Associate degree in early childhood education

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What is early childhood education?

Early childhood education focuses on children’s physical, emotional, cognitive and social development as building blocks for the rest of their life. Early childhood educators play a critical role in this development, bringing a unique set of skills and expertise to their work.  

Early childhood education focuses on the instruction, needs, and development of children from 0-8 years old. In the United States, the majority of children attend early childhood educational programs – 77% of 5 year-olds attend kindergarten and 55% of 3- to 4-year-olds are enrolled in a full-time preschool program. An associate degree in education provides the foundational knowledge and skills needed to work with children in this environment while setting students up for more advanced specialized degrees in early childhood education.  Check out the top programs for an associate degree in early childhood education.

What do I need to apply?

If you apply to an associate in early childhood education program at the community college level, you need to have a high school diploma or GED to be considered. Upon acceptance, community college students are usually asked to take an English and mathematics placement exam.  

Some students transfer to a bachelor’s program after completing an associate degree. Earning an associate degree from a community college before applying to a 4-year bachelor’s program can give your application an edge compared to other applicants.  

Online, hybrid and offline study options

There are several different study options that benefit different kinds of students.   

On-campus education gives students access to student clubs, campus resources, and professor office hours. Students typically enjoy this form of education because they can network with other students, ask questions in real-time and participate in campus activities.  

Online education is perfect for students who want to study at their own pace, enjoy flexibility, and prefer working alone. Hybrid education is a mix of both online education and the traditional in-person approach. Students often submit work online and study at their own pace, but may have occasional in-person coursework or structured online lectures.  


Accreditation ensures that the education you have earned has met a set of standards put into place by the U.S. Department of Education’s accreditation agencies. An associate degree from an accredited institution shows other universities, employers, and certificate agencies that the education you have earned has equipped you to be successful in your field.  

What will I learn?

Introduction to early childhood education

This course introduces theorists and research that have paved the way for the field of early childhood education. The theories these researchers established are the backbone for contemporary teaching practices.  

Child development

Foundational knowledge of child development is crucial before working in an early childhood environment. This course covers developmental milestones and the economic, political and historical contexts that affect a child’s development.  

Culture and diversity in early childhood education

This course assesses the components of inclusive, age-appropriate approaches to optimize an inclusive early education learning environment. You will analyze social bias and the education system’s role in reinforcing or contradicting these experiences.  

Children with special needs

In this course, students analyze early intervention, special education, and inclusive strategies in an early education classroom. Students study inclusive philosophies, best practices, and design curricular modifications. 


Fieldwork bridges the gap between classroom knowledge and work experience, allowing students to observe and assess an early education classroom. Students apply their theoretical knowledge to real-world situations and hone their practical skills in this setting. 

Certificate opportunities

Infant specialist certificate

For students interested in focusing on infant care, this certificate offers advanced knowledge and skills relevant to this age group. You will learn about milestones, developmentally appropriate activities, atypical infant development and best practices for teaching, education and infant care. This is an ideal certificate for those who are looking for employment as a private care provider to an infant or infant and toddler teacher at a preschool.  

Master teacher certificate

This certificate prepares students for a career as a master teacher or supervisor in publicly or privately funded early education programs. You will be qualified to supervise and coordinate staff, design early years curriculum and manage a budget. During this program, you will learn about health and safety, the importance of excellent adult supervision, how to make learning visible through observation and documentation, and gain field experience. 

School-age childcare and education certificate

Upon completion of this certificate, along with documented fieldwork experiences, you will meet the requirements needed to be employed in a childcare program with infants and school-aged children. This certificate focuses on human development, assessment, and observation techniques along with fieldwork experience in programs with school-aged children. Many students go on to work as preschool teachers, teaching assistants, and Head Start teachers.   

Cost of the degree

The cost of a 2-year associate degree program is roughly $3,372 per year, which covers the cost of tuition and fees. 

Financial aid

There are several different kinds of financial aid that help students make school more affordable. Grants, loans and scholarships tend to be the most popular options among college students. For students pursuing an early education degree, Discover Childhood Early EDU is a helpful financial aid resource that allows prospective students to navigate early childhood education scholarships by state.  

One of the most popular ways to pay for college is through Federal Student Aid. This is a need-based grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Education. Students fill out an online application, called the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which outlines their financial background and basic identification information.  

Career options

Head Start teacher

These influential teachers work with children from low-income families. They design developmentally appropriate lessons, prepare students for elementary school, develop curriculum, meet with parents and report developmental concerns.  

Head Start teachers are categorized as preschool teachers and the average salary for this group is $31,930.

Teaching assistant

Teaching assistants support licensed public or private school teachers with day-to-day tasks. Teaching assistants often grade papers, help students with additional instruction, support the lead teacher in managing the classroom and prepare lessons.  

The average annual salary for a teaching assistant is $28,592.  

Childcare worker

Childcare workers attend to the basic needs of children. This can include getting them dressed, helping them eat or overseeing play. Typically, they will help older children with their homework and ensure younger children are prepared for kindergarten. They ensure children’s safety, prepare snacks, change diapers, facilitate activities and keep records of a child’s progress.  

The average hourly rate for a childcare worker is roughly $10.51.  

Continuing education

An associate degree provides students with foundational knowledge for several entry-level careers in early childhood education. For those who want to advance their knowledge and skills, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in a related field is an ideal way to open up more career opportunities.  

The knowledge you attain in your associate program will effectively prepare you for bachelor’s degree coursework. A bachelor’s in early childhood education expands into human development, language development, teaching children with special needs and the influences of socioeconomic status, parenting practices, culture and adequate childcare on a child’s well-being. 

After completing a bachelor’s degree, students often pursue a teaching credential to work as kindergarten teachers in a public or private school, elementary school teachers, early childhood center site supervisors, or preschool teachers.  

For students who want a more direct route into the public school system, a bachelor’s degree in elementary education is a good choice. Students will learn about historical, political, and environmental influences that have shaped the education system. Participants learn best teaching practices, curriculum development, assessment techniques, and teaching students with special needs.  

This program is intended for students who wish to pursue a career as a kindergarten or elementary school teacher, but most states have additional requirements before you can start teaching. Typically, students need to complete a credential program, pass a teaching exam and complete a background check before applying for licensure. 

Many students are drawn to the exciting and rewarding field of special education. This program teaches you about developmental delays, disabilities, and behavioral concerns many children and adults are struggling with.

A bachelor’s degree in special education prepares students for careers as special education teachers, early intervention specialists, or special education advocates.

American Psychological Association  

The APA works to make a positive impact on crucial issues in psychology, provide helpful resources, networking opportunities and career information to its members.  

Head Start 

Part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Head Start’s website offers users additional information about their goals, locations, and career opportunities. They also give helpful resources, news, and webinars.