What is Early Childhood Education?
Early childhood education is a field of education specializing in teaching young children up through age eight. The scope of the field is very large and is influenced by research, politics, and society as a whole.
Extensive research has clearly established that a child’s early years are critical for their educational development. This means the large variety of careers within the field are greatly influential in a child’s life.
Early childhood education has the goal of forming lifelong education habits, developing speech and reading ability, and bolstering social skills. Depending on the age group, learning takes the form of creative play, basic content creation (e.g., artwork), and social play.
While educational practices are similar, there is often very little standardization, which gives children a wide array of opportunities for growth. Education is usually given in a formal setting like a preschool or daycare center, which intends to supplement the education a child receives at home.
There are a number of associations within developed nations that seek to positively influence early childhood education, as well as spread education practices and policies to developing nations. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) is one of the largest and provides education resources for educators, parents, and advocacy groups.
Why is Early Childhood Education Important?
Numerous studies have demonstrated that children benefit greatly from starting education early in their lives, whether at home or in preschool. Entering a preschool program prepares children for more formal learning found in Kindergarten and higher grades, boosting their successful transition.
Childhood education programs can sometimes be a sanctuary for children who are not socially stimulated or face nutritional deficiencies at home. Educational programs are often successful at reducing the ill-effects of an unstable home and closing the educational gaps of children from different economic backgrounds.
Economically, placing children in early childhood education programs can allow parents/caregivers to return to work. Investing in creating appropriate learning practices also ensures that young children are better able to succeed in higher education and later begin successful careers.
There is some debate as to whether governments should mandate and fund early childhood education programs, however there is evidence to suggest these investments ultimately pay off to the economy.
What is an Early Childhood Education Degree?
An early childhood education degree is required for a number of careers that focus on early childhood education. A degree can be obtained at a number of different levels including 2-year, 4-year, and graduate programs.
A graduate degree will open more doors for individuals who are interested in influencing the field, rather than implementing learned practices. The following degrees are discussed in more detail.
Associate Degree in Early Childhood Education
These degrees often last about two years and are usually acquired by individuals wanting to start their career before jumping into a four-year program and pursuing a Bachelor’s degree. Typical programs require the completion of 60-63 units. These programs are the easiest to be admitted to, assuming students have completed high school and have reasonable grades.
Some jobs can be acquired by individuals with an Associate’s degree in early childhood education. For instance, a number of preschool teachers have this degree, however the demand for teachers with a bachelor’s degree is increasing.
An associate degree is often an introduction into the field of early childhood education. Students will learn some of the following in their courses:
- Develop Curriculum: Students will learn how to create schedules for childhood learning, often implemented in preschools or daycare centers.
- Age-appropriate Learning: Programs will begin to focus on what types of activities are appropriate for children of a variety of ages. A two-year program may only teach a small number of activities or go in-depth for one age group.
- Promote Education: As the field of early childhood education is still developing, students are often asked to advocate for the field.
Early Childhood Education Bachelor’s Degrees
A Bachelor’s in early childhood education is used either as a tool for gaining a career in the field or as a stepping stone to a graduate program. These programs last about four years.
Programs within universities offering the degree vary in their admission requirements, but require good grades from high school and/or completion of the SATs. Previous experience in child care or education is rarely required.
The most common require about 120 units to graduate, which includes courses in general education as well as courses focusing on childhood education. The following cover a few concepts and skills taught in the programs:
- Variety of Education Tools: Students will learn activities for teaching children a wide variety of skills in field such as science, art, and English. Courses will also teach students how to improvise and create their own courses.
- Classroom Management: Managing a group of children is an important skill taught in these programs as many students will go on to teach students either temporarily or as a career.
- Field Experience: Many (but not all) programs will require students to practice their skills in a classroom setting before entering a full-time teaching career. This is helpful for improving skills as well as learning new techniques.
Early Childhood Education Master’s Degrees
A Master’s degree in early childhood education is often sought by individuals wanting to teach for more prestigious schools or who want to gain a position in a managerial setting in the field. These programs often last about two years and require about 32 “hours” to complete the degree.
Masters programs will teach students in a formal classroom, however there is often much more learning done while in internships. Some of these programs assume that students have already been teaching children and want to bolster their career.
Many of the programs have formal admission requirements that require students to hold a Bachelor’s degree in liberal arts, education, or early childhood education. They may require good scores on graduate placement exams (for example, the GRE), experience teaching or working in early childhood education, and possibly letters of recommendation.
These programs often take an approach that emphasizes learning in management, leadership, and scientific observation of children. The following are some things students will learn in these programs:
- Theory and Practice: Courses will encourage students to critically think about theory and practice surrounding numerous topics including child development, child education, and various theories on learning.
- Community Partnership: Students may go on to positions that require fundraising and advocating for educational programs. This requires developing relationships with communities and families within the community.
- Thesis: Students in the Master’s degree will need to develop a thesis, which will require extensive research and writing on one topic. This is often a good showcase for students wanting to enter a PhD program or who need to demonstrate their proficiency in writing before entering a career.
Early Childhood Education PhD. Degrees
The highest degree individuals can obtain is the PhD in early childhood education. Doctorate programs are most commonly designed to educate students on research on early childhood education. Many prepare students for careers in directorship and management of education facilities, early childhood education research, or child therapy. Students start a PhD program either after completing their Master’s degree in childhood education or when they want to move up in their career.
Doctorate programs are highly competitive to enter. Students often apply to work with a specific researcher or advisor rather than the program as a whole. Students should contact potential advisors to see if they are accepting students, if they have funding, and what the formal application requirements are. Programs will usually require students to complete graduate exams, write an application essay, and demonstrate research competency.
PhD programs vary in the time to completion. As students are often in charge of their own education, programs can last between two and four-plus years, partly depending if the Master’s degree can be awarded while in progress toward the PhD. Students are often required to complete a dissertation, which involves extensive research and writing, as well as comprehensive exams.
Some PhD programs do not require students to take courses, but rather learn while undertaking research projects. Some things students learn include:
- Research Methodology: Students will learn how to measure certain constructs and conduct research in an unbiased and ethical manner. Students will learn how to conduct surveys with young children and educators as well as engage in observation.
- Management: Some programs will teach students how to become a program director and therefore develop skills in management practices. While many of these careers only require a Master’s degree and work experience, others may have more extensive education requirements.
- Therapy: Specialized PhD programs will prepare students to become a child therapist. These programs will require students to take courses as well as perform numerous hours of supervised therapy with children.
What is an Online Early Childhood Education Degree?
Online degrees in early childhood education are available at each degree level. Both Associate’s and Bachelor’s degrees are able to be fulfilled completely online and are often able to be completed faster than their on-campus counterparts. These degrees will cover the same courses as those taught in traditional programs, however most often through written practices, live-stream lectures, and videos.
While some employers may value a non-online degree more, many will have no preference between the two. Potential employers in the desired career field should be contacted beforehand to see if online degrees are acceptable.
Fully online Master’s and PhD degrees should be pursued with caution. The most important component of these degrees is undergoing internships and gaining real-world practice within a supervised setting. Most graduate degrees in early childhood education are offered as hybrid courses where students complete courses online but gain real-world experience at a local facility.
Online PhD programs are rare as students often work closely with an advisor throughout the program. Students interested in working remotely may find this possible in the later years of these programs, however this is not a true online degree.
Related: Early Childhood Education Programs in Illinois
What Can You Do With an Early Childhood Education Degree?
A degree in early childhood education is a very versatile degree with which individuals have an extensive choice of careers. The exact degree an individual wishes to pursue should be carefully considered as some open more doors and others may over qualify them for a position.
The following is a list of common careers held by those with at least one degree in early childhood education, however there are many more careers than what is listed here.
Childcare Center Director
Directors of preschools and childcare centers oversee these education facilities and are responsible for developing educational programs and overseeing teachers. Most directors are required to hold at least a Bachelor’s degree and have several years of educational experience. On average, childcare center directors make $47,000 a year.
Most curriculum coordinators work for schools where they educate and guide teachers on curriculum development. Many hold a Bachelor’s degree but Master’s degrees are becoming more common. Prior job experience as a teacher is often preferred, which demonstrates to employers that they have experience developing their own curriculum. These professionals make about $48,000 per year.
Early Intervention Specialist
These individuals focus on children aged four and younger to address developmental issues. They most commonly work with children who have autism, sometimes in preschools or directly with families. The majority hold a Master’s degree focused on special education.
Family advocates work with children of all ages, with some focusing on children under eight years of age. These individuals act as a neutral third party to help settle family disputes, custody, and guardianship rights where there is a young child involved. They evaluate situations to ensure the interests of the child are being met.
Kindergarten and Elementary School Teacher
Kindergarten and elementary school teachers who teach younger grades have at least a Bachelor’s degree in early childhood education. They are responsible for teaching children numerous subjects in an age-appropriate manner.
Preschool teachers educate four to five year old children using age-appropriate techniques. Children in preschool may attend part-time or full-time, and some of these educators work during summers. Preschool teachers only need to hold an Associate’s degree in early childhood education.
Special Education Teacher
Special education teachers need to obtain a focused degree within the field of early childhood education. Children with special needs require specialized curriculum and educators often have close contact with the child’s parents or caregivers.
What Does It Take To Get a Degree in Early Childhood Education?
There are skills and personality traits that will increase the chance an individual is successful at obtaining a degree in early childhood education.
Fewer of these skills are needed for basic degrees while the more advanced graduate degrees require skills beyond what is mentioned here.
- Quantitative Knowledge: Some graduate programs train students to become researchers which requires understanding how to analyze quantitative data using statistics.
- Clerical Skills: Students obtaining a degree will likely enter a career where clerical skills are necessary, which involves tasks such as organization, document creation, and management.
- Patience: Working with young children requires a great deal of patience, particularly when in a classroom environment.
- Communication Across Ages: Understanding how to communicate with young children, parents, and co-workers is critical for obtaining a degree in early childhood education.
- Leadership: Courses will teach students how to take charge of children but also how to lead teams of individuals. Already having this skill will greatly help students succeed in the degree program.
What Tools and Technologies are Used by Early Childhood Education Professionals?
Early childhood education professionals use an array of different tools, which differ greatly depending on what career they serve in. The following are a subset of common tools and technologies used, some of which are for specific careers.
For preschool and special education teachers, board games can be a way to teach children social skills, patience, and critical thinking skills.
First Aid Kits
Some careers require individuals to be CPR certified and have basic knowledge of how to treat cuts, scrapes, and basic child illnesses.
Presentation software such as PowerPoint is useful for communicating ideas to groups of individuals, particularly within management-type careers.
These are often used specifically by special education teachers and early intervention specialists in order to bridge gaps in communication between the teacher and students.
Child therapists and some young child educators may use therapeutic toys and activities like sand boxes and musical instruments to help relax children.
As technology enters the classroom, some teachers find it helpful to utilize educational applications on iPads and other tablets.
Basic Science Equipment
Educators designing curriculum often incorporate scientific exploration activities. These activities use basic science equipment like beakers and basic chemicals.
What are the Benefits of a Degree in Early Childhood Education?
A degree in early childhood education opens a number of career doors that come with a number of benefits. While the pay for most careers is low to moderate, degree holders often enter the field for non-financial reasons.
- Helping Children: The most obvious benefit is that most individuals will get to work with children throughout their career. Some specialized careers, like special education teachers and therapists, give individuals a great sense of fulfillment by helping children.
- Fun: While managing a classroom of children can be hectic, it can also be a lot of fun. Teachers often get to play games with children and design curriculum that is engaging and fun both for the instructor and students.
- Time Off: Those who choose to become educators are often able to take their summers off.
- Respect: Nearly every career associated with a degree in early childhood education is respected. Communities often herald and support educators, and researchers and therapists are greatly appreciated.
- Career Advancement: A basic degree in early childhood education is often used as a stepping stone to further one’s career. Individuals can always choose to return to school to advance within the field of early childhood education.
- Relationship Building: Some individuals will work with the same children for many years which allows them to build relationships with the children and their families.
How Much Can You Make with an Early Childhood Education Degree?
Salaries depend greatly on what career an individual enters into. Certain careers require more education as well as work experience, and the general rule of thumb holds that degrees in higher education lead to careers with greater salaries.
One of the lowest paying jobs is becoming a preschool teacher, however the career only requires an Associate’s degree or basic teaching license. Furthermore, many individuals choose this career because of their interest in teaching young children or to use as a stepping stone for higher paying careers like child center directors.
Some of the highest paying jobs require a Master's or PhD in early childhood education. These careers include becoming an early childhood education researcher (between $75,000 and $90,000 a year) or a child therapist who works for an elementary school (about $75,000 per year).
As funding has decreased from public schools in recent years, jobs that receive non-government funding often receive greater job security as well as higher salary. These may include careers in the private sector like early childhood care and development of learning material for children.
Salaries also depend on which state an individual resides in. The top three highest paying states include Nebraska, Kentucky, and Texas.
What is the Job Outlook for Early Childhood Education Careers?
Individuals interested in working within the field of early childhood education should expect the number of jobs available to stay about the same or increase slightly. This greatly depends on what specific job an individual chooses to pursue.
For instance, the number of preschool teachers is expected to increase about 15% in the next decade and preschool center directors should increase about 8%, both faster than average. The number of special education teachers is expected to grow at an average rate, about 4% in the next decade.
Early childhood education is widely recognized as being important in a young child’s life. While public schools have suffered cuts to funding in recent years, funding for early childhood education is expected to stay stable. In combination with the growing population, this ensures that early childhood educators and program directors will have careers available to them.
What Degrees are Similar to Early Childhood Education?
Degrees in education can be obtained at nearly every degree level and are focused on preparing students to teach. Holders of these degrees are often teachers that educate children from ages 6 to 18. An undergraduate degree in education is often required before pursuing a degree in specialized types of education or overseeing educational programs.
Often offered as a PhD, a degree in educational leadership prepares individuals to take up leadership roles within educational environments. These degrees teach management, community practices, and decision making. Individuals who hold this degree often shape and manage overarching educational curriculum, practices, and standards in any type of educational environment.
Graduate degrees in education administration are often obtained by educators who have taught for several years, but are interested in overseeing programs, curriculum, and faculty. This degree assumes the student already has a background in education, so it often focuses on teaching administration and management skills.
After completing an undergraduate degree in education, students interested in special education can earn this degree within a graduate program. Holders of a degree in special education work to create and implement educational programs for students with special needs and learning disabilities.
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