The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) defines “early childhood” as occurring before the age of eight, and it is during this period that a child goes through the most rapid phase of growth and development. Their brains develop faster than at any other point in their lives, so these years are critical. The foundations for their social skills, self-esteem, perception of the world and moral outlook are established during these years, as well as the development of cognitive skills.
Early childhood education is encouraged for the healthy development and nurturing of all these important foundations, and trends show that parents are increasingly recognizing this. In fact, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), enrollment in prekindergarten-level education has risen from 96,000 to over 1 million in the last 30 years.
Early childhood education is not mandated by the United States Department of Education. Elementary and secondary education is all that is legally required for students, though early childhood education is doubtlessly an important and fundamental stage of learning.
When deciding if early childhood education is right career choice for you, the first and most important question to ask yourself is: Do I like working with children? If you can’t answer yes, then this career may not be best for you. Working with children requires patience, dedication and sensitivity. Trying to keep up with them can be exhausting, but if you’re up to the challenge, it can also be extremely rewarding.
Young children are not like other students. Their needs are unique and you must be aware of this. It is important to understand that you could be one of the first adults a young child has interacted with outside of his or her own family. The separation from their parents in the beginning can be difficult, and a teacher must help them through this transition. A child can become very attached to you as a “substitute” for their parents, or they may shun you completely. Great teachers are adaptable to the emotional reactions of their students. And when it comes to your students’ interactions with other children, this can be one of the first times they interact with children their age. A teacher’s role often becomes that of mediator when children have problems sharing or learning how to get along.
Furthermore, teachers in early education need to be creative and adaptive. They must think outside their own mature perspective and be able to place themselves in their students’ shoes. What motivates a very young child? How do you hold a toddler’s interest? How do you make learning fun? These are all questions you will have to ask yourself. Lessons in early education classrooms are very hands-on. They involve arts and crafts, storytelling, exercise, educational games and more. You need to be fast on your feet and highly adaptable to continuously come up with new ways to guide children through their early learning stages.Return to the top
As an aspiring early education teacher, you need to have the right temperament. Patience, creativity, sensitivity, communication skills and ability to connect with children are arguably some of the most important qualifications. However, you’re also expected to have the proper schooling and credentials, and each state sets its own standards for what they expect from qualified teachers. Before beginning your path to becoming an early childhood educator, you should find out what the requirements are for your state or school where you want to teach.
Because teaching young children is such a highly specialized field, some schools require a degree in early childhood education or child development. Many preschools set their minimum requirement at an associate’s degree, and most Montessori schools require a Bachelor’s degree. Having a Bachelor’s degree in early childhood education will generally qualify you to teach through the third grade. Of course, having an advanced degree such as a master’s in education or teaching in this field only improves your abilities, job prospects and opportunities for career advancement.
Once you have attained your degree, you need to look into your state’s requirements to earn your official teaching credential. The Council for Professional Recognition offers the Childhood Development Associate (CDA) credential in different areas of early childhood education. The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education offers national certification as well. Also, it is important to note that to teach at a Montessori school you must complete a special Montessori teacher education program. Once you are certified, the most important way to build your career is through experience. Many preschool and Montessori teachers begin as teaching aids to gain practical classroom experience before becoming teachers.Return to the top
Preschool is not daycare, contrary to some general misconceptions. Whereas daycare is often childcare without an emphasis on learning, preschool is a child’s first formal learning environment. Preschool focuses on cognitive and social development by stimulating a child’s curiosity and imagination. Children learn through sharing toys, taking turns, and interacting with their teachers and each other. The classrooms themselves are very lively, brightly decorated with posters of the alphabet, maps, number tables and student artwork. Classrooms must be interactive and stimulating to foster an exciting learning environment. Teacher-student ratios are also closely monitored to ensure close interactions, and class sizes are kept relatively small.
Despite increasing public interest in early childhood education, preschools are still generally considered private schools. Many are funded by tuition and donations, and because the government does not mandate preschool, it is considered an option for families. However, the evidence of the lasting effects of preschool has prompted some government action. The Department of Health and Human Services instituted the Head Start Program to provide early childhood education to children from low-income families and promote their healthy development.Return to the top
Montessori schools are institutions centered around the Montessori method of learning. This method, founded by Dr. Maria Montessori over a hundred years ago, emphasizes the curiosity, creativeness and self-motivation of the child and stresses independence. This “child centered” approach to education differs from traditional methods in several major ways. Perhaps the most notable feature of Montessori schools is the classroom itself, where multiple age groups learn within one environment. Children in Montessori classrooms range from ages two and up, with no distinction in education levels. Thus, an eight-year-old learns side-by-side with a three-year-old to simulate a real-life social environment and promote peer learning. Younger children learn from the older ones, while the older children are able to practice teaching things they already know.
Montessori classrooms are also designed to foster independence and exploratory learning. In these classrooms, students are given the freedom to chose what to learn and to set their own pace. The classrooms have multiple interactive spaces, each dedicated to a different academic area, such as language arts, math and science. Children are encouraged to explore these areas in the order that most interests them, and they often end up working closely with other students to explore these areas together. Despite the autonomy, teachers in Montessori schools are by no means passive or uninvolved. Rather, the teachers work alongside students, guiding them through their exploration of the classroom, answering questions and facilitating group work. They are highly involved in this self-motivated learning process. The American Montessori Society provides a very detailed Introduction to Montessori schools that further illustrates the methods and pedagogy of this innovative approach.
Montessori institutions are private schools, and are therefore not funded by the government. Their teachers are also not subject to national teacher certification and licensure standards, though they are required to have at least a Bachelor’s (preferably in child development or early childhood education) and complete a special teacher education program.Return to the top
Kindergarten is usually seen as the beginning of formal education, and it is fully integrated into the elementary school system. Kindergarten is public education and subject to state law (therefore, kindergarten teachers must be properly licensed and certified), though it is not mandatory in every state. Children enter kindergarten during ages five to six, and many states do not begin mandating education until age seven. However, whether it is mandatory or not, it is still highly encouraged. Though kindergarten is more formal, it still qualifies as early childhood education because students are under eight years old. They are still developing at a rapid pace, and kindergarten is important to easing their transition into elementary school.
Kindergarten focuses heavily on social development and peer-to-peer interactions, though there is greater emphasis on fundamental academics than there is in preschool. In preschool children learn how to count, but in kindergarten they begin learning about adding and subtracting. They learned colors, and now learn how to blend those colors to make new ones. And whereas in preschool they learned the alphabet, kindergarten teaches them how to spell and string basic words into simple sentences. Basically, kindergarten lays the groundwork for their formal education by introducing new concepts that develop into the different academic subjects they will learn throughout the rest of their educational career.Return to the top
During the first few years of life, a child learns a lot about themselves and the world around them, and parents are their first teachers. Parents teach them how to speak, how to walk, how to feed themselves. They teach them the alphabet, shapes and colors, and even how to count and spell very simple words. But for healthy development, children need active stimulation and interaction with others. This is where early childhood education is the most beneficial. It is in these classrooms where children apply what their parents have taught them to a practical setting and have their first interactions with people outside of their family. Beginning with children as young as two, teachers guide them through an important transition and oversee their adjustment. Early childhood education focuses on “learning through play” by providing a hands-on, interactive atmosphere where children learn about themselves through playing with other children. As a teacher of young children, you become somewhat of a surrogate parent, their first source of guidance in playing with others and forming friendships. You teach them how to share, how to take turns, how to have manners--lessons that stay with them and evolve with each crucial phase of their life.
Children this young also have more physical demands than older students. Many preschools incorporate a nap time into their schedule or are on half-day schedules to accommodate a child’s exhaustion after a long morning of playing and learning. Snack time is also built into these schedules, which serve as a great opportunity to teach your students table manners. Teaching young children requires nothing short of complete devotion and perseverance. It can be a daunting task, but to a truly committed teacher, it is worth the effort.
There is much debate over what is covered by an ideal preschool curriculum, but in actuality, early childhood is a period of such tremendous growth and curiosity that it is hard to decide exactly what, and when, a child needs to learn. Many preschool curricula establish the teacher as a guide, allowing children to discover for themselves while the teacher leads them through the process. Much research goes into preschool curricula, and organizations such as the National Institute for Early Education Research and the National Association for the Education of Young Children strive to preserve and advance the education of some of our country’s youngest students, as well as increase awareness about the importance of early childhood education.Return to the top