Using Your Early Childhood Education Degree to Give Kids the Best Start

The earliest years of schooling are some of the most important for the youngest generation and they set the stage for a lifetime of learning.

The earliest years of schooling are some of the most important for the youngest generation and they set the stage for a lifetime of learning.

The earliest years are the building blocks that set children up for educational success. Research shows that when highly qualified early childhood teachers work in high-quality, developmentally appropriate programs, children experience both short- and long-term positive effects. Troy University is helping give children the best possible start by training highly qualified teachers through its early childhood education degree program.

What is Early Childhood Education?

“Early childhood education is teachers and practitioners who work anywhere from pre-K — birth through daycare — all the way up to third grade in elementary schools,” says Dr. Lisa Etheridge, Associate Professor in TROY’s Department of Teacher Education. “There’s a vast array of cognitive abilities going from first to second grade, so you’re working with a very large spectrum.”

The Importance of Early Childhood Education

The earliest years of schooling are some of the most important for the youngest generation and they set the stage for a lifetime of learning. “Early childhood teachers are responsible for getting children off to a good start in their education,” says Dr. Etheridge. “They’re extremely vital.”

Children in preschool classrooms acquire basic skills they will use throughout their school years and beyond. “For example, you’re looking at sensorimotor skills, learning to identify colors at an early age and learning fine motor skills, such as cutting and writing,” Dr. Etheridge explains. “These skills are critical when students start more formal learning in an elementary classroom. Early childhood teachers get our students ready and help them learn the skills they need to succeed in formal school.”

Kristin Hodges Albritton, who earned her Educational Specialist in Early Childhood Education degree at TROY, agrees. “Early childhood education is so important for all children because the early years of a child’s life are their formative years. During these years, students are developing in ways that will determine what they learn and how they learn as they get older. When young children receive a good foundation in their early years, they are better equipped to face their educational path in the future.”

Children who don’t have an opportunity to attend preschool classes often need to play catch-up when they get to kindergarten. “Kids who don’t go to a pre-K come to kindergarten with a learning gap, and teachers have to try to close the gap as much as they can,” says Dr. Etheridge. “Missing pre-K serves as a deficit for children because you’re putting so much pressure on them to learn so much within one year, and that’s just not fair to a young child. That’s why pre-K and daycares are really important.”

Benefits of Early Childhood Education

Getting children prepared for the classroom at an early stage sets the stage for long-term skills development. “It takes a strong teacher and a pre-K to deliver those skills. When children have both those supports, they’re able to grasp the skills they need, understand them and keep them in their long-term memory,” Dr. Etheridge says.

Another benefit of early childhood education is identifying developmental abilities and needs in children while they are still very young. “Even at a pre-K level, you can already see gifted tendencies within children. You can make the documentation at that level and let parents know their child may be gifted, so they can bring that to attention when they get to formal school,” says Dr. Etheridge. “For children who might have learning deficits, it works the same way.”

Characteristics and Skills Needed for Success as an Early Childhood Teacher

Early childhood teachers play a significant role in child development and behavior. “It’s the first time that little folks are seeing teachers,” says Dr. Etheridge. “It’s the first time they’re being molded to get ready for formal school. The teachers are teaching them that we sit in a chair when we do our work. We raise our hands when we want to speak. Kids need to learn all of that at that early level.”

Successful preschool teachers bring their hearts to their work. “First, early childhood teachers have to love kids,” Dr. Etheridge says. “They have to want to be in this profession. It’s not something where you can say, ‘Okay, I’m an eight-to-five, check-in-check-out kind of person.’ That’s not the way this works. They have to have compassion. They have to be caring, have patience and be understanding. In this profession, teachers deal with a variety of personalities, backgrounds, cultures and ethnicities. And they have to be able to bring all of that together and work well with all of it.”

For Albritton, teaching has always been a labor of love. “As a young girl, I knew I wanted to be a teacher. As I became an adult, I began working with young children in my church and knew teaching was definitely the career for me. I love working with children and seeing the ‘lightbulb’ click.”

The ability to meet the kids where they are is also an important quality for preschool teachers. “You need to be willing to get down on the little folks’ level,” says Dr. Etheridge. “I think back to some of the teachers I had when I was in school, and they’d dress in Sunday church clothes and high heels; but in early childhood classrooms, you’re going to need blue jeans, work pants, polo shirts and tennis shoes. And you’re going to be on their level. That’s the kind of engagement that’s necessary at that age.”

Albritton believes that flexibility is another major characteristic that an early childhood teacher needs. “Early childhood teachers have to go with the flow, embrace change and expect the unexpected. And, she adds, compassion is a must. “Early childhood teachers need to build relationships with their students and understand the situations their students face daily. This understanding helps make teaching a lot easier.”

Challenges Early Childhood Teachers Face

Teaching preschoolers is not without challenges. “One big challenge present-day teachers face is burnout,” Dr. Etheridge says, “especially for new teachers. I’ve never seen the percentage rate as high as it is now with new teachers leaving within the first five years of getting their early childhood education degree.”

Albritton says that learning to deal with pressure is part of the job. “Teaching is stressful, and so many decisions have to be made daily that it can become overwhelming at times,” she says. “Early education teachers, and teachers in general, face more and more challenges from year to year. We have to compete with so many social media distractions and worldly distractions.”

Behavioral issues with children in the classroom can contribute to burnout. “New teachers may not know how to navigate behavioral situations that come up or how to deal with families,” Dr. Etheridge explains. “What it comes down to is classroom management. We live in a world today where parents say, ‘My child didn’t do anything wrong.’ So how do you navigate that situation when you know the child did do something wrong? Early childhood teachers have to learn how to speak with those parents and children in a way that gets the message across but isn’t offensive. And that can be challenging.”

Relationship building is key, says Albritton. “To overcome these challenges, I am constantly working to build relationships with my students. It is through these relationships that I learn what works for them, what doesn’t work and how I can help them reach their fullest potential.”

Time management can be another hurdle, especially when trying to strike a good work/life balance. There’s much that goes into day-to-day preparation for the classroom, which can add an extra layer of stress. “People don’t realize how much prep time teachers need even when their students are at this early age,” says Dr. Etheridge. “A lot of times, teachers are not given that calm space within the constraints of the day to get it done. So, then they stay after school or have to do the prep work at home. And that begins to fuel the burnout.”

Early Childhood Education Training Teaches Classroom Management Skills

At TROY, students in the early childhood education degree program study classroom management techniques. “I teach students to have a schedule and stay on it,” Dr. Etheridge says. “If that means they need to get up 30 minutes earlier than they’d normally get up, then they need to adjust the schedule and do that — especially if they’ll be able to get to work 30 minutes earlier and run copies and get ready for the day in a peaceful manner. That way, they’re not in a panicky mode first thing in the morning.”

“I try hard to have a schedule of my own,” Dr. Etheridge explains. “Does it always work? No! And that’s where flexibility comes into play. Early childhood teachers have to be flexible because even well-made plans go awry. So, they need to have a Plan B and a Plan C in place in the back of their minds. Always.”

“The third thing I would say to teachers who want to avoid burnout is to reflect on what they’re doing right now,” says Dr. Etheridge. “Make a pros and cons list and ask, ‘Is this working? Is this not working?’ If it’s not working, then let’s sit down together and figure a way to make that negative a positive. It may take trial and error with several strategies until we figure out what works for that particular teacher.”

Early Childhood Teachers Can Avoid Burnout with Training and Perseverance

Lessons from her years in the classroom help Dr. Etheridge guide the students she now teaches and mentors. “When I was teaching in the classroom, we had to report at 7:30 a.m., but in our principal’s mind, he had something called ‘on time/in time,’” she explains. “You were ‘on time’ if you showed up at 7:15. You were ‘in time’ if you were running in the door at 7:25. ‘On time’ meant coming in 15 minutes early to get your thoughts together, grab a cup of coffee and relax before kids started coming in at 7:30.”

Maintaining a schedule that creates space for planning is key to avoiding burnout. “I do believe that the principal’s strategy works,” Dr. Etheridge says. “You can prepare in the morning or you can stay after school a little bit, but it’s important to know your day is ready to go when you come in the next morning. It’s really about making your schedule and planning your time accordingly.”

Ultimately, new early childhood teachers will find their own system of classroom management; that will also help them avoid burnout. “When I teach classroom management, we go over different theories and plans,” says Dr. Etheridge. “I tell my students what’s going to end up happening in their classrooms is that they’ll take a little piece of theory A, a little piece of theory B, a little bit of their experience and what they feel works for them. And they’ll meld it all together to develop their personal classroom management system.”

Add perseverance as the final ingredient in developing a unique management style, and preschool teachers can find a recipe for success in the classroom. “It’s all about giving it a try,” Dr. Etheridge encourages. “It’s give and take, trial and error. Sometimes it’s hard for new teachers who don’t want to give it that time. But I feel that if they push through in the first five years, they’ll find a way to stay in the field.”

For Albritton, there is no doubt that the rewards far outweigh the challenges. “I do not know where to begin when listing rewards for teaching this age group,” she says. “The respect you earn from these students is so rewarding. To have students that you taught 15 years ago still come up to you to tell you that you are still their favorite teacher is so touching and humbling. To have students say they still remember learning this or that in your classroom is very rewarding. All of this, plus the fact that you are impacting the lives of our future generations.”

Why Teachers Need an Early Childhood Teaching Certificate

Loving children and being excited about the possibility of working with them doesn’t mean you can jump right into early childhood education without training. It’s essential for preschool teachers to get their early childhood teaching certification.

“They may know the basic content information that’s taught in pre-K to second grade — which is basic knowledge,” Dr. Etheridge explains. “But they’ve got to have the pedagogical knowledge to know how to teach the content to children. One strategy may work for 10 out of 12 children in a classroom but not for the other two. But they’ve got to teach those two children as well, so they need to learn pedagogy.”

Albritton credits the TROY program for helping her develop the skills she needed to be an effective educator. “While attending TROY, I learned many useful skills that helped me and continue to help me in my classroom. I learned a lot about how children learn and that continues to help me reach the students I teach today. I had so many great courses at TROY that prepared me well for my classroom.”

She uses her degree skills daily in her classroom.

“From building relationships with my students to teaching students phonics, I learned all of these basic things and so much more during my early childhood program at TROY.”

TROY’s Early Childhood Education Certification Program

TROY’s certification program is a 36-credit hour program offered completely online. “Anyone from a regionally accredited institution who has an undergrad degree in early childhood education can enroll,” says Dr. Etheridge.

Since the program is online, the added flexibility is a major plus for adult learners. “While attending TROY, I also worked a full-time job,” recalls Albritton. “I was able to work around my schedule at TROY.”

In addition to the coursework TROY students complete, they can observe and teach in the Coleman Center for Early Childhood and Family Enrichment on the Dothan campus, giving them practical on-the-job experience.

“The Coleman Center is a pre-K facility that provides childcare services for student-parents while they attend TROY,” says Dr. Etheridge. “Our students have to do field experience hours, so we give them the opportunity to go into the Coleman Center and teach, and we observe them teaching through a one-way mirrored window. This observation allows us to give them feedback. We also take students in to observe classes in progress. The center is a very good teaching mechanism at TROY.”

TROY students also participate in a required internship as a part of their program. “Students are placed within a pre-K to second grade classroom,” Dr. Etheridge explains. “They work for 16 weeks with a mentor teacher they’re assigned to, and there are some co-teaching aspects when the mentor teacher and the intern will teach simultaneously. That’s a program that’s being piloted right now in some grade levels.”

Observation and mentorship are strong components of the internship experience. “The first week they’re in, students in the program observe the mentor-teacher,” says Dr. Etheridge. “The second week, they might pick up a small group and start teaching themselves. Each week, they add on additional responsibility until gradually they’re teaching the whole day. Then, it scaffolds back down toward the end of their internship where they’re releasing it back to the mentor-teacher.”

The learning is in the doing. “You can talk about it all you want to in a classroom of instruction,” says Dr. Etheridge. “But until you go out there and get your hands wet and do it for yourself — that’s the experience students need. It’s applying the theory and all the instruction they’ve taken in. It’s in real-time where they’re having to make decisions and learn on their feet. And it’s the best possible learning our students can have.”

Using Your Early Childhood Education Degree Beyond the Classroom

Beyond the classroom, other opportunities exist for graduates who have an early childhood education degree. “They can be childcare facility owners,” Dr. Etheridge says. “Or managers who manage a facility for someone else.”

“They can also be professional nannies,” she adds. “A lot of places up north — especially in the New York City area — look for nannies who have professional degrees or certifications. Another option is to work for publication companies or work as an advisor or consultant. And there are opportunities in a central office where they can work with curriculum and instruction for early childhood.”

Albritton is an enthusiastic supporter of the TROY program. “I appreciated the closeness I felt at TROY — from the professors to my classmates.”

She offers some career advice for would-be early childhood educators. “Do not give up! There will be days when you want to throw your hands up and give up, but keep on! If your heart is truly in education, the rewards you will receive when you finish and obtain the job you worked so hard for will be worth it all.”

To learn more about the career options available for teachers with an early childhood education degree, visit the Early Childhood Education Certification Programs page on our website.k