Careers in early childhood education
Early education, the learning that takes place mostly between the ages of 3 and 5, builds the foundation for what comes later. Children who have a good preschool experience are more likely to enjoy learning and the classroom setting as they get older. They also tend to be better socialized and more prepared for formal learning.
If you’re interested in becoming a preschool educator, it will be your responsibility to encourage learning through play, movement, and interpersonal communication to effectively prepare little learners for the structure of kindergarten.
Not every child in America attends preschool because unlike grades 1 through 12, preschool is optional. However, approximately 1.62 million children in the United States are signed up for some form of preschool education, and the benefits to both children and parents are many.
Benefits of early childhood education
Children who attend preschool gain multiple life skills from the formal classroom setting including:
- respect for others
- appreciation of diversity
Children who participate in some sort of formal education before kindergarten tend to be better prepared and more focused inside the classroom. They typically have a better idea of what to expect and what’s expected from them than students whose first school experience is kindergarten or first grade.
Developmental milestones in early learners
In children up to age 5, every experience they have helps them form opinions and observations about the world. When these experiences are positive, learning becomes fun and exciting. Children become motivated to know more. When these first experiences are negative or limited, children can become shy or withdrawn. They can form unrealistic ideas of what’s expected of them and what they should expect from others.
Children change and develop more in their first 5 years than throughout the rest of their lives, making this an impactful time filled with developmental milestones.
Children change and develop more in their first 5 years than throughout the rest of their lives, making this an impactful time filled with developmental milestones. Not every child hits every milestone within the same timeframe, although common developmental milestones for early learners include:
- ability to use safety scissors, ride a tricycle, and help with getting dressed and undressed
- ability to play and get along with other children the same age
- ability to sing a song and recall parts of stories
- ability to notice differences between genders
Children at this age can typically understand the difference between playtime and learning time. They may grasp the names of colors, shapes, numbers, and letters. They begin to develop a sense of give-and-take, how to wait their turn, and the concept of sharing. They can help with simple chores such as putting toys away or brushing their teeth.
Children attending preschool witness other children progressing through the normal developmental milestones of the early years, and this prompts them to do the same. It’s important for young children to have access to other children their own age, so they can see, experience, and learn from peers. As a preschool educator, you have a front-row seat to these amazing transitions.
Public preschool versus private preschool
Private preschool may be something as informal as having a neighbor who watches multiple children throughout the day while taking them on nature walks, or working with arts and crafts. It may also be a formal classroom in a designated area of a church or community building, run by licensed childcare professionals.
Although there are fewer rules and regulations in place for private preschools than there are for public options, both are capable of offering quality care and instruction.
In most states, to teach in a private preschool you need a minimum of an associate degree in early childhood education.
In most states, to teach in a private preschool you need a minimum of an associate degree in early childhood education. To teach in a public preschool setting, requires a degree in addition to an educator’s license.
Most public preschools accept children ages 3 to 5 years old. However, private preschools may accept children even younger, so keep this in mind when applying for a position as a private preschool educator.
Many states now offer free or reduced-cost preschool for families who can’t afford to pay for traditional services.
Career choices for the early learning classroom
If you want to work with early learners in an educational setting, a variety of career options may be available to you. Each option has its own educational and professional expectations, and each can be highly rewarding due to the potential to positively influence the lives of small children.
If your dream is to become a preschool teacher, consider pursuing a degree in the field of early childhood education. Note, teaching young children requires more than just a college degree and a license to teach. Children in this age group bring special challenges to the teaching arena, not generally present in the classrooms of older children. To meet these challenges, preschool teachers require the following skills:
- ability to remain firm
- ability to be consistent
- good organizational skills
- skills in communicating with young children
When educating children in this age group, expect to provide emotional support, maintain order, and establish good relationships, all while teaching your young charges basic skills.
The job of a preschool teacher differs from that of an elementary or secondary teacher. Your classroom may be your students’ first experience of being away from home. It’s up to you to provide a safe, organized haven where strong feelings are accepted and acknowledged but not given too much emphasis. At the same time, you are expected to teach children about colors, shapes, numbers, letters, and social skills. You play multiple roles in your job as a preschool educator, but at the end of the day, you can be a beautiful influence on bright, young minds.
How to become
To procure a job as an early childhood educator, you need to hold at least an associate degree in early childhood education or development. Additionally, having classroom experience and a teaching license is important to work in public education. You may also need a Child Development Associate (CDA) credential, which you can obtain by passing the CDA exam and verification visit.
There are multiple routes to becoming a preschool educator. Some provide more opportunity for advancement for students who later decide to teach at the elementary or secondary school level. They include:
- Bachelor’s degree in early childhood education
- Bachelor’s degree in child development
- Bachelor’s degree in education
- Bachelor’s degree in special education
While an associate degree may get your foot in the door as a preschool teacher, obtaining your bachelor’s degree makes it easier to advance your career. It also bumps you to the front of the applicant pool over others with only associate degrees.
Teachers who work with children younger than preschool age usually work in daycare settings as childcare workers. In this role, your responsibilities are to maintain a safe and positive environment, observe children and monitor their interactions, communicate effectively with parents and other staff members, and support student’s social and emotional development.
It may seem as though little formal learning is occurring at this stage, yet this is far from true. Young children learn valuable skills through play and socialization. These include language and communication skills and the refinement of motor coordination. Children this age need movement and have short attention spans.
To be a successful teacher of infants and toddlers, you’ll need a specialized skill set that includes:
- problem-solving skills
- finding creative solutions
- desire to care for children
- personal integrity
- patience and understanding
Infants and toddlers have not yet fully grasped theories such as being fair, sharing with others, taking turns, and being kind. As their teacher, it’s up to you to help enforce these ideals without expecting concrete results every time. Children this age only need the tools to succeed. They’ll develop the finesse needed to use them as they mature.
How to become
Although the public school system in America does not employ childcare workers for children younger than preschool age, this type of work is abundantly available in the private sector. While there may be no formal educational requirements other than a high school diploma, an associate degree is recommended to work with young children. The following are associate programs that will prepare you for a career as a childcare worker:
- Associate degree in early childhood education
- Associate degree in child development
- Associate degree in special education
You should also expect to undergo a thorough background check, and to provide a list of references from past childcare experiences. To improve your career opportunities and outlook as a childcare worker, consider taking a certification course in early childhood education.
Preschool and childcare program directors
As the program director of a preschool, much of your time is spent monitoring your students and teachers, conferring with parents and faculty, and recruiting, hiring, and evaluating new staff. Even though the majority of tasks may be administrative in nature, a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in education is typically needed to gain employment as a program director. In addition, prior experience in teaching and school administration is commonly expected.
The skills needed to become an effective preschool director include:
- ability to communicate effectively with students, teachers, parents, administrators, and the community
- desire to care and provide for others educational needs
- ability to maintain constructive, professional relationships at work
- ability to effectively train and teach others
- personal integrity
- stress management skills
The program director is usually responsible for setting program goals and objectives and for motivating staff to perform at the highest levels. They play an important role acknowledged by both teachers and the parents of students. The overall integrity of a preschool and its programs are ultimately the responsibility of the program director.
How to become
You may think of a program director as a person who began with teaching credentials and worked their way up through time and experience. It’s very rare to obtain a position as a preschool program director right out of college. Employers want to see a proven record of experience, not only in teaching but also in managing others. The minimum educational requirement for this position includes a bachelor’s degree, an educator’s license, and at least 5 years of teaching experience. Many employers also look for candidates with a Childcare Development Associate credential.
Careers outside the classroom
If you enjoy interacting with early learners and their families, there are other career fields that play peripheral roles outside the classroom. These careers are as important and impactful on young lives as is a career in teaching. If teaching or administration doesn’t appeal to you, it’s possible one of these career fields is a better fit.
Median salary: $68K
The child psychologist works with troubled children and their families to help resolve issues such as trauma, as well as mental, physical, or learning difficulties. Child psychologists need a master’s degree at the minimum, along with additional internship and state certifications.
Child psychologists typically get their graduate level degrees in:
Ready to launch your career?
Regardless of which role you envision yourself in, either inside or outside the preschool classroom, working with early learners is immensely satisfying. If you enjoy spending time with children, have tons of patience, and want to see young students achieve their fullest potential, consider pursuing a degree in early childhood education or child development.