Early childhood education is a very broad term that refers to the education programs geared to children who are younger than kindergarten age. Early childhood education teachers are typically called preschool teachers. Learn all about early childhood education and what it means to teach in this age range.

Have you ever thought about becoming an early childhood education teacher? If you enjoy interacting with children of a young age, being an early childhood education teacher might be a good career choice for you. However, it helps to have a full understanding of what early childhood education is.

What is early childhood education?

Early childhood education is a type of program that is specifically designed for children who have not yet reached kindergarten age. Early childhood education is a general term, and there are many types of educational programs for children of this age that might fit into this category. Programs can consist of a variety of activities that help to develop the social and cognitive abilities of preschoolers.

The details of how early childhood education programs work is typically regulated on a state-level. For that reason, these programs can vary dramatically from one state to another. Early childhood education programs can also vary from one educational institution to another.

In addition, early childhood education programs might be specifically designed for a certain age or age group. These programs can exist as part of childcare services or day care for a nursery school. They may also be based in a home-based day care setting or in a public school setting or as part of a summer school program. Sponsorship and funding of early childhood education programs can come from private organizations, local school systems, or through a federally funded agency or a program such as Head Start.

Early childhood education programs funded by federal, state and private sources

The Head Start program was one of the first implemented programs for early childhood education created in the United States in 1965. Head Start is funded by the Department of Health and Human Services. This program is intended to help the children of families who are in a low socioeconomic class or those who qualify under a certain at-risk category. Qualified families and children get free early childhood education program access, even if that program is tuition-based.

Title 1 of the Elementary and Secondary Act is part of the United States Federal funding program. A vast majority of the early childhood education programs now operating in the United States work within Title 1 of the Elementary and Secondary Act. Through this initiative, local agencies can apply to state agencies. Once that approval goes through, those local agencies are then able to receive funds from federal sources. Another initiative, the No Child Left Behind Act, supports the use of Title 1 of the Elementary and Secondary Act funding for preschool programs.

In the 2012-13 school year, almost 30% of four-year-olds in the United States attended early childhood education programs, according to The National Institute for Early Education Research. This constitutes about 1.4 million children. At that time, there were 40 states that offered state level funding for preschool programs, including Washington, D.C. Recent studies show that around 85% of enrolled four-year-olds attended early childhood education programs which relied on state funding. Georgia was the very first state to bring about a statewide early childhood education program, with New York, Oklahoma and Florida following closely behind.

Many early childhood education programs, including those in Georgia, continue to operate as part of private, for-profit, tuition-based programs through places of worship or as part of a private school offering.

The elements of an early childhood education program

Since the dawn of early childhood education programs, there has been a considerable amount of debate over what programs actually qualify as being educational versus ordinary care. One of the major concerns is ensuring that every funded early childhood education program meets certain criteria.

The Early Education for All Campaign is a group of concerned educational leaders who focus on ensuring that all of Massachusetts’ early childhood education programs are meeting the needs of parents and enrolled students.

Another organization, the National Education Association, has developed a critical list of five key components:

  • A well-rounded curriculum that addresses social and cognitive development
  • Takes into account nutritional needs, health and safety, and family needs
  • Implements an assessment program to track learning
  • Hires adequately paid, well-educated teachers
  • Has low student-to-teacher ratios

The U.S. Department of Education has also identified key factors for an early childhood development program:

  • Quality teachers and staff
  • An environment conducive to learning and play
  • Regular schedules
  • Opportunities for parents to be involved
  • Appropriate grouping practices

The U.S. Department of Education has also identified key characteristics of a superior early childhood education program.

These include:
  • Fine balance between individual activities, small group activities and large group activities
  • A schedule that does not unduly tire out children or lead to stress or rushing around
  • A written mission statement that defines goals and philosophies as appropriate to each area of a student’s development
  • Strong basis in language arts, speech development, math and early literacy
  • A safe, stimulating and nurturing environment that is well-supervised by caring and trained adults
  • Engaging activities that stimulate thinking and appropriate social activity
  • Includes balanced and nutritious meals and snacks, accommodating for special dietary needs
  • Regular communication between teachers and parents
  • Teachers who are tuned in to students’ progress

Finally, the Early Education for All Campaign has created its own list of characteristics that would be found in higher-quality early childhood education programs.

  • A balanced curriculum which includes free play plus structured activities
  • Age-appropriate materials and activities that support all developmental areas
  • Well-planned and researched curriculum that reflects the latest research on early childhood development

Preschool teachers and their role in a high-quality preschool program

Preschool teachers are the ones responsible for nurturing and educating the youngest children in society. Because of this, preschool teachers have the ability to influence the life-long learning potential of every child they encounter. With the careful guidance of preschool teachers, these youngsters can go on to become well-rounded and educated readers, writers and leaders in their communities.

Preschool teachers are highly valued members of the educational world. They are the ones on the front lines, helping preschool children navigate their way into the school system for the very first time.

Preschool teachers are the ones who often first teach things like:
  • Learning sounds and letters
  • Identifying common items in the surrounding environment
  • Learning to count
  • Starting to recognize patterns in words and numbers
  • Learning how to socialize
  • Growing into an independent person
  • Developing language and vocabulary

There are many job opportunities for those who choose this path in life. Where you choose to work will depend on if you want to work for a non-profit or a for-profit organization, whether you want to work at a public or private school, or if you wish to be employed by a smaller agency in a local setting. For information about obtaining funds for your teaching goals, please visit TeacherFunder.com.