You have a passion for helping the littlest students, and you want to devote your career to a classroom filled with young children. All educators need to be properly prepared for working in the classroom with degrees that provide them with knowledge about student needs and skills for leading students to success. It is especially important for teachers to understand how to build a strong foundation of learning at the beginning of a student’s academic career, as their achievement in school might be wholly dependent on their earliest experiences in school.
So, if you want to teach young children, you need a college degree — but which one? There are two main options for those interested in working with the littlest students, and each has its own advantages and disadvantages when it comes to the course of your career.
Early childhood education (ECE) is a field that covers the critical period of learning between birth and about age 8, though most early childhood educators manage classrooms of children aged between 2 and 4 — the preschool years. Education in early childhood is incredibly important; a person achieves 90 percent of their brain volume by age 6, and the neurological pathways that develop during this time could inform how the brain functions for the rest of a child’s life. Sociological research has found that students enrolled in ECE tend to enjoy greater success than students who begin school with kindergarten. Preschool students are more likely to go on to graduate high school, maintain employment and earn higher wages, on average.
ECE involves the very youngest students, and thus has unique requirements from its educators. Rather than creating formal lesson plans to instruct classes on complex topics, ECE is primarily concerned with childcare: making sure students are safe and supported as they explore their own interests and abilities. Educators will provide some structure and may provide some instruction in foundational topics like literacy and math, but for the most part, ECE involves understanding child development and keeping students happy and healthy.
There are two options for ECE degrees: an associate degree and a bachelor’s degree. An associate’s degree in early childhood education is a two-year program that will qualify educators for basic teaching roles in some ECE institutions. Meanwhile, a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education is a four-year program that provides more in-depth knowledge and skill in child development, psychology, lesson planning, case management and first aid. The highest-paying ECE organizations expect teachers to have a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Elementary education, also called primary education, concerns creating a foundation of knowledge and skill in students aged about 5 to 13 — from kindergarten to grade 8. While elementary educators certainly do provide for the safety, security and support of their students, they are expected to instruct students formally in important subjects that can impact students’ academic and career performance later in life. Often, elementary classrooms must adhere to curricula determined by school and district administrators, and teachers are expected to help their students excel on state and national standardized tests.
Typically, elementary educators must be more organized and structured than those working in ECE. Though understanding childhood development can be useful, elementary school teachers also need to have a firm grasp on the key subjects they will be teaching their students, to include literature, mathematics, science, history, art and music. Admittedly, there is a significant difference in the skills and knowledge required of teachers of different grade levels within elementary education; a grade 1 teacher might have more in common with an early childhood educator than with a grade 7 instructor. Thus, it might be worthwhile for prospective elementary educators to spend time in different areas of elementary education to better understand their own preferences.
Unlike secondary and higher education, in which educators might specialize in a field before becoming adept at instruction, elementary educators tend to earn bachelor’s degrees in primary education, which provide them with the skills and knowledge to manage classrooms of younger children. Additionally, elementary educators typically need to earn state certifications and participate in continuing education, which will help them update the knowledge they impart in their classrooms. A few elementary educators proceed to earn graduate degrees in their field, but master’s degrees and above do little to impact a teacher’s hire-ability or earning potential at the elementary level.
So, do you want to serve primarily as a childcare expert for the youngest learners, or do you want to work as a teacher for students just embarking on their academic journeys? Whether you choose early childhood education or elementary education depends on your interests and strengths, so you might explore both paths before you make any decisions about your career in education.