Requirements for Early Childhood Education Jobs in Washington

In addition to a large number of federally funded Head Start programs found here, Washington’s Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP) closes the achievement gap among the state’s earliest learners by providing free preschool services to those who don’t meet Head Start eligibility requirements. This state-funded program serves the state’s three- and four-year-olds in low-income families and those who present developmental or environmental risk factors that could hinder their academic success.

Currently, ECEAP is available in the following school districts:

  • Battle Ground Public Schools
  • Evergreen Public Schools
  • Hockinson School District
  • Vancouver Public Schools
  • Washougal School District
  • Woodland School District

This state-funded program, alongside an outstanding selection of other preschool programs throughout the state, sets the stage for exceptional opportunities for those with the commitment it takes to effectively inspire and teach Washington’s youngest learners.

According to the Washington Employment Security Department, there were 12,310 preschool teachers, preschool special education teachers, and preschool administrators working in the state in 2016. By 2026, this number is expected to increase by more than 2,100.

The fact that a record number of jobs are expected to become available in the early childhood learning field doesn’t come as a surprise here, as Washington demonstrates a unique commitment to ensuring the state’s youngest learners have access to quality learning experiences, regardless of their circumstances or income.

If you want to become part of Washington State’s outstanding early learning system, you’ll need to come prepared with the proper education and credentials.

Here are the steps you’ll take to become a preschool teacher in Washington:

Earn a Degree in Early Childhood Education
Maintain and Improve Your Preschool Teacher Qualifications
Seek Employment with Washington State Preschools


Step 1. Earn a Degree in Early Childhood Education

In Washington, preschools themselves are licensed, not individual teachers or directors. However in order to be licensed, a preschool must employ preschool teachers that meet the minimum requirements as specified by law.

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There are several positions for preschool educators regulated under Washington State law by the Washington State Department of Early Learning, formerly known as the Department of Social and Health Services. These positions and their minimum requirements are:

Preschool Director minimum requirements:

  • Have written proof of completion of early childhood education in the form of one of the following:
    • A current and valid Child Development Associate (CDA) Certificate
    • At least 10 college credits (quarter system) in early childhood education if your preschool educates 12 preschoolers or fewer. If your preschool educates 25 or more preschoolers, you must complete at least 45 college credits.
  • Be at least 21 years of age
  • Have at least two years of experience working with preschoolers
  • Sign up with the Department of Early Learning’s MERIT registry

Lead Preschool Teacher, also referred to as Preschool Teacher, minimum requirements:

  • Have documented proof of one of the following:
    • Child development education (associate’s degree at minimum)
    • Child development work experience
    • Complete the state’s STARS basic course within six months of being hired
  • Be at least 18 years of age
  • Have a high school diploma or equivalent
  • Sign up with the MERIT registry

Preschool Assistant or Aid minimum requirements:

  • Be at least 16 years of age
  • Be willing to always work under direct supervision

Earning a Bachelor’s Degree

One of the most effective ways to meet qualifications for preschool teacher jobs in Washington is to earn at least a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education. This exceeds the minimum qualifications for state licensure, yet many private preschools in Washington require teachers to hold a bachelor’s degree at minimum.

A bachelor’s degree in early childhood education will include the following courses:

  • Child psychology and learning
  • Learning and teaching in a multicultural and technological world
  • Teaching exceptional children
  • Family and community influence on early childhood education
  • Early childhood curriculum development
  • Child observation and assessment
  • Early childhood and family studies research
  • Social organization and policy relating to early childhood development
  • Preschool volunteer, student teaching, practicum, or service learning experience

You can find colleges, universities, and online education programs available to Washington residents throughout the state. These educational institutions can provide you with more specific details about their own early childhood education and development programs.

Washington Head Start Program

Washington State Head Start is part of a national preschool program aimed at improving the academic performance of children whose families fall below the poverty line. One of the ways the Head Start program achieves its goal is through providing a high quality of education by hiring the most qualified preschool teachers.

The Head Start program routinely specifies the minimum requirement of a bachelor’s degree in a field related to early childhood education, or an associate’s degree in early childhood education.



Step 2. Maintain and Improve Your Preschool Teacher Qualifications

MERIT (Managed Education and Registry Information Tool), formerly administered as STARS (State Training and Registry System), is the Department of Early Learning’s required training and registration program. It also offers a variety of resources for early childhood educators, including professional development and educational courses. All preschool directors and preschool teachers must register with MERIT and complete one of the following within six months of being hired:

  • An associate’s degree in early childhood education or early childhood development
  • A Child Development Associate (CDA) Certificate, or if you already have this, 12 additional college credits in early childhood education or early childhood development
  • Either 20 clock hours or two college credits approved by MERIT

Washington law additionally requires preschool directors and preschool teachers to complete at least 10 hours of MERIT training every year, which may also be earned by completing one college credit. Directors must have a portion of their training be related to administration and program management. This continuing education must be approved by the state, such as that which is linked to through the MERIT system.

Altogether, you can accomplish the following through MERIT:

  • Submit your background check information for hire
  • Find approved training courses and opportunities
  • Plan your preschool career pathway and maintain a record of your trainings and qualifications
  • Create an online profile for your own preschool

One recognized way of both fulfilling your continuing education requirements and improving your professional qualifications is earning a master’s degree such as an M.A.T., M.Ed. or MATL with a concentration in early childhood development or a related field. This will improve your foundational knowledge as well as expertise in the field of early childhood education, making you a more competent and effective preschool teacher.



Step 3. Seek Employment with Washington State Preschools

When seeking employment as a preschool teacher, it may be helpful to consider the required student-to-teacher ratios in preschool classrooms. Preschools with students between 30 months of age and six years of age must have a total staff-to-student ratio of 1:10, with a maximum classroom size of 20 students.

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As you continue to explore the field of early childhood education and what it means to be a preschool teacher in Washington, you may want to consider joining one of the state’s professional organizations. These associations can provide you with valuable resources for employment, legislative news or updates, continuing education events, and professional networking opportunities. These associations include:

  • Washington State Association of Head Start & ECEAP – the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECAP) was created in 1985 to supplement the state’s Head Start program, which was then only able to reach less than half of eligible children. Today the combination of these programs ensures that young children are getting the education they deserve. This association accomplishes in part by linking preschool educators with valuable teaching resources.
  • Early Childhood Development Association of Washington – this association focuses on quality services and programs for children with developmental disabilities. It does this by promoting education, communication, and providing information regarding early childhood development while also supporting existing early childhood education programs.
  • Washington State Indian Education Association – an organization whose mission is to further educational excellence for Native American students by influencing education policy and implementation at the local, state, and national levels.
  • Washington Association of Educational Services Districts (AESD) – this agency works to facilitate communication between educational service districts throughout the state and country in order to improve the overall educational system. This information includes effective early childhood education staff training, networking, and technology integration.

Ready to get started? Check out our comprehensive list of ECE degrees by State at various levels to determine what program is right for you.

Washington Preschool Teacher Salaries

Preschool teachers, preschool special education teachers, and preschool administrators in Washington earn median salaries that exceed what ECE professionals earn almost anywhere else in the country. For example, preschool special education teachers here earn a median salary of $64,530 – that’s much higher than the national median of $55,840.

Statewide, Washington’s preschool teachers and other members of the ECE team can expect to earn salaries that fall within this range (median, top 25%, and top 10%):

  • Preschool Teachers: $31,530 – $37,100 – $42,670
  • Preschool Special Education Teachers: $64,530 – $75,460 – $82,880
  • Preschool Administrators: $48,670 – $60,210 – $72,530

The following information provides a closer look at what these early learning professionals can expect to earn in some of the state’s largest metro areas:


The Seattle Public Schools system administers the Seattle Preschool Program (SPP), the largest provider of city-funded preschool in the state. The SPP is available for three- and four-year-olds living in Seattle and is delivered by certified teachers on school campuses. Tuition is free for families who meet specific income guidelines and is based on a sliding scale for all other students. The SPP also offers a free, developmental preschool for those children identified as having special needs.

In addition to city preschools and Head Start programs, Seattle’s early childhood learning professionals work in a variety of private and faith-based preschool programs, such as:

  • Tiny Trees Preschool
  • Shoreline Christian School
  • Seattle Creative Kids Preschool
  • Queen Anne Cooperative Preschool
  • Little Laurels Montessori Preschool

ECE teachers, special educators, and administrators in the greater Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue metro area enjoy average salaries that come in above the state average:

Preschool teachers:

  • Median: $33,790
  • 75th percentile: $38,140
  • 90th percentile: $44,840

Preschool special education teachers:

  • Median: $65,800
  • 75th percentile: $76,920
  • 90th percentile: $87,810

Preschool administrators:

  • Median: $54,030
  • 75th percentile: $64,100
  • 90th percentile: $76,370

Spokane – Spokane Valley

As of 2018, there were 1,120 preschool teachers, preschool special education teachers, and preschool administrators working in the Spokane metro area. The Spokane Public Schools is one of the districts in the state that participates in the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP) program. Just some of the private and center-based preschools located here include:

  • Northside Learning Center
  • South Spokane Cooperative Preschool
  • Journey Discovery Center
  • Spokane Montessori School
  • Just Imagine Early Learning Center

ECE professionals working in Spokane’s Head Start, district-based, and private programs can expect to earn salaries that fall within these ranges:

Preschool teachers:

  • Median: $28,130
  • 75th percentile: $33,570
  • 90th percentile: $42,510

Preschool special education teachers:

  • Median: $65,900
  • 75th percentile: $75,410
  • 90th percentile: $81,430

Preschool administrators:

  • Median: $55,630
  • 75th percentile: $64,410
  • 90th percentile: $74,590
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Salary and employment data compiled by the United States Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics in May of 2018 for preschool teachers, preschool special education teachers and preschool administrators – The BLS salary data shown here represents median – 90th percentile salary ranges for the state and its MSAs (Metropolitan Statistical Areas) and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries. 

 Job growth projections sourced from the Washington Employment Security Department and published in the U.S. Department of Labor-funded Long Term Occupational Projections (2016-2026) database – Employment conditions in your area may vary.

All salary and job growth data accessed in September 2019.

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