What is an Early Childhood Education Degree?

When compared to other levels of education, early childhood education (ECE) is a relatively new field. It refers to the school years that precede compulsory education. While kindergarten was once children’s first outside-the-home exposure to the basics of the alphabet and numbers, ECE is rapidly changing this, preparing more and more students at an earlier age – not only to be lifelong learners, but also to be comfortable and adaptable in social situations.

A degree in early childhood education provides students with ECE fundamentals and helps them develop leadership and advocacy abilities, as well as the administrative skills required to work in the field. Typical coursework in degree and certificate programs focuses on the following:

  • Child Growth and Development
  • Communications for Early Childhood Professionals
  • Observation, Recording, and Assessment for Effective Curriculum Planning
  • Creating Resources
  • Positive Behavior Guidance for Young Children
  • Technology and Developmentally Appropriate Practices
  • Supporting Children and Families
  • Children with Exceptionalities

Program Options

Associate Degree in Early Childhood Education
This two-year degree typically qualifies graduates for entry-level positions in early childhood education. In most cases, however, it is not sufficient for higher-level roles and broader advancement in the field.

Bachelor’s Degree in Early Childhood Education
This four-year degree is the most common credential in the field. It provides ECE teachers with the fundamental skills to prepare children for kindergarten and lay the foundation for future academic achievement. In general, holders of a Bachelor’s Degree in Early Childhood Education have higher median salaries and wider job opportunities than their counterparts with an associate’s degree.

Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Education
A Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Education usually takes between one and three years to complete. Students who pursue the degree may opt to specialize in curriculum development and instruction, educational administration or technology, or organizational leadership. Holders of this credential often conduct ECE research, teach educators, and work in supervisory roles.

Doctoral Degree in Early Childhood Education
Graduates with a Doctorate in ECE qualify for teaching positions at the college/university level. They also conduct research and assume school and community leadership and advocacy roles that are focused on the needs of young children.

Degrees Similar to Early Childhood Education

Special Education Teaching
The education sector, of course, spans many levels and many specializations. Individuals who consider majoring in early childhood education may also investigate pursuing a degree in special education and working with students with physical or mental disabilities. Like ECE teachers, special education teachers help students develop basic life skills and must be prepared to adapt their curriculum to do so.

Elementary Education
Naturally aligned to early childhood education is elementary education. Both sectors are devoted to children’s mental, emotional, and social development.

Secondary School Education
Students who wish to teach secondary school generally major in the specific subject they wish to teach. This differs from the requirements for ECE or elementary education; students who pursue a career in these sectors typically complete a degree in education, which focuses on effective teaching and curriculum development and methodologies.

School Counseling
School counseling and early childhood education degrees both address child development, assessment, and consultation. Counseling at the elementary and secondary school levels, however, goes beyond these childhood-focused mandates. It includes student and family counseling, specific adolescent counseling, gender identification and cross-cultural counseling; as well as career planning and decision making.

Social Work
Education and social work go hand in hand. Both professions involve constant exposure to other people. Both are about helping people learn skills that promote their health or capacity to function in society and support themselves economically.

Educational Psychology
The principal similarity between a degree in early childhood education and one in educational psychology is that they are both focused on youth and education and their practitioners generally work in schools and for school boards. Individuals who wish to pursue a career in educational psychology earn at least a master’s and often a doctorate in the discipline.

Counseling Psychology
Like the field of educational psychology, counseling psychology is aligned with early childhood education in that it, too, is part of the counseling, teaching, and mental/emotional/social support sector. Counseling psychologists treat all segments of society and may specialize in areas such as family and marriage issues, substance abuse, or behavioral disorders. They also typically hold a doctoral degree.

Skills You’ll Learn

Child Psychology and Development
While this skill is specific to early childhood education degree programs, it is also one which can be applied outside of the professional discipline. The capacity to understand the stages of the emotional, cognitive, and physical development of children is certainly something that can be used on a daily basis in parenting and other familial roles.

Perhaps one of the most challenging demands of working in early childhood education is that it asks its practitioners to effectively communicate with young children, who are new to learning. This requirement means that students who successfully complete an ECE degree program learn how to break down subjects into digestible, understandable pieces – an ability that is valued in virtually all professional and social circles.

Trust Building
Building trust is vital in the classroom, especially with new learners. But this is another by-product of earning an early childhood education degree that is thoroughly useful and valued in every kind of work, as well as in society at large.

Patience, Flexibility, and a Sense of Humor
Children are full of energy and curiosity. They are unpredictable and unfiltered. Classrooms by their nature are cauldrons of unforeseen circumstances and therefore, demand patience, flexibility, and a sense of humor – qualities that cannot go unused in any sphere of life.

Creativity and Adaptability
Creativity and adaptability must be the hallmarks of early childhood educators. Creating lesson plans that incorporate learning games and other approaches that keep children engaged is only part of the ECE mandate. Graduates in the field discover that not all kids learn in exactly the same way and are prepared to adapt their teaching methods to respond to those differences.

An Appreciation for Diversity
Early childhood educators are exposed to children from different backgrounds and home environments. They are called upon to cultivate an understanding of and an appreciation for diversity – in the classroom and beyond.

Assessment and Report Writing
Teaching at any level involves tracking, assessing, and recording student progress and development. These are skills that are transferrable and are needed in many professional sectors.

What Can You Do with an Early Childhood Education Degree?

The most common occupational routes for holders of an early childhood education degree exist, naturally, at the pre-school or head start programs level. This is where the degree is specifically and directly relevant to both teaching and teaching assistant roles. However, an ECE degree can also be the jumping off point to positions in different educational sectors.

It is important to know, though, that transitioning from working in ECE to kindergarten, elementary, secondary, or special needs education typically requires further training, especially for ECE teachers without a bachelor’s degree. A master’s or doctorate is commonly required to teach early childhood education courses at college or university level.

One-on-one tutoring of children presents another occupational option for ECE degree holders. While positions may be available with established tutoring agencies, this sector in particular presents opportunities for freelancing and entrepreneurship.

While not always a requirement, an early childhood education degree is also valued in the childcare sector. Opportunities with childcare centers exist at the hands-on/front-line level, as well as in supervisory, managerial, and director roles. Childcare center directors often hold an ECE master’s or doctorate.

Home Based Childcare
Home based opportunities with individual families present another option for ECE degree holders. While families do not necessarily look for nannies with the credential, it can make a candidate more desirable.

Social Work / Family Support / Community Development
All three of these closely aligned sectors, to some degree, involve assisting others, supporting children, and creating positive living and learning environments. Individuals with an ECE degree come armed with skills that can contribute to these objectives.

Educational Consulting / Instructional Design
The field of educational consulting can take several different forms. Some consultants are hired by school boards or private schools to write instructional materials and develop teaching techniques for specific programs or to incorporate technology into curricula. In other cases, they may be asked to apply their skills to design age-appropriate learning environments, to implement certain regulations and policies, or to address and solve particular problems.

Researchers in the field of early childhood education, as in most education sectors, hold a master’s or doctorate degree. Those who conduct ECE research carry out studies, collect and analyze data, and evaluate services and standard practices related to the development of young children.

Children’s Literature
ECE degree holders can apply their knowledge of child development to the creative role of writing children’s books. Their understanding of how children communicate and process information can be valuable tools in crafting fictional stories that both educate and entertain.

At first glance, this may appear as a surprising potential occupational category for early childhood educators. The fact is that textbook publishers and instructional materials companies often look for sales representative candidates who are knowledgeable educators. This is because teachers necessarily develop persuasion abilities in the classroom and are comfortable communicating with administrators, who generally make school board purchasing decisions. Opportunities in children’s fictional literature sales may also exist.


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