What Is an Early Childhood Education Degree, and Do You Need One?

Written by Coursera • Updated on

An early childhood education degree is an option for people who want to work with children between the ages of birth and 8 years. Find out what you can do with an early childhood education degree and discover the variety of jobs available.

[Featured Image]: Two Men and two women in black cap and gowns wait to get their early childhood education degrees.

An early childhood education degree is an associate, bachelor's, master's, or doctorate degree that prepares you to work with children between the ages of birth and eight years old. During this period, children learn a variety of essential life and social skills, including how to walk, talk, interact with others, add and subtract, and more. Courses in early childhood education degree programs help you learn how to teach children these skills and assess their progress.

What is an early childhood education degree?

An early childhood education degree can be an undergraduate or graduate degree. Coursework within these degree programs addresses topics like developmentally appropriate teaching practices, early childhood education theories, and early childhood literacy, as well as general education courses. At some schools, the degree is a concentration under the larger umbrella of elementary education or child study.

Degree types

Early childhood education degrees range from the associate to doctoral level. You can earn an associate degree in about two years. With this type of degree, you may qualify for entry-level positions in a childcare center. Having an associate degree can also be helpful if you later decide to earn a bachelor's degree. The school may give you credit for the coursework you took to earn the associate degree. 

A bachelor's degree takes most people four years to complete. If you plan to teach in a public or private school as a classroom teacher, you likely need at least a bachelor's degree. Depending on the school you attend, you may choose between a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Science (BS) degree. Both types of degrees typically require 120 credit hours of coursework, but the curriculum for a BA program tends to emphasize the humanities and arts while the BS program tends to emphasize math and science [1].

Graduate degrees in early childhood education include master's and doctorate degrees that typically take between two and six years to complete. Common graduate degrees in early childhood education include:

  • Master of Arts (MA)

  • Master of Arts in Education (MAE)

  • Master of Science (MS)

  • Master of Education (MEd)

  • Doctor of Education (EdD)

  • Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Classroom teachers may earn graduate degrees to advance their careers or expand their knowledge, especially if they have a bachelor's degree in an area other than education. People who pursue a doctorate in early childhood education usually want to work in the field as researchers or teaching future educators.

Degree concentrations

Some students choose to concentrate their early childhood education studies in a specific area of interest. For example, you may want to concentrate on bilingual or dual language education if you plan to work in a community with a large number of recent immigrants. Similarly, you may decide to concentrate on special education if your plans include working with children who have developmental delays or disabilities.

What you’ll study and sample coursework

The curriculum for early childhood education degree programs is similar to what you might expect to find in any education class, but with an emphasis on how they pertain to children who are 8 years old and younger. Professors tend to use a practical approach with plenty of hands-on application. Some of the core courses you may take include:

  • Child Development

  • Classroom Management and Guidance of Young Children

  • Creative and Affective Experience for Young Children

  • Early Literacy Learning

  • Infant and Toddler Care

  • Math Content and Processes

  • Methods of Curriculum and Instruction

  • Play Development and Assessment

  • Young Children with Special Needs

In addition to the classroom experience, you also may have opportunities to observe teachers in preschool and elementary classrooms. Many programs include an internship that lets you experience firsthand what it's like to be an early childhood education teacher. You'll plan and implement lessons and practice managing a classroom. Some schools ask you to put together a portfolio demonstrating everything you've learned in the program.

Who needs an early childhood education degree?

Anyone who wants to work in a public school as a classroom teacher must have an early childhood education degree. In most states, a degree is one of the requirements for licensure. Some private schools and preschools also prefer teachers who have a degree.

What can you do with an early childhood education degree?

People who earn an early childhood education degree typically pursue careers in childcare centers or schools. Some of the careers you find in a public or private school setting include the following:

  • Preschool teacher: As a preschool teacher, you organize educational activities and work with children who are not yet old enough to enter kindergarten. Your job includes preparing and teaching lessons, supervising learning activities, and tracking student progress as they learn the skills and content needed for success in elementary school. 

  • Special education teacher: Special education teachers work with children younger than 8 who have a diagnosed disability. Your job may be in a classroom, small group, or one-on-one setting and include tasks like evaluating students, setting academic goals, monitoring progress toward goals, instructing students, modifying materials for students, and co-teaching with the classroom teacher. You also may act as a liaison between the school and the parents.

  • Teacher assistant: A teacher assistant (TA) works under the supervision of a classroom teacher. In this role, you may help prepare materials, assist with tasks in the classroom, and manage students as they work in activities. The teacher may ask you to tutor individual or small groups of students who need additional support with their classwork.

Early childhood education jobs are also available outside traditional schools. Having an early childhood education degree is also helpful in other settings. They include the following: 

  • Childcare center director: Managing a learning center for younger students is a supervisory role. You can hire, supervise, and monitor the teachers and other staff working in the facility to ensure they are meeting the needs of the students. In addition, you may handle tasks on the business side of things, such as tracking funding, processing payments, staying in compliance with regulations, and communicating with parents.

  • Childcare worker: Childcare workers have a similar role to that of preschool teachers, but they are more likely to work outside a traditional classroom setting. You may work in a neighborhood childcare facility, at a religious or civic organization, a corporation that offers on-site childcare for employees, or for a family. In this role, you may supervise children during the day, create schedules for them, and teach them new concepts.

  • Nanny: Nannies may work full or part-time taking care of the children in a single family, usually while parents are at work. As a nanny, you are fully invested in the child's daily care. Your job may include preparing meals, transporting children to events, cleaning the house, organizing playdates, and supervising children in their homes. Depending on the needs of the family, you may live in the house with them or commute as required. 

Early childhood education certification and licensure

Each state has requirements for licensing or certifying childcare workers. You may need to take childcare classes that cover topics like child development, nutrition, and safety (including how to detect signs of abuse or maltreatment) and pass a test demonstrating your knowledge. 

Other required courses can include CPR for infants and children, medication administration, record maintenance, and business management. The laws governing childcare workers vary from state to state and can change during legislative sessions, so check with your state's department of family or social services for the most current information.

Alternatives to an early childhood education degree

In some cases, you may not need an early childhood education degree. For example, you may be able to open a daycare in your own home as long as you meet the state and local requirements for this type of facility. In most cases, this does not require a degree.

It's also possible to teach in a classroom without an early childhood education degree. Some states allow college graduates to apply for a teaching license even if they majored in a different subject area. If you choose this route, you still have to meet all of the requirements for a license, which can include passing exams and taking some education courses specified in the statutes. You also may find it helpful to take some early childhood education courses to learn more about the most recent research in the field.

How to apply to an early childhood education degree program

Before applying to an early childhood education degree program, think about what you plan to do with the degree. Your answer to this question will help you choose your next step. For example, if your goal is to work as a kindergarten teacher in a local elementary school, you need at least a bachelor's degree. If you plan to open a daycare in your home, you may decide to start with an associate degree or certification program.

After you decide what type of program to pursue, check out schools that offer the program you want. You can find in-person and online programs available across the country. Review each program's admission requirements. This likely includes completing an application, submitting an application fee, and sending copies of your transcripts from previous schools or high school equivalency scores. Some schools ask you to take a test like the SAT or ACT. Pay attention to deadlines and submit all of the required information on time.

Tips for choosing an early childhood education degree program

When choosing an early childhood education degree program, look for one with the type of degree and coursework that aligns with your career goals. The following questions can help you evaluate the program:

  • Does the program offer the specific courses or concentration you want?

  • Will you have an internship?

  • Will a university accept an associate degree from this school?

  • How soon after you graduate can you apply for certification?

  • Are classes face-to-face or online?

  • Are classes lecture-based or hands-on?

The answers to these questions can help you determine which program is best for you.

Next steps

Begin building your knowledge of the early childhood education theories and their applications in the field with an introductory course on child development or foundations of education. If you want to earn a bachelor's degree, explore your options with these online programs on Coursera.

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Article sources

1. US News & World Report. "The Difference Between a B.A. and B.S. Degree, https://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/articles/understand-the-difference-between-a-ba-and-bs-degree." Accessed March 31, 2022.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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