Choose Your Path: Your Guide to Early Childhood Education Careers

 female teacher talking to parent and child

You know you want to work with kids someday and you might even think that an early childhood education (ECE) career is in your future. And whether it’s something you’ve known for a while or it’s a new revelation, it’s exciting to know that you’re on your way to achieving your dream, right? But before you get too far ahead of yourself, there are a few things you need to decide first to make sure you’re on the right path.

ECE is a big field with many opportunities, which means that the educational process can actually be a little confusing. There are several ways to make sure you end up in an ECE career, but you first need to decide which ECE degree is right for you.

Here’s an in-depth look at the different levels of ECE education you can earn and the types of careers those credentials can lead to.

ECE certificate

An ECE certificate lays the foundation for an ECE career. Put simply, it’s the credential that’s the quickest to earn, which means you can start your career sooner. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s better than a two- or four-year degree—what’s best depends on your career goals.

You should also keep in mind that earning a certificate doesn’t mean you’ll never earn an associate or a bachelor’s degree—you’re free to earn a certificate now and one of those degrees later, after you’ve had some experience in the classroom.

Where can this path lead?

Teacher’s aide

A teacher’s aide works under the supervision of a lead teacher and helps out in the classroom as needed. Job duties include working with students on-one-one, assisting with recordkeeping like attendance and enforcing class rules.

Assistant teacher

Instead of, or addition to, a teacher’s aide, some school districts employ assistant teachers. Job duties are dependent on job location, but in preschools assistant teachers often help with children’s needs such as helping at mealtimes or just providing general supervision.

ECE associate degree

A certificate might lead you down the path you want, but if you’re looking for a little bit more responsibility in the classroom consider earning an ECE associate degree. An associate degree can be earned in as little as 18 months. Often the curriculum focuses on the specifics of helping young children learn and gaining real-world experience via internships or externships.

Where can this path lead?

Lead teacher

Being the lead preschool teacher is a big job, but your degree can help prepare you for the ins and outs of lesson planning, making a positive learning environment and general classroom management techniques. If you’re exceptionally patient, love to create and have more enthusiasm than most people can handle, those could be signs that you should be teaching preschool!

Child care business owner

Chances are this is one career you won’t jump into right away, but having a degree and some experience are sure to help you achieve this dream. Opening your own child care center isn’t easy, but you can make it work if you’re passionate about it. The first thing you need to do is discover some important steps that are often overlooked in the process of opening a daycare.


If you think you’d enjoy working with children one-on-one in a more homelike setting, becoming a nanny might be the best route for you. Nannies usually work full-time for one family and their job responsibilities vary based on the families’ needs and the ages of the children, but often can include meal preparation, organizing play dates, taking children to school and helping children learn to behave appropriately. Being a nanny can be a long-term career choice, or something more temporary if you choose to use your experience to transition into another area like being a preschool teacher.

ECE bachelor’s degree

An ECE bachelor’s degree takes longer to earn than an associate degree or a certificate, but the range of opportunities for graduates is usually greater. This degree can be especially helpful if you aspire to leadership positions in the ECE world. The curriculum is generally focused on teaching strategies, early childhood literacy, ECE trends and leadership topics.

Where can this path lead?

Program coordinator

Every child care center needs that person to lead the hiring and firing trends, help with administrative tasks and develop the center’s programs and activities—that’s where the program coordinator comes in. It’s a position where you’d have some contact with kids but you wouldn’t necessarily be with them for a full eight hours every day.

Training and development specialist

If you think you’d be perfect at keeping up with ECE trends and deciding how to best keep a daycare center’s employees skills sharp, you might want to consider becoming a training and development specialist. In this position you’d create training materials, monitor training programs, perform administrative tasks and other duties related to training.

Assistant, center or executive director

This title can vary a bit, but it all means the same thing—child care center directors are responsible for making most of the center’s decisions, and assistants help them. These professionals are key to keeping a child care center running smoothly, as their job duties show. Common tasks they undertake include supervising teachers, establishing center policies, meeting with parents and making a budget.

Which road will you choose?

As you can see, many avenues await if you choose to earn an ECE certificate or degree. Deciding which option matches up with your dream ECE career will help you have a straighter path to that career. Each credential leads to its own job options, such as teacher’s aide, lead teacher or program coordinator.

In the end, the choice is yours. If you’re still not quite sure exactly which ECE career will suit you best, check out best ECE jobs for degree holders to get a clearer picture of your options.

Elizabeth Xu

Elizabeth is a freelance writer for Collegis education who writes student-focused articles on behalf of Rasmussen College. She enjoys writing engaging content to help former, current and future students on their path to a rewarding education.

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