Early Childhood Education Majors Guide

Table of Contents

What Does it Mean to Study Early Childhood Education?

The growing field of early childhood education (ECE) includes many different job opportunities. Regardless of the position you seek, students pursuing an early childhood education major should enjoy interacting with children and have a strong desire to help them learn and succeed.

Early childhood education professionals may work with children of different age groups, depending on their specialty. Generally speaking, early childhood education covers age ranges from birth to about age 8. Earning an early childhood education degree offers employment opportunities in a field that dramatically shapes and influences the lives of children. Early childhood educators enjoy teaching and are capable of teaching skills using a variety of instructional methods. They are flexible, and enjoy an autonomous work environment. Above all, professionals in the field must have a true love of young people.

Types of Early Childhood Education Degrees

Many aspiring early childhood educators and administrators choose to earn their degrees online while maintaining their current jobs. This is particularly useful for career changers who can't afford an employment gap. Current teachers who may be required to earn an advanced degree also benefit from the online experience. Online early childhood education degree programs are available at every level, from certificate to Ph.D., and are offered by many accredited colleges and universities. Regardless of degree level, most programs require students to complete a practical learning experience at a local early childhood education facility.

Certificate Programs in Early Childhood Education

To enroll in an early childhood education certificate program, you typically need either a high school diploma or GED equivalent. Certificate and diploma programs are short courses of study that teach basic professional and industry-specific skills. An early childhood education certificate can help prepare you for an entry-level career in a daycare facility or similar childcare setting. Core courses may include:

  • Foundations of Child Development
  • Curriculum and Instruction for ECE
  • Health, Nutrition, and Safety for Young Children
  • Observations and Learning Assessment for ECE

Associate Degrees in Early Childhood Education

An associate degree in early childhood education is a more extensive program that, upon completion, can offer a wider range of career options and promote career advancement. Graduates often go on to become lead teachers in daycare or preschool settings. This type of degree takes approximately two years of full-time study to complete. They can be earned either on-campus or online. Common courses include:

  • Basics of Running and Walking for Children
  • Best Practices for Early Childhood Education
  • Childhood Growth and Development
  • Role of the Early Childhood Educator

Bachelor's Degrees in Early Childhood Education

Bachelor's degrees in early childhood education generally take four years to complete and are a common entry-level requirement in the field. A bachelor's degree may also provide numerous advancement opportunities in the field. To become a public school teacher, you must earn a bachelor's as a prerequisite to earning a teaching license. Although a license may not be required to work at a private ECE school, a bachelor's degree in early childhood education often is. In addition to covering general education requirements, bachelor's programs typically focus on classroom issues and pre-kindergarten through third grade instructional methods. Specific curriculum varies by school but may include:

  • Instruction and Curriculum for Early Childhood Education
  • Administration for Early Childhood Programs
  • Literature for Young Children
  • Psychology for Elementary Aged Students

Master's Degrees in Early Childhood Education

Earning an early childhood education degree at the master's level is best for those seeking employment in ECE director and management positions. To be eligible for admission, students must first complete a bachelor's degree program. Because of this, many master's degree students are working adults who have prior experience in the early childhood education field. Online master's degree programs can be a great fit for these students, allowing them to meet the demands of their career while pursuing their degree at a time that's convenient for them. Master's level courses often focus on curriculum development and administrative roles within the field. Courses and topics may include:

  • Organizational Design and Leadership
  • Program Measurement and Evaluation
  • Law and Ethics in Education
  • Finance for Education
  • Administration of Elementary Curriculum

Ph.D. Programs in Early Childhood Education

Doctoral programs in early childhood education help prepare students for advanced careers in the field. Upon graduation, students generally find jobs in universities, research facilities, or public policy. These programs provide the theoretical knowledge and practical skills needed to research and evaluate the effectiveness of instructional methods, individual institutions, and early childhood education programs at large. Completion of a dissertation is usually required. Some core courses may include:

  • Research Methods for Education
  • Childhood Development Theory
  • ECE Curriculum Planning
  • Analysis of ECE Research, Curriculum, and Instruction
  • Literacy Development and Instruction for Early Childhood Education

What Can You Do With a College Degree in Early Childhood Education?

Most positions in early childhood education involve working directly with young children (even leadership positions generally require this experience). The level of early childhood education degree you attain determines your eligibility for various types of job opportunities. As you increase your education, you are eligible for more positions and can generally expect a higher salary. Career options for an early childhood education major might include:

Childcare Workers

Childcare workers operate in a variety of settings, but most frequently daycare centers. As a childcare worker, you can expect to help children learn basic concepts, primarily through play. Childcare centers are typically open all year long and have opportunities for both part and full-time employment.

  • Minimum Educational Requirement: Though requirements vary from state to state, a high school diploma or its equivalent is usually the only education necessary.
  • Special Certifications or Licensures: Some states require that staff at daycare centers be certified in first aid and CPR. Additionally, some states may require staff members to hold a nationally recognized designation or credential in ECE, such as the Child Development Associate (CDA) credential.

Preschool Teachers

Preschool teachers typically work with children from age two until they're ready for kindergarten. Teachers are responsible for introducing basic skills and concepts such as colors, numbers, and letters. Again, the primary method for learning is through play. As a preschool teacher, you can often expect to work part-time. You might begin as an assistant teacher and work your way up to teacher, or even lead teacher.

  • Minimum Educational Requirement: At a minimum, preschool teachers are expected to have at least a high school diploma and an ECE certification. An associate degree is often required, but a bachelor's may better qualify you for the many opportunities for advancement in a preschool center.
  • Special Certifications or Licensures: Requirements vary by state and institution, however, nationally recognized credentials or designations are often expected. For those teaching in public schools, an early childhood education teaching license is typically required.

Kindergarten and Elementary School Teachers

Kindergarten and elementary school teachers teach students skills in the areas of science, math, language, and social studies. They must be able to employ a variety of instructional methods and work with students of all different backgrounds, races, and ethnicities.

  • Minimum Educational Requirements: A bachelor's degree is required for all public school teachers in every state. Private school teachers are usually required to have a bachelor's degree in elementary education or an equivalent field.
  • Special Certifications or Licensures: All public school teachers must be licensed or certified by the state in which they teach. Teachers in private schools may not be legally required to meet this requirement, although it could help to secure employment.

Preschool and Childcare Center Directors

Preschool and childcare center directors supervise the day-to-day operations of a preschool, childcare center, or school. These administrators oversee staff and curriculum, manage budgets, and ensure that their schools meet all educational standards set forth by their governing body. Preschool directors typically work year round, even through summer breaks. They are often required to attend nighttime meetings and fundraisers.

  • Minimum Educational Requirements: At a minimum in most states, a preschool or childcare center director is expected to hold an associate degree -- although many positions require a bachelor's or master's in the field. Relevant work experience is also a must.
  • Special Certifications or Licensures: As with other ECE careers, obtaining a nationally recognized designation or credential in early childhood education may be required. Childcare centers typically must also be licensed by the state in which they do business.

Early Childhood Education Associations and Organizations

Several associations and organizations provide support and development opportunities for early childhood education professionals. The following are three of the most prominent:

  • National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAYEC) -- The NAYEC seeks to connect ECE research, policy, and instructional methods to improve learning for children from birth to age 8. They offer professional development and provide an accreditation system for postsecondary ECE training.
  • Council for Professional Recognition -- This organization seeks to promote the professional development of early childhood educators to ensure their training meets the needs of children ages birth to age 5. They offer the widely recognized Childhood Development Associate (CDA) credential for ECE professionals.
  • National Early Childhood Program Accreditation (NECPA) -- The NECPA seeks to recognize and promote excellence in early childhood education. They offer accreditation and the Certified Childcare Professional (CCP) designation.


  1. Childcare Workers, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/personal-care-and-service/childcare-workers.htm
  2. Kindergarten and Elementary School Teachers, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/kindergarten-and-elementary-school-teachers.htm
  3. Preschool and Childcare Center Directors, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/preschool-and-childcare-center-directors.htm
  4. Preschool Teachers, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/preschool-teachers.htm

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