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Early Childhood Educator Career Guide

In most states, an early childhood educator works with children from birth to third grade or approximately age eight. These teachers work with students in public or private school settings, at elementary schools of all kinds, and in federally- and state-funded programs for early intervention with children from birth to kindergarten such as Head Start. This guide provides information on how to become an early childhood educator, what they do, and the salary and job outlook for this occupation.

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How to Become an Early Childhood Educator

Since teaching younger children requires a specialized set of skills, educators working with students in early childhood typically begin their careers by earning a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education, child development, or a closely-related area of study. In order to qualify graduates for teacher licensure, most states require the program to be approved by the state board of education for teacher preparation. For traditional students pursuing a bachelor’s degree, the typical process is as follows:

  1. Complete a teacher preparation program in early childhood education that is approved by your state’s board of education.
  2. Complete a student teaching practicum in an early childhood program.
  3. Take your state’s required tests for educators.
  4. Apply to your state’s board of education for a teaching certificate or license.
  5. Begin applying to open early childhood teacher positions.

Once accepted into a bachelor’s degree program, students will typically spend the first two years of study earning general education credits. The second two years of the bachelor’s degree program will focus on courses in childhood development, methods of teaching children, and theories of learning. Students can expect to complete at least one internship or practicum working with small children in a classroom setting. Many early childhood education programs include several separate classroom engagements to prepare teachers for the demands of the job. After graduating, prospective early childhood teachers will be ready to become licensed to teach and earn their early childhood endorsement through testing such as the Praxis Tests, although state testing requirements for early childhood certification vary from state to state.

Previously licensed teachers, or those who already earned a bachelor’s degree in another subject, may be able to add an early childhood endorsement to a teaching certificate by completing a alternative teaching pathway. These graduates will then take the required tests to earn an early childhood endorsement in their state..

Those interested in teaching at the postsecondary level may seek a master’s degree or doctoral degree in early childhood education, which provide opportunities to gain a deeper understanding of learning in childhood and more developed skills for working with small children. Many graduate programs offer avenues for specialization within the early childhood education field, such as special needs or gifted and talented.

Early Childhood Educator Job Description

Early childhood teachers specialize in the learning, developmental, social, and physical needs of young children. These educators provide a safe and comfortable environment in which young children can learn not just early academics, but social, motor, and adaptive skills. Educators working with students in early childhood specialize in childhood learning and developmental health. Educators teaching pre-kindergarten (pre-K) through third grade can expect to teach core subjects such as reading, math, science, and social studies according to the curriculum set out by their school or district. Educators will also provide opportunities and activities for structured and unstructured play, as well as light snacks during the school day. Children’s behavior and development are discussed regularly with parents. Those working in an at-risk program such as Head Start can expect to make home visits and counsel parents.

Early Childhood Educator Requirements and Common Tasks

In order to work as an early childhood professional in public schools, state certification is typically required. This certification is most commonly earned through a traditional bachelor’s degree program with a major in early childhood education (ECE). One major responsibility for early childhood teachers is providing a safe and fun learning environment for young children, which involves planning and arranging the learning environment(s) and providing careful supervision with an eye to safety. In many classrooms with young children, an early childhood teacher will also supervise a teacher’s aide or teaching assistant who is present to assist with younger children’s physical and learning needs. Educators must also plan and provide developmentally appropriate learning lessons and activities that are structured to advance children’s understanding of fundamental skills. Structure in an early childhood learning environment is especially important as children learn from routines and become comfortable learning and expressing themselves appropriately.

Helpful Skills and Experience

Early childhood educators have a love of children, an understanding of the needs and abilities of children, and a passion for teaching. Educators wanting to work in the early childhood field must possess essential character traits such as caring, patience, flexibility, and compassion. These educators must also possess high-level knowledge of childhood development and the content areas to be taught. Previous experience working with small children, especially in a classroom setting, is sought by most employers looking to hire early childhood professionals.

Possible Job Titles for This Career

  • Community Teacher
  • Early Childhood Teacher
  • Early Education Teacher
  • Elementary School Teacher
  • Kindergarten Teacher
  • Master Teacher
  • Pre-K Teacher
  • Preschool Teacher

Early Childhood Educator Salary and Job Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), elementary school teachers earned a median annual salary of $61,690 as of 2022 and have job growth prospects of 1% from 2022 to 2032.1 Preschool teachers, who teach ages three to five, earned a median annual salary of $35,330 during the same time period and have higher job growth prospects of 3% from 2022 to 2032.2 Kindergarten teachers earned a median annual salary of $60,490 in 2022, with job growth prospects of 1% through 2031.1 Childcare workers earned a median annual salary of $28,520, with negative job growth expected through 2032.3 As schools work to maintain student-teacher ratios as current teachers retire or leave the education sector, job prospects for early childhood teachers should remain positive.

Additional Resources

Early Childhood Education Career Interviews

Early Childhood Education Blogs

The Early Childhood Education Blogs list provides lesson and activity ideas, insights into teaching young students, helpful teaching resources, and inspiring stories of success. Be sure to also visit our ranking of the Top Early Childhood Educators on Twitter.

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: What certification is required to become an early childhood educator?

Answer: In most circumstances, early childhood educators must have a bachelor’s degree and a state teacher’s license with an endorsement in early childhood education. Preschool teachers may only be required to hold an associate’s degree. However, requirements in some states and private schools may differ. Your state Board of Education and local teacher preparation programs can provide information on the specific requirements for your area.

Question: What ages do early childhood educators teach?

Answer: Early childhood is commonly considered infancy to the age of eight. As this includes a range of developmental levels, early childhood professionals may specialize in particular age groups, such as pre-K, kindergarten, or first through third grades. Specialization can begin during college or be developed through post-graduate certification programs, as well as through experience.

Question: Are there career opportunities for early childhood educators outside of public schools?

Answer: There are many career opportunities for early childhood professionals aside from working in public schools. Private schools, such as Montessori schools, frequently hire early childhood specialists. Community centers, daycare centers, and other child-focused organizations also have a demand for early childhood specialists.

Question: Where do early childhood educators work?

Answer: Daycare centers, preschools, kindergartens, and elementary schools are the most common places of employment for those with a degree in early childhood education.

References:
1. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Kindergarten and Elementary School Teachers: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/kindergarten-and-elementary-school-teachers.htm
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Preschool Teachers: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/preschool-teachers.htm
3. Bureau of Labor Statistics May 2022 Occupational Employment and Wages, Childcare Workers: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes399011.htm
4. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Childcare Workers: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/personal-care-and-service/childcare-workers.htm