated as lead teacher, supervisor, or administrator must hold a bachelor’s or even a master’s degree in early childhood education or a closely related field, while teacher assistants must often hold the Child Development Associate (CDA) credential that 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

Developing a career game plan is important in a profession that comes with so many degree options. In fact, depending on your career goals, you may earn anything from an associate’s degree to a PhD in early childhood education.

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Degree options 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

Undergraduate degrees in early childhood education prepare students to apply best teaching practices in a variety of educational settings and for certification and employment, while graduate degree programs in early childhood education, because they focus on advanced principles in early childhood education, are your opportunity to specialize your education and advance your career.

Pursuing State Licensure or Certification

In most cases, you’ll need to complete an educator preparation program, pass content-specific examinations, and meet other state-specific requirements for initial licensure to teach preschool in a public school setting.

As of 2018, the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) reported that 78% of all state-funded public preschool programs, 56% of state-funded private preschool programs, and 75% of state-funded preschool programs that serve both public and private settings required teachers to hold at least a bachelor’s degree and a teaching certification.

A state-approved teacher preparation program in early childhood education may be designed as 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 provide the most streamlined approach to initial licensure. However, most states also have alternative teacher preparation programs that provide a convenient path to state licensure for recent college graduates or career professionals.

To earn state licensure/certification, you must take and pass pedagogy and content examinations in early childhood education after completing your teacher preparation program.

You must renew your state license regularly and maintain it by completing specific professional development hours during each renewal period. It is commonplace for preschool teachers to pursue a master’s degree in early childhood education to meet professional development requirements and advance in the profession.

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