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Child Care and Education

What is an Early Childhood Educator? (Your Career Guide)

Early childhood educators play a vital role in promoting children's social, emotional, cognitive, and physical development during the crucial early years of life. But what exactly does an early childhood educator do, and how can you become one?
Nicole Krempasky

Nicole Krempasky

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Early childhood education (ECE) is a critical field that lays the foundation for children's lifelong learning. Early childhood educators play a vital role in promoting children's social, emotional, cognitive, and physical development during the crucial early years of life. But what exactly does an early childhood educator do, and how can you become one? In this beginner's guide to early childhood education, we'll answer these questions and more.

What does an early childhood educator do?

Early childhood educators work with children from birth to age eight in a variety of settings, including daycare centers, preschools, and elementary schools. They plan and carry out developmentally appropriate activities that foster children's learning in areas such as language, math, science, art, and social skills. They also monitor children's progress, communicate with parents, and create a safe and caring environment.


Why is early childhood education important?

Research shows that quality early childhood education can have lasting positive effects on children's academic and social success. It can lead to higher academic achievement, lower rates of delinquency, and better health outcomes. Penn Foster ECE instructor, Dr. Teresa McKay notes that it’s these years that can have the biggest impact on little learners.


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“We know the first 5 are the major years in which we have the opportunity to really grab a hold of our kiddos as far as education is concerned, but also in that social-emotional development phase as well.”

-Dr. Teresa McKay, ECE Instructor

Early childhood educators have the opportunity to shape children's attitude towards learning, build strong foundations in all developmental areas, and foster their natural curiosity and creativity.


Is ECE the same as preschool?

While preschool is a commonly known form of early childhood education, ECE encompasses a wider range of services and providers. ECE includes not only formal education in a school setting but also informal learning, such as playgroups, home-based care, and community programs. ECE providers can be teachers, assistants, caregivers, counselors, coaches, or advocates for young children and families.


How to become an early childhood educator

To become an early childhood educator, you typically need a combination of education, training, and experience. The steps required to start your ECE career include:

  1. Earn a degree. Most states have education requirements, depending on the position you would like to go into. An associate degree is typically the minimum, though a bachelor’s degree is often preferred for teaching positions.
  2. Complete externships or student teaching. Many programs require you to gain hands-on experience by student teaching or completing an externship. This gives you the opportunity to learn first-hand how your coursework will apply to your daily work.
  3. Gain certification/license. Depending on which state you live in, requirements around certification and licensure can vary. It’s important to check with your State Board of Education to confirm which special qualifications you will need.
  4. Complete a background check and clearances. Each state may have different requirements surrounding which type of background checks you will need, but federal law requires some form of a complete background check on potential employees working with children. These typically include an FBI fingerprint background check, child abuse history clearance, and a criminal background check. It’s important to note that you must pass these, and they must be renewed periodically.


Read more: How to Become a Preschool Teacher (6 Things to Know Before You Start)


Is a degree in early childhood education worth it?

A degree in ECE can lead to various career paths and opportunities for advancement. It can also help you gain knowledge and skills in child development, curriculum design, assessment, and leadership.


Read more: 10 Reasons to Become a Child Care Professional


What degree do I need for early childhood education?

The minimum education requirement for most early childhood educator positions is a certificate or associate degree in ECE or a related field. However, some employers may prefer or require a bachelor's degree in ECE or a related field, such as child psychology, early elementary education, or social work. A master's degree in ECE or a related field may be necessary for advanced positions, such as program directors or researchers.


What courses are required for an early childhood degree?

The courses required for an ECE degree can vary depending on the program's level, format, and specialty. Penn Foster’s ECE curriculum includes child growth and development, infant and toddler care, working with preschoolers, interpersonal communication, and cultural diversity amongst others.


McKay also notes that Penn Foster’s assignments apply specifically to what your future job duties will be.


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“All of our written assignments are all practitioner-based, which means they all are going to apply to any work that you do out in the field. We’re not asking you to just regurgitate information back to us, we’re asking you ‘ok now what you’ve learned - how are you going to apply this?”

-Dr. Teresa McKay, ECE Instructor


How long does an early childhood education take?

The length of an ECE program can vary depending on the level and format. Penn Foster’s ECE Associate Degree can take an average of 6-14 months,* depending on how you structure your study schedule. The course requires a total of 63 credits. You may also need to complete continuing education courses or renew your license or certification periodically.


What can I do with an early childhood education degree?

An ECE degree can lead to various career opportunities, such as a preschool teacher, assistant teacher, early childhood educator, childcare professional, daycare worker, family support specialist, or program administrator. You can work in a variety of settings, such as public or private schools, nonprofits, community organizations, hospitals, or government agencies. The specific job duties, responsibilities, and salaries can vary depending on the job title and location.


Early childhood education opportunities

If you're interested in pursuing a career in ECE, there are many opportunities available and demand is high. “Educators, especially those in early childhood settings, are in high demand right now,” Sarah Owens, ECE instructor at Penn Foster, explains. Here are some examples of what type of work you can do:

  • Preschool teacher: responsible for planning and delivering age-appropriate curriculum to children aged three to five.
  • Assistant teacher: supports the lead teacher in implementing behavior management strategies, facilitating learning activities, and engaging with families.
  • Early childhood educator: works in a variety of settings to promote children's growth and development in all areas.
  • Childcare professional: provides a safe and nurturing environment for children while parents are at work or school.
  • Daycare worker: assists with supervising and engaging children in group activities, maintaining a clean and orderly environment, and following licensing regulations.


Is an early childhood educator the same as a preschool teacher?

While there is some overlap between the roles of an early childhood educator and a preschool teacher, they are not the same. An early childhood educator is a broader term that covers all professionals who work with children aged zero to eight, while a preschool teacher typically works with children aged three to five. A preschool teacher may focus more on academic learning, while an early childhood educator may address other developmental areas such as social and emotional well-being.


Is an early childhood educator a daycare worker?

While an early childhood educator can work in a daycare setting, they are not the same. A daycare worker may perform more basic caregiving tasks, such as feeding, diapering, and supervising children, while an early childhood educator may have more advanced knowledge and skills in child development, curriculum planning, and family engagement. However, both roles play an essential part in promoting childcare and learning.


What is an early childhood educator salary?

The salary of an early childhood educator can vary depending on factors such as education level, experience, location, and job title. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for preschool teachers in 2021 was $30,210, while the median annual wage for childcare workers was $27,490. However, some early childhood educators, such as program directors, can earn higher salaries.


How Do Early Childhood Education Careers Compare?

OccupationMinimum required educationMedian pay
Childcare workerHigh school diploma or equivalent$27,490
Preschool and childcare center directorsBachelor's degree$47,310
Teacher assistantsSome college, no degree$29,360


Source: BLS.gov

Get started on your future

Early childhood education is a rewarding and dynamic field that offers several career paths and opportunities. Whether you want to work as a preschool teacher, assistant teacher, early childhood educator, childcare professional, or daycare worker, Penn Foster offers a few different education program options to get your degree on your own terms. Learn more by calling an Admissions Specialist at 1-888-427-6500.


* The estimated completion time for this program is based on completion times for learners enrolled in this program from November 2020 - October 2021, excluding withdrawals.

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