Obtaining a degree in Early Childhood Education (ECE) is typically the first step toward a career working with young children – young, in this case, describing infants to 8 year olds. The careers that are available to ECE professionals vary widely and include public and private pre-k programs, childcare centers, and child care resource and education agencies. ECE professionals can also be hired as a teacher's aide.
ECE is an attractive career option for students who enjoy working with young children. The ideal ECE professional has a varied skill set; they are able to be both innovative and traditional, both analytical and artistic, both patient and commanding. Because teaching young children requires a different approach than that applied to older children, ECE professionals need to have a firm grasp on the developmental stages of early childhood.
While courses vary from program-to-program, students of ECE are usually required to take a number of prerequisite classes in mathematics, science and the humanities. They will also be expected to take several upper division courses focused on the skills needed to succeed in an ECE career. Upper division classes may cover: early childhood development, relationships between families and children, the role of a child's community, social policy, art for children, and multicultural issues in childcare and education.
Depending on your skill set or personal affinities, it may be wise to research possible specializations within your ECE degree program. While ECE is a specialization for many elementary education programs, ECE programs may have their own specializations, such as a focus, or even a certificate, in special education. In addition, ECE professionals may specialize in a number of subjects, including physical fitness, music, art, history, mathematics and science. Having a special skill set will undoubtedly make you a more well-rounded ECE professional, and may increase your chance of getting a job after graduation.
In ECE, for the most part, the more advanced your degree is, the more varied your career options will be. The same logic carries over to your pay, work environment and responsibilities. While it is always possible to expand upon your education by obtaining a higher degree down the road, you may save time by researching your end-goals now, so that you can aim for the particular degree that suits your workforce aspirations. The following sections detail the benefits and distinctions of each ECE degree level.
With an associate degree, an ECE grad starting out can still find work they are uniquely qualified for. Becoming a preschool teacher, a popular career choice for ECE professionals, requires only an associate degree and has a median annual salary of $27,130, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
While you don't necessarily need a bachelor's degree to work in early childhood education, or to be a preschool teacher, having one can make you more marketable to future employers; according to U.S. News and World Report , "A preschool teacher's best weapon is a bachelor's degree in early childhood education. Not only will it ensure more job opportunities, but it also qualifies that person to teach grades kindergarten through third, and opens the road to a higher salary."
With a bachelor's degree, students are also qualified for a career as a preschool and childcare center director, which can earn you a healthy median annual salary of $43,950, according to the BLS.
Careers in education are, perhaps, the most sought-after for recent ECE graduates. However, there are many jobs that involve working with children for which a bachelor's degree-holder may be qualified for. These jobs include child care center administration, program director, children's museum director and social worker, among many others.
An ECE master's degree program will help current teachers gain new skills that they can take back to their classrooms, effectively improving the education students are already receiving. Because educational requirements and applications are constantly improving, and the needs of students are constantly changing, it is not rare for a teacher to feel out-of-touch with their classroom. Going back to school for a master's degree may be the difference between "getting by" in your career and truly understanding how to apply your unique skills to improve the educational system. For example, master's degree-seekers will often take part in the research and implementation of new educational initiatives such as those published in Early Childhood Research & Practice, a peer-reviewed electronic journal sponsored by the Early Childhood and Parenting Collaborative.
Master's degree-holders are also eligible to become a principal, which can net them a median annual salary of $87,760, according to the BLS.
Ph.D. programs are primarily for individuals who wish to take on a leadership role within the professional ECE community. Ph.D. graduates will have the ability to conduct important research, formulate rigorous curriculums, take part in policy reform and take a position as faculty member at the university level.
Ideal Candidates for Early Childhood Education Degrees
The ideal candidate for a degree and subsequent career in ECE will be passionate about teaching basic and foundational skills to young children. Great organization is also a preferred quality, given that teachers must develop and implement lesson plans, schedule conferences and work collaboratively with fellow ECE teachers, especially when starting out. Finally, above average communication skills are expected of ECE professionals, as they will not only communicate daily with children, but also with the eager parents of young kids.
According to the BLS, the career outlook for early education professionals is favorable; employment of preschool teachers is expected to grow 17% in the coming years, which is faster than average. The demand for preschool teachers may have something to do with the increase in educational standards throughout the U.S.; parents of young children are ready and willing to do anything to give their child a leg up, whether that means putting them in preschool or hiring an ECE teacher for private tutoring.
If you are interested in applying to an ECE program, it is important to find a school that meets your individual needs, whether that means finding a program that offers courses online or a physical school that provides an accelerated degree track.
Additional resources include free online courses, e-books, blogs, online communities and professional organizations. Take advantage of these great, often free resources to jumpstart your career in ECE.