Early childhood education is a term that refers to the period of time from a child’s birth to when they enter kindergarten, according to Dr. Jessica Alvarado, academic program director for the BA in Early Childhood Development at National University. According to Alvarado, it is an important time in children’s lives because it is when they first learn how to interact with others, including peers, teachers and parents, and also begin to develop interests that will stay with them throughout their lives.
But Alvarado says it’s a common misperception that early childhood education is only about learning basic skills. “It’s so much more than that,” she says. “It’s a time when children learn critical social and emotional skills and a partnership is formed between the child, their parents and the teacher. When this is done successfully, it lays the groundwork for it to continue throughout the child’s education.”
Nations around the world are becoming aware of the importance of early childhood education as well. UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) is an international governing body whose mission is “to contribute to the building of peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development, and intercultural dialogue through education.” Here’s what the organization says about the importance of early childhood education:
“Early childhood care and education (ECCE) is more than preparation for primary school. It aims at the holistic development of a child’s social, emotional, cognitive and physical needs in order to build a solid and broad foundation for lifelong learning and wellbeing. ECCE has the possibility to nurture caring, capable and responsible future citizens.”
What Specific Outcomes Does Early Childhood Education Have on a Child’s Future?
The outcomes vary, as Alvarado explains, but all have been positive. “Studies have looked at everything from the broad social benefits of early childhood education, to something as specific as STEM learning outcomes (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and how introducing children to these topics early on can have a lasting impact,” she says.
She also stresses the importance of encouraging early childhood educators to really get to know their students and each of their specific interests. “When [teachers] do that, that relationship can really influence the students day to day and build trust — and studies have shown that when children are comfortable and trust the people around them, they learn more quickly and successfully,” she says.
Parental involvement is also a big component of this relationship-building process, and Alvarado says its important for teachers at this level to work closely with the families. “When the partnership between teachers and the family is successful, we see that echoing positively throughout the child’s life,” she explains.
What Is It Like to Work in Early Childhood Education?
According to Alvarado, someone who enjoys working with children and wants to make a lasting impact on their lives will probably be happy with a career in early childhood education. “Helping children to learn and grow is a big part of it, but this field also provides lots of opportunities to grow yourself — not just in your knowledge but overall in your social emotional growth as well. It can help you develop leadership skills and to become a reflective practitioner.”
If you’re interested in pursuing a career in early childhood education, the first step is to earn a bachelor’s degree. In addition to what’s required in your degree program, there may be state or country-specific coursework. Depending upon where you’d like to work, whether in the U.S. or abroad, you should contact the state Department of Education or the country’s Ministry of Education to learn about any location-specific course or licensure requirements.
What Are Some of the Biggest Challenges People Working in Early Childhood Education Face?
Alvarado says that one of the biggest challenges educators face is finding the right balance between working one-on-one with children and managing the larger group as a whole. “For example, if you’re working in a classroom, you could be really focused on learning what a child’s specific interests and needs are — meanwhile you’ve got lots of other children who also need your attention.”
Figuring out how to apply and implement classroom standards can also be an issue for new teachers. “I went a little crazy with making charts in my first year,” she says, “But the longer I was in the field, the more I was able to take a deep breath and realize that I didn’t need to be so hard on myself.”
She recommends that teachers not beat themselves up if they make a mistake. “Don’t try to be perfect,” she says. “It’s more important that you just keep going.”
How Can Teachers Maximize Learning Outcomes for Children at This Age?
In order to get the best outcomes in early childhood education, Alvarado strongly suggests working students’ natural curiosities into lesson plans. “Yes, we want to look at standards,” she says. “Yes, there are boxes we need to check, but a huge part of what we do with young children is looking at their interests and using those interests to better engage them in learning.”
Alvarado explains that teachers can take the topics or subject areas that fascinate individual students and expand on it through in-class or at-home activities. Targeting these areas can help students develop critical thinking skills, allowing them to give more complex answers than “yes” or “no.” To illustrate this technique, Alvarado describes a student who showed a passion for insects. At first, she says she was caught off guard and didn’t know what to do, but then she realized she could use this interest in bugs to engage the child in a number of other subjects besides science. “There could be math in there, language arts — it was really about using the child’s specific interest to open new doors for them.”
Why Should Students Pursue a Career in Early Childhood Education?
Early childhood education is a wide and varied career path. If you enjoy working with children and are willing to put in the work necessary to earn your degree, Alvarado believes you will find it rewarding.
It is also a growing field. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for individuals working in early childhood education is strong, with employment of preschool teachers expected to grow 10 percent over the next eight years. In 2017, the median annual salary for preschool teachers was $28,990, with the highest 10% of earners making more than $54,000. The median in California is $36,760. (According to BLS statistics, “median” salary is the midpoint between half of workers who earn more than that amount and half of workers who earn less.)
But a preschool classroom isn’t the only place you can go with your degree. Alvarado started her career in a children’s shelter near San Diego. “It was a 24-hour facility,” she recalls. “The children lived there and went to school on site. Sometimes the site served as a transition between families and foster care.”
Alvarado adds that in addition to finding positions at schools, some of her past students have joined the teams at education-related non-profits — and fell in love with the work they do there.
According to the BLS, the top employers of preschool teachers are:
- State, local, and private schools.
- Individual and family services.
- Religious, grantmaking, professional and similar organizations.
- Child day care services.
Other career options are available with additional education in early childhood education.
“[I]f you go on to get your master’s, you can work as an assistant director of an early education program or teach at a community college,” Alvarado says.
According to the United States Department of Education, graduates of early childhood education programs can be qualified for a variety of positions beyond teaching preschool, including:
- Family service staff.
- Early learning and development programs.
- Infant and toddler specialists.
- Early intervention specialists.
- Early childhood special educators.
- Home visitors and related service providers.
- Head Start and Early Head Start teachers.
What Makes National University’s Bachelor of Arts in Early Childhood Education (BAECE) Program Stand Out?
Before joining the full-time faculty at National, Alvarado served as an adjunct professor for eight years. What struck her most about the program during her early years at the university was its focus on the students and the commitment level of faculty members.
“My program director called me all the time to check in on how my classes were going,” she says. “He would say things like, ‘We’re thinking of changing something for this class you’re teaching, what do you think?’ He always wanted my input no matter how small of a matter it was.”
National’s BAECE program is aligned with national standards so students can be certain they will graduate with the right set of skills to enter the workplace. You’ll learn from education professionals with first-hand teaching experience, including full-time and adjunct faculty members who are either still teaching in early childhood education or have taught in the field in the past.
“We are eager to share our own experiences with our students. Even in the online classes I’ll bring up examples of what went really well and what didn’t in a classroom setting,” Alvarado says.
Another component of National’s BAECE program that is popular with students is field experience. National students complete approximately five hours of field experience for each class they take. Alvarado explains the field experience learning component is always tied to a specific assignment in class. For example, if an in-class topic is learning how to create lesson plans, a student could then go into an actual classroom to put that concept into practice.
“Students love the field experience,” she says. “It can be a little intimidating at first but afterwards my students always thank me because they see immediately where they are strong and where they need to put in work.”
Alvarado also takes pride in National’s online learning format. “It’s never just read and write,” she says. “There are videos, activities, and discussion boards. My students are never just thinking about what a book says about a topic; we’re always challenging them to think about what it would be like to put it into practice.”
What Are Some of the Most Important Classes in National’s BAECE?
Alvarado cites two examples of classes that, while different from one another, have been critical in giving her students the skills and confidence they need to succeed as early childhood educators.
In Early Cognition, one of the first courses in the program, students learn about the nature and tasks of early cognition including social, cultural, and biological foundations. They also learn how to collaborate with families and staff in supporting active learning environments. Students look at current research implications in brain development and cognition and how they can affect classroom instruction. Students also learn how to use that research to assess a student’s progress.
Play as Pedagogy is a case study class that focuses on play as the primary learning modality for young children. The course reinforces how impactful it can be for teachers to observe children at play. Each week students learn how to design lesson plans on an aspect of play, as well as learn how to explain play as a teaching tool and how to extend it through art, music, and dance.
“It’s a fun course and it’s important to talk about ‘play’ in general when it comes to early childhood education and to look at ‘play’ as education,” Alvarado says.
What Role Does Licensure Play in Your Career as an Early Childhood Educator?
As in most teaching careers, additional credentials beyond a related degree are often needed to be employed at a specific type of school or in a specific city, state, or country.
For example, in California, those seeking to become early childhood educators are required to apply for a permit from the state’s Commission on Teacher Credentialing. Permits come in a variety of levels based on job responsibilities (such as if you’ll be supervising others), and, thus, requirements vary for each.
What Does it Mean When a Class is Offered in a Precision Learning Format?
In order to make sure students get the most out of their classes, some (including the aforementioned ‘“play” course) are offered in a “precision learning format.” Precision learning is a personalized way of instructing that allows students to get any support they need early on. Alvarado, who was one of the founders of this learning format, believes this format is critical to a student’s success in the class; they’ll understand how they learn and then can strategize their studying accordingly.
“In a precision learning format, students are given opportunities for learning in a more personalized way,” she explains. “We set it up so they get the help they need, when they need it, and can thrive as a result.”
According to Alvarado, the answer to “why is early childhood education important” lies in the fact these are critical development years. During this time, valuable relationships are formed in children’s lives, and partnerships developed between teachers, peers, and parents.