It’s a bit of a truism in the field of education that things tend to get more challenging the older your students are. If you take that truism to its logical conclusion, then that means that teachers and administrators working in Early Childhood Education (ECE) should be having the most fun of all.
But even so, ECE is certainly very serious business when you start looking at the effects it can have on kids and communities.
In fact, ECE represents one of the most critical phases in education. Whether students have access to preschool or not can be a strong predictor for future success and outcomes in school. ECE can also be one of the hardest fields in education to truly master. There’s a lot going on in the earliest years of a child’s life, and there are many factors, both in school and at home, that will influence their success.
As a professional field and area of academic research, early childhood education is traditionally defined as dealing with children from birth up through age 8.
But actual state education rules don’t necessarily follow along with academic definitions. ECE is defined in various states as covering:
However, it may be defined more broadly, when it comes to schooling, ECE almost always refers to Pre-K. And it’s well understood that involving kids in organized learning activities in the years before kindergarten is a game-changer.
Study after study has shown how effective and caring Pre-K education in our earliest years can have positive impacts over the rest of our lives. Almost everything else that happens to a child during their school years and beyond will be influenced by decisions made by early childhood education leaders in their very first experience with organized learning.
The Difference Between Jobs in Early Childhood Education Administration vs. Daycare Administration
It’s not always clear what constitutes education in the early childhood context, however.
From birth, humans are voracious learners, soaking up new experiences and important concepts from every interaction and observation. When it comes to learning processes, there’s not a clear distinction for a four-year-old between playing make-believe with a daycare worker or engaging in a carefully planned story-time session with a professional preschool teacher.
So when it comes to licensing for childcare centers versus preschools, there’s a lot that’s open to interpretation for state boards out. This makes early childhood education leadership roles among the most variable from state to state.
You’ll have to investigate the requirements carefully in your state to see how the rules apply. But you’ll never go wrong getting more education in early childhood development and ECE leadership when it comes to building your qualifications in the field.
The Evolution of the Early Childhood Education Leader
The importance of early childhood education was underrated for a long time. Although early childhood learning and development has been an area of interest for psychologists for a long time, it wasn’t until the late 1960s that educators in the United States got serious about pre-kindergarten education.
That came with the federally funded Head Start program, aimed at providing holistic support for low-income children. With a sort of trickle-up effect, many parents at all income levels became aware of the benefits of early childhood education and more and more school districts and private providers emerged in the field.
Preschool education differs from elementary and secondary education in that there is a much greater proportion of private schools that deliver ECE programs.
Because it has grown organically from state to state, early childhood education is inconsistent in both how it is funded and offered. And that makes early childhood education leadership a tough management proposition no matter where you go.
Raising Children Like Lettuce
Most of the earliest thinking about how the youngest kids receive and absorb knowledge didn’t come as part of a formal educational effort. Instead, it was an outgrowth of psychological and philosophical explorations of the field of epistemology: the theory of understanding knowledge itself and how it is acquired and structured by the human mind.
A lot of early experimentation in ECE, then, was done by philosophers rather than educators. And it sometimes looked more like a research lab than a school. Or, in at least one case, like a garden.
The conception of the child garden came from Friedrich Fröbel—a former soldier, naturalist, and educator who became fascinated with developmental psychology and the nature of knowledge acquisition in children. His thoughts were informed by his naturalist background, conceiving of raising children as a gardener raises plants… understanding their nature, cultivating their environment, tending to them individually.
He discovered many key features that remain characteristic of ECE curricula today, including incorporating activity into lessons, allowing children the opportunity to explore for themselves, and designing toys to express more advanced concepts like geometry.
Fröbel’s ideas were so profound that we still call one of the major areas of ECE by the name he coined: kindergarten.
What Is the Job Description for Early Childhood Education Leadership and Administration Jobs
Just because the student population is young and fun to teach doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of challenges to be overcome in early childhood education. And the toughest problems end up on the desks of administrators in the field.
According to NCES data from 2019, only slightly more than half of all American children 3 or 4 years of age are enrolled in pre-primary education programs.
It’s easiest to think of ECE administrators as basically highly specialized principals or supervisors for schools focusing on the youngest learners. They fill the same basic functions and take on many of the same tasks but use their more specialized expertise to adapt it to the unique needs presented by ECE.
They are generally responsible for:
You don’t get into early childhood education for the money, which means preschool staff must find inspiration and motivation from the greater good that comes from the work they do. ECE leaders help to kindle that sense of purpose.
Because of the sensitivity of the age group of the students, some of these obligations will take on greater importance. For example, an emphasis on overall health and wellness in the youngest schoolchildren means that most ECE administrators will dive down into details like nutrition, wellness checkups, and other basic needs that many school administrators take for granted.
There’s also a strong focus on compliance and meeting regulatory requirements for students in this age range.
What Special Skills Are Required for Early Childhood Administrators?
Like other kinds of educational administrators, leadership skills really come into focus for ECE administration jobs. On top of the kind of training and expertise needed to work directly with young children, ECE leaders must cultivate their grown-up communication and mentorship game as well.
Working with the youngest student demographic can be hectic so starting off with strong organizational and project management skills is important. ECE admins are responsible for rolling out new curriculum developments, various kinds of planned school activities, and sometimes even building repair or renovation tasks. They must be able to guide and schedule these things with an eye for detail.
At the same time, the kind of critical-thinking and problem-solving skills needed to turn on a dime are highly valued. When a stomach flu outbreak sidelines half the class and someone brings an unauthorized pack of peanuts into class, it’s on the school leader to drop everything and come up with solutions fast.
Communication skills are also right at the top of the list for this job. Parents are naturally concerned when their kids are leaving home and venturing out into the wider world for the first time. An effective ECE administrator must be reassuring and honest about student accomplishments, problems, and prospects.
That also extends to the inevitable work of managing ECE teachers. A motivational and inspirational leader must make strong interpersonal connections. They serve as mentors and educators themselves, bringing along their teachers to new accomplishments and brighter prospects along with the students.
Meeting the Requirements to Take a Position as an Early Childhood Education Administrator
While many states don’t necessarily require a license to teach at the preschool level, just about all administration jobs in ECE for public and private schools are licensed in some way.
The big split here is between states that include these positions as part of their overall teacher and education administrator licensing system, and those that offer separate, and less intensive, credentials specific to ECE admin.
Some states have parallel credentialing systems, one intended for formal public education ECE and the other aimed at childcare centers.
As with ECE teacher licensing, much depends on how the term is defined. If P-3 is considered ECE, then every state requires a license for those supervisors (although it may be a regular principal license, and not specific to ECE). If, on the other hand, ECE is defined exclusively as covering Pre-Kindergarten age children, then it’s less likely that a regular administration license is required.
One big difference comes in degree requirements. As a practical matter, most education administrators outside of ECE will need at least a master’s degree in their field. There are specific EPP (Educator Preparation Program) courses mandated for those credentials that are only taught at the graduate level.
ECE administrators may also face EPP requirements, but their level of degree may only have to be a bachelor’s. However, it’s also quite common to pursue a master’s degree since many people moving into ECE leadership likely already hold a bachelor’s degree.
Experience as a teacher of some sort, either in general or specifically in early childhood education, is also a requirement. Anywhere from one to five years may be needed depending on the state.
Finally, licensing requires testing. Some states have their own unique standardized tests for teaching and administration roles, but many rely on the ETS (Educational Testing Service) Praxis exams.
There are several of these tests that can cover early childhood teaching and administration subjects, and different states may pick different exams, or even combinations of exams:
Also, like principals, some states have various licensure levels for ECE administrators. Additional testing, experience, and education are key to moving up the levels.
Earning a Specialized Degree is Key to ECE Administration Positions
Early childhood education is a mature enough field and sufficiently in-demand that there are plenty of degrees out there that offer those specializations or concentrations.
But the kind of training that ECE administrators need often goes beyond the bare bones of essential behavioral, social, and pedagogical information for teaching the youngest students. The purview of an ECE administrator extends to leading and managing other teachers and staff as well.
In some respects, that’s going to be an easier job than marshaling a bunch of 4-year-olds to pay attention during the Pledge of Allegiance.
But in other ways, it represents an exercise of skills that most kindergarten teachers don’t have to develop. And those skills don’t just emerge when needed—like specialized ECE teaching techniques, you can best learn them through a focused degree program.
So taking charge in early childhood programs will often fall to individuals who earn degrees such as a Master of Arts in Education with a Leadership focus in Early Childhood, a Master of Education with an Early Childhood Education emphasis, or a Master of Education with specialization in Leadership, Policy, and Advocacy for Early Childhood.
You can also come at the field from another angle, through degrees like a Master of Science in Early Childhood Studies with a concentration in Administration, Management, and Leadership.
Whichever path you choose, these programs bring you coursework that covers essential subjects like:
These programs are also peppered with opportunities to further build your skills through a wide range of electives. Everything from strategic communications in education through teaching diversity in early childhood studies may be available.
These programs are also the best place to cover any EPP requirements your state has for licensure. Most schools are clear on whether their program has the necessary coursework for the state in which they are located.
Of course, the knowledge and practical experience that come with a master’s program are the most valuable parts. Internships and other experiential learning opportunities give you the chance to see exactly what the reality and best practices look like in actual classrooms and on genuine playgrounds.
How Much Do Early Childhood Education Leaders Make?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is the government agency responsible for compiling salary and employment data for various occupations in the United States. The categories they choose for collecting and analyzing that information don’t always exactly line up with how jobs are viewed within the fields themselves, however.
In the case of early childhood education administrators, the closest match is the Preschool and Childcare Center Directors category. For 2021, BLS found the average salary for that job was $47,310.
But that category may not line up with the kind of job described above, which requires licensure and involves oversight and guidance of structured teaching programs.
You can also come at it from another angle by looking at the salaries for jobs that are definitely covered by licensing rules. In this case, that might include teachers working in ECE, where the top ten percent make $58,530 or more per year—and in some cases may include supervisory or administrative roles as an extension of their teaching jobs.
You can also look at the average salaries for educational administrators in general, without accounting for specializations like ECE. In 2021, positions in that category earned $98,420 per year on average.
The good news may be that the rate of growth for the director category came in at 8 percent. That’s already faster than the average rate of job growth in the country, but it pales in comparison to the demand for preschool teachers, which is forecast at 15 percent between 2021 and 2031.
Where there are more teachers, however, eventually there need to be more administrators.
So it’s a great time to get in on the ground floor of early childhood education leadership. On top of working with genuinely great preschool and kindergarten kids and teachers, it’s among the most important positions in the American school system today.
2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Preschool and Childcare Center Directors, Elementary, Middle, and High School Principals, and Preschool Teachers reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed April 2023.