Complete Guide to an Online Early Childhood Education Degree

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Quick Facts
Accreditation: CAEP and NAEYC
Degree Levels: Associate, Bachelor's, Master's, Doctoral, and Certificate
Avg Tuition: $18,907

Online early childhood education degrees cover an interdisciplinary array of topics to prepare graduates to work with children, usually from the ages of birth through around age 8. Most online programs also include demonstration teaching and teaching practice. Early childhood education degrees online are available at the certificate, associate, bachelor’s, and master’s level. Depending on your goals, one of these degrees could prepare you for a career as a teacher, child care worker, policy maker, or program director.

Obtaining an early childhood education degree online with programmatic accreditation is highly recommended and may be required by your state teaching board. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) accredit early childhood education programs. Read More

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Comprehensive List of Schools for an Online Early Childhood Education Degree ( 15)

Overview of Available Online Early Education Degrees

An online associate degree or undergraduate certificate in early childhood education can prepare graduates to earn respected professional credentials, such as the Child Development Associate (CDA) credential offered by the Council for Professional Recognition. These programs contain a core of classes that discuss the cognitive and physical changes that children undergo in their earliest years. Courses cover childhood nutrition, communication, and teaching children with special needs, as well as general education classes in college math, English, and natural science.

The online bachelor’s degree in early childhood development is the best way to begin a career as a Head Start teacher or preschool teacher in a public school setting. These degree programs discuss the skills for instructing young children in a variety of subjects, such as language arts, creative arts, and math and science. The length of the bachelor’s program also affords students the opportunity to spend a significant amount of time in the classroom, observing students and experienced teachers and practicing teaching skills.

An online master’s in early childhood education is an excellent way for those experienced in the field to gain the credentials necessary to enter positions of public policy, administrate early childhood education programs, or open their own schools for young children. Master’s programs may prepare graduates to earn a teaching credential in one or several early childhood education areas; this credential is necessary to teach in some public school systems.

Undergraduate programs in early childhood education may require experience working with children, a high school diploma, standardized test scores, letters of recommendation, and a personal statement. Graduate programs may be entry-level, or they may require a bachelor’s degree in a relevant area with a minimum GPA, as well as standardized test scores and letters of recommendation. Most early childhood education programs require applicants to pass a background test and have necessary immunizations.

Online Associate Degrees in Early Childhood Education

Associate degree programs in early childhood education (ECE) train students to teach and care for infants, toddlers, and preschool-age children. Applicants to these programs typically must possess a high school diploma and pass entrance exams and a criminal background check. Associate degree programs last two years, and students must complete about 60 semester credit hours to graduate.

A typical ECE degree program at the associate level includes courses in early childhood development and psychology, childhood health and nutrition, child safety, teaching and curriculum building, childhood literacy and math development, and assessing the educational progress of children. Students in some programs may be able to specialize in a specific field of child care, such as family relations or special needs education. Most programs also include classes in English, the humanities, math, science, computers, and psychology. Some schools require students to complete a capstone project prior to graduation. Internships at local preschools may also be available for students.

Most students pursue associate degrees to become either preschool teachers or non-teaching child care workers. Though it is possible in some states to find work in these fields with only a high school diploma or certificate, those who wish to work as preschool teachers at a Head Start organization must possess an associate degree.

Online Bachelor's Degrees in Early Childhood Education

The bachelor’s program in early childhood education prepares graduates to teach and nurture children from birth through age 8. These degrees typically take four years to complete and require about 120 credit hours of work. Applicants need a high school diploma or GED certificate, as well as a clear criminal background check.

The coursework in the ECE bachelor’s program discusses the social and behavioral science concepts, education theory, and teaching strategies necessary to be an effective instructor of young children. Courses in topics like principles of early childhood development, educational psychology, and teaching exceptional children discuss the cognitive and social growth of young children. Classes in teaching methodology cover the instructional skills for teaching math, science, language arts, health, and physical education. Teaching practicum place students in an actual classroom setting, where they practice teaching under the guidance of an experienced instructor.

Graduates of the ECE bachelor’s degree go on to teach in preschools, Head Start programs, and elementary schools. Depending on the program, students may need to seek out an additional credential after graduation to teach in a public school setting. Other graduates can work as special education teachers for young children. Others go on to work in child care and day care settings.

Online Master's Degrees in Early Childhood Education

The master’s degree program in early childhood education provides graduates with the theoretical and practical skills to instruct and nurture young children, usually from birth to around age 8. These two- to three-year degrees are available through education departments in a variety of colleges and universities; students complete hands-on practicum and 10 to 20 courses. Applicants to these programs need an accredited bachelor’s degree, a clear background check, and a demonstrated desire to work with children. Some Master of Education (MEd) programs require applicants to have a teaching credential and teaching experience.

The ECE master’s program curriculum trains students in the psychology, early childhood development, and instructional topics to work effectively with young children. Master of Arts (MA) programs are for those new to the field, and cover topics like administration in teaching, working with parents, and cognitive development. Students also complete hands-on teaching practicum. MEd programs in early childhood education are for early childhood teachers who have some experience teaching but would like to improve their leadership skills and gain understanding in a particular instructional area, such as bilingual instruction or curriculum development.

Most master’s degree programs in early childhood education are designed to prepare graduates to instruct preschool and elementary school children in public and private institutions. New teachers can use the MA to meet licensure requirements, while current teachers can use the MEd program to become advanced teachers, administrators, or curriculum developers.

Online Certificate Programs in Early Childhood Education

The certificate program in early childhood education trains students in the communication, human development, and instructional skills to work in preschool and child care settings. These programs are typically available through community colleges, technical schools, university extension programs and a variety of online institutions. Early childhood education certificates can be completed in one year and require 4 to 10 courses. Applicants need a high school diploma and a clear background check.

The coursework in the ECE certificate gives those with little experience working with children the ability to understand the child’s point of view and development. Students learn instructional techniques, such as use of games, creative assignments, and role playing, through classes in teaching young children and curriculum development for early childhood. Classes in cultural diversity and guidance provide students with a framework for assisting children from a variety of backgrounds. Other courses discuss safety and nutrition, literacy, and infant and toddler care giving. Practicum classes put students in a child care environment in order to apply the child care and instructional techniques learned in the classroom.

Depending on the student’s background, an ECE certificate can be used to enter roles as an assistant teacher or caregiver in preschools and day care settings. Some certificates can be used to meet the educational requirements for professional certifications that are available through groups like the National Childcare Association. Graduates with child care experience and an entrepreneurial spirit could use the program to expand their knowledge and start their own child care business.

Common Online Courses in Early Childhood Education

Early childhood education programs prepare graduates for roles in the child care and child education professions. Upon graduating, you will have an understanding of developmentally appropriate practices, as well as techniques for behavior guidance and classroom management. You will also know how to plan and implement curricula and establish and maintain a safe environment. The following classes are often included in an ECE degree program:

  • Child Psychology: Child psychology courses are essential to any early childhood education professional, as they help students become familiar with the ways in which children learn, process thoughts and emotions, and deal with challenges.
  • Culturally Responsive Teaching in Multicultural and Multilingual Settings: Students learn about the necessity of being culturally sensitive to children of varying backgrounds.
  • Early Childhood Reading and Literacy Instruction: This class focuses on strategies for teaching young children of varying ability levels learn how to read.
  • Exceptional Children in the Early Childhood Setting: This course teaches students ways to challenge intellectually advanced children while also incorporating them with the rest of the classroom.
  • Family Engagement: This course helps future educators and caregivers learn how to work with parents to elicit maximum potential from a child.
  • Health and Safety: Students learn how to talk to young children about the importance of being healthy and maintaining a safe learning environment.
  • Special Education: Special education courses focus on the best ways to engage children that have special needs, developmental delays, or learning disabilities.
  • Standards-Based Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment: This course prepares future teachers to develop lesson plans as part of broader curricula, followed by assessment of the strengths and weaknesses.
  • The Early Childhood Learning Environment: Students learn how to create an environment where children can feel comfortable and reach their full learning potential.

Accreditation for Online Early Childhood Education Degrees

Accreditation is granted to schools and degree programs that meet the standards established by independent, authoritative agencies. These agencies provide comprehensive evaluations in order to verify the quality of the curricula being offered, the qualifications of the faculty members, research programs, and student resources. Accrediting agencies should be recognized by the US Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

Choosing an accredited degree program can help students feel confident in their education and help them meet eligibility requirements to transfer credits to other schools or apply for federal financial aid. It's always best to verify the precise accreditation requirements necessary for your future education and career plans with the proper regulation boards in your state.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) sets the national standard for higher education programs for early childhood degrees. NAEYC's Commission on Early Childhood Associate Degree Programs accredits associate degree programs, and NAEYC works with the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (a consolidation of the former National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education and the Teacher Education Accreditation Council) to accredit baccalaureate and graduate programs.

To learn more about accreditation, please visit Guide to Online Schools' accreditation hub.

Certification & Licensure for Early Childhood Education

Prospective early childhood educators and caregivers will need to abide by their state’s legal requirements before they can seek employment. Each state has its own rules and regulations for individuals who wish to teach or care for young children. Some may simply require a high school diploma and experience, while other states require a bachelor’s degree in a relevant subject.

Professional certification for early childhood educators and caregivers is a wise investment for those who wish to advance in their career, and it may also be a requirement for employment in some settings. Earning a recognized certificate lets families and employers know that you are competent, knowledgeable, and dedicated to the profession. One of the most popular forms of professional certification for this field is the Child Development Associate Credential (CDA), which is offered by the Council for Professional Recognition. The CDA is available for professionals who work in preschool or infant and toddler settings, or provide family child care or home visits. Students can earn this designation by completing a certain number of hours of professional education and work experience.

Another widely used professional agency that issues certification for early childhood educators is the National Early Childhood Program Accreditation. This organization issues the Certified Childcare Professional credential to those who have a high school diploma, work experience in this field, and who enroll in continuing education courses. Several options for continuing education can be pursued via distance education; students can enroll in formal classes or seminars to receive credit hours.

Students who plan to teach in public preschools must fulfill state licensure requirements, which can vary widely. Most US states require public preschool instructors to pass a national examination, as well as procure continuing education units. Some of these areas require instructors to complete a teacher training program; those who have majored in early childhood education development can usually skip this requirement. Prospective preschool educators should verify their individual state's requirements prior to enrolling in a degree or certificate program.

Early Childhood Education Career Paths

A career in early childhood education can be very rewarding, as educators play an important role in the lives of children at a time when they are learning so much and discovering who they are. The term “early childhood education” is quite broad, and it encompasses a variety of careers and education levels. The following list represents some of the career opportunities available for graduates of ECE programs:

  • Caregiver: Caregivers work with young children in a wide range of public and private day care settings. Their main responsibilities are to provide supervision and a safe place for children to play, learn, and socialize while they are away from home. Sometimes caregivers work with parents and provide collaborative care, while others act as the primary caregiver without parent involvement.
  • Teacher: Teaching is a common career choice for graduates of early childhood education programs. Preschool and kindergarten teachers provide developmentally appropriate activities and exercises to help young children learn about academic subjects and about the world around them. Additional courses can be beneficial to your role in the classroom, such as child psychology or communication. In addition to a degree, teachers also need to obtain a state teaching license.
  • Teaching Assistant: Many people begin their career in early childhood education as a teaching assistant. Teaching assistants work under the guidance of teachers and provide valuable support for individual students or small groups of students who need extra encouragement, tutoring, or supervision. Teaching assistants who do not yet have a bachelor's degree can gain valuable classroom experience before committing to a four-year degree.
  • Program Director: Program directors have the flexibility of working in schools or in private child care or education settings. Many programs that offer childhood development and learning opportunities exist outside of the school system; the programs often specialize in one subject or age range and can be tailored to children with special needs.


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