7 Things You’ll Do as a Director of Early Childhood Education
By Brianna Flavin on 12/14/2023
“Are you familiar with the children’s story, Caps for Sale? That’s what being a director of early childhood education (ECE) is like,” says Doreen Anzalone, ECE director at Bright Horizons and Professor in Rasmussen University’s School of Education.
In the story, a peddler keeps adding caps to his head until he wears a whole stack of them. If each different cap is a role, well, you get the idea—you need to wear many different roles at once.
A director of early childhood education (ECE) oversees an early childhood school, childcare or daycare center. This position is a more advanced role than teacher or caregiver, and it involves a lot of responsibility. But if you love working in early childhood education, this move towards leadership could be just the move you’re looking for.
Picture this… You walk into the education center in the morning, and staff, children and their families greet you. Maybe some of them have a question or a concern right off the bat they’d like you to handle. Before you even make it to your desk (where you have messages and tasks waiting), you’re in problem-solving, community-building mode.
“There are so many things that happen every single day,” Anzalone says.
If you’re curious about what advancing a career in early childhood education might look like, read on! Here are 7 things incredible ECE directors do, sometimes on a daily basis.
1. Guiding teachers into their best work
Observing teachers in the classrooms and then offering feedback is a big part of this role, according to Anzalone. Most early education centers will have formal observations as part of their system, but there are also informal observations you’ll do every day when you walk into a class.
After she observes the classrooms, Anzalone meets with teachers and gives suggestions. She might say,
“I noticed that when you set this activity, you had shapes cut out and asked the children to glue them down. How long did it take you to prepare that? How long did it keep the children interested?”
Then the classroom teacher might realize that prepping so much of the craft wound up offering less engagement for the kids. Childcare center directors require their teachers to remain thoughtful about early childhood curriculum and early learning best practices.
“Leaders are learners, too, and they create conditions for teachers to thrive," says Dr. Johnna Weller, Chief Academic Officer at Learning Care Group.
“You can watch all the training videos in the world, but teachers make thousands of decisions every day.” Early childhood education requires great intentionality as is. An early childhood director needs to show educational leadership and teach their classroom teachers to center the best practices for early development.
If you move into leadership positions, you’ll support and help your teachers develop on the job.
2. Building in the right support for every age group
If you are interested in pursuing this role, part of your work as an ECE director will be to create spaces in childcare facilities, activities and educational programs that support child development.
“Children’s brains develop more in the first five years than any other time,” Weller says. She explains that in these early ages, the “care” part is primary. Welcoming them, holding them, feeling connected and helping them make friends—“all of that creates the context for children to be primed for learning.”
Say a child is building a tower, and it keeps falling over. Then they try putting a big block on the bottom and it stabilizes. These little revelations reinforce to a child that they can think of different options and solve problems.
“Children are like little scientists, they want to know all about the world, everything is new,” Weller says. “Their discoveries will set up how they function in life, how they cooperate, how they relate to others.”
Early childhood is such a crucial time. Early childhood programs need to build in an understanding of how children's brains grow.
When Weller plans for the curriculum or the schools she supports, she’s thinking about how to be intentional with each space and subject, to allow children to explore through each stage.
“We know young children develop at such different rates and have such different needs. We need to meet them where they are and help them explore their world.”
3. Handling conflict with parents and families
An early childhood director needs to step in and handle conflicts that arise with staff, teachers and children’s families. A good director uses these moments not just to deflect a parent’s frustration away from their teachers—but also to build bridges. Leadership skills like communication, active listening and teaching come in handy here.
“Some things will seem minor to us, but for that parent, it could be a big deal,” Anzalone says.
For example, Anzalone had a parent who was upset at pick up because her child was wearing his extra backup shirt.
“Now they are telling me I need to bring in more clothes for his cubby because his shirt got wet when they didn’t give him a smock. This is ridiculous!"
On the surface, the parent was angry the teacher forgot a smock. But Anzalone probed a little deeper. “I’d like to understand the situation, can you tell me a little more about this?”
The parent explained that she was exhausted everyday coming back from work, and that all her son’s shirts were in the laundry, and the request to do this extra thing, remember this extra thing just felt like the straw breaking the camel’s back. Anzalone offered both understanding and a solution, and they parted that day more connected than before.
“Listen well and take their perspective,” she advises. “When you do, you’ll realize, okay--this probably isn’t about a shirt.” She explains that early childhood education directors need to make sure they don’t escalate emotions in these moments or get defensive. Instead, rely on the work you’ve done to build trust with families.
“Making those strong family partnerships is such a big deal,” she emphasizes. “If you haven’t been taking the time to greet them, ask about their kid and build those bridges, conflicts will be much harder.”
4. Pitching in
Being a director doesn’t mean you won’t get involved in the day-to-day work. A good early childhood education director jumps in to fill gaps, solve problems and just generally have everyone’s backs throughout the day.
“Sometimes I need to cover three different teacher breaks, change diapers, sweep the floor--oh and now someone is sick, so we need to take care of that,” Anzalone says. Your teachers will already have a lot on their hands in a given day, so when something extra happens (and it often will), it’s your job to pitch in.
That helps to create a positive and trusting workplace environment, according to Anzalone. Teachers will notice and think—yes, my director is willing to pull up their sleeves and get on the ground with me.
5. Training your teachers
There’s a lot of variability in the early childhood education workforce. When employees come in, they have many different levels of experience and training, according to Weller.
“Some of our teachers have a master’s degree4, and some of them walk in the door brand new, without much childcare experience. It absolutely is tricky.” But Weller says training teachers and providing learning experiences that are tailored to everyone’s level is super important for her organization.
“We have internal training, and multiple paths they can take to advance.” Learning Care Group offers a three-year master teacher program where their ECE teachers can hone their skills in a cohort. She wants to provide the right balance between tools, flexibility and freedom.
“We want our teachers to be like chefs in the classroom,” Weller explains. “I can give you the recipe, [or the early childhood curriculum] and you can follow the recipe exactly and produce a dish. But if you’re feeding people with specific dietary needs or taste palettes, you need to be able to adjust the recipe.”
Early childhood education is as much an art as it is a science, Weller points out. “We want our teachers to be empowered to adapt things as they like.”
(If this topic is interesting to you, check out Early Childhood Educators Step Up: 7 Inspiring Examples of Intentional Teaching.)
Childcare center directors handle most of the paperwork at an early childhood education center. Anzalone says there are regular things to keep up with and fill out for licensing standards and NAEYC® accreditation.1
An ECE director might also handle contracts and enrollment paperwork or a database of information for the students and families. Depending on the place of employment, they might also post job openings, and hire and interview applicants for open teacher positions.
Staying on top of these things takes some stellar organizational skills.
7. Plotting development opportunities for staff members
“At Learning Care Group, we have a team who plans, researches, develops and supports the needs in all our schools," Weller says. Their team creates onboarding and training materials, finds new teachers and handles professional development opportunities where their teachers get paid to participate in more coaching.
“It’s all part of how we want to attract great teachers. We offer competitive salaries and benefits as well as tuition reimbursement for those who want to enroll in certain early childhood programs. We invest in our teachers.”
Working as an ECE director is just as much about being a champion for your classroom teachers as it is about children.
Becoming an early childhood director can lead to much more
Choosing an organization that will invest in your career is a huge part of advancement in ECE.
Anzalone says her company creates pathways to roles like program coordinator or even regional director if you want to keep going.
“I like being hands-on, right in the center,” Anzalone says, adding that this is why she likes the early childhood director role. “It all depends on where you work.”
If you believe in early childhood education and feel a passion to give children the kinds of learning experiences that can help them their whole lives—the industry definitely needs you. The looming childcare crisis has the future of early learning in the spotlight like never before.
Childcare center directors typically need at least a bachelor's degree in early childhood education and several years of experience in early childhood education. But education and work experience requirements vary by state and employer, so it's important to research the requirements for any prospective employer.3
Some bachelor’s degree programs in ECE are offered online to support early childhood education professionals teachers trying to pursue their own education. And today’s programs have all sorts of interesting things to offer. To get a picture, check out 10 Reasons to Pursue Your Early Childhood Education Degree Online at Rasmussen.
NAEYC® is a registered trademark of the National Association for the Education of Young Children non-profit corporation. ILLINOIS 1401 H Street, Suite 600 Washington D.C. 20005
1Rasmussen University's Early Childhood Education Certificate, Early Childhood Education Diploma, Early Childhood Education Associate's degree and Early Childhood Education Leadership Bachelor's degree programs are not accredited or recognized by NAEYC®.
2Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [accessed November 2023]. www.bls.gov/ooh Information represents national, averaged data for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience.
3Graduates of Early Childhood Education programs at Rasmussen University are not eligible for licensure as a teacher in an elementary or secondary school. A Bachelor’s degree and a state teaching license are typically required to work as a teacher in a public school and some private school settings. States, municipalities, districts or individual schools may have more stringent licensing requirements. Students must determine the licensure requirements in the state and school in which they intend to work.
Childcare facilities and the states in which they are located establish qualifications for staff who work with children and often implement guidelines regarding age, education, experience and professional development. Students must determine the licensure requirements for the state and facilities in which they work.
This program has not been approved by any state professional licensing body, and this program is not intended to lead to any state-issued professional license. For further information on professional licensing requirements, please contact the appropriate board or agency in your state of residence.
4 Rasmussen University does not offer graduate level programs in Early Childhood Education.