Understanding the Early Childhood Education Pathway

what is the purpose of early childhood education  

If you’re like most adults, you didn’t spend much time thinking about early childhood education (ECE) until you or a loved one had a child. You may have fond memories of your preschool days but can’t recall much besides taking turns in games, singing songs, getting dirty outside, making friends, and napping on the floor.

These activities often seem like merely fun and games, so it's easy to overlook the importance of early childhood education. But educators know the truth: Young children learn best through play, and starting early sets them up for success in life and school. In fact, children start learning from their parents and environment in utero, according to Dr. Hawani Negussie, assistant professor of early childhood education at UMass Global.

We enlisted Dr. Negussie’s ECE expertise to help answer some important questions, like “What is ECE?” and “Why is early childhood education important?”

What is Early Childhood Education?

Early childhood education is considered the official term for teaching young kids. More specifically, it refers to formal and informal educational programs that guide the growth and development of children throughout their preschool years (birth to age five). Children at these ages are entirely dependent on their adult caregivers, including parents, daycare providers, babysitters, extended family members, and teachers.

ECE encompasses a wide variety of activities designed to promote children's cognitive and social development before entering kindergarten. Some programs primarily focus on school and academic readiness while others embrace a “whole child” approach that emphasizes mental and emotional preparedness.

One challenge that ECE educators face is the fact that their work is often dismissed or devalued as “simply playtime.” This could not be farther from the truth, according to Dr. Negussie.

“This misconception around what ECE teachers do is very common,” she shares. “Often, stakeholders, like parents, community members, and even other educators, have the attitude that whatever happens in preschool doesn’t matter because learning only begins once they enter kindergarten.”

The Purpose of Early Childhood Education

The purpose of ECE is to provide children with strategies that help them develop the emotional, social, and cognitive skills needed to become lifelong learners. According to the Zero to Three Foundation, the most important skills for young learners to master include:

  • Language and Literacy: Language provides the foundation for the development of literacy skills. Learning to communicate increases a child’s interest in books and reading.
  • Thinking: Children use and develop an understanding of math concepts and problem-solving skills.
  • Self-control: This refers to the ability to express and manage emotions in appropriate ways.
  • Self-confidence: When children feel competent and believe in themselves, they are more willing to take on new challenges.

Why is Early Childhood Education Important?

A newborn baby’s brain is about a quarter of the size of an adult brain and will have completed 90 percent of its growth by age five. During these early years, the brain is making millions of synapses every second, a critical window of development. Research suggests that high-quality ECE programs can have a positive long-term effect on children’s lives. According to the National Education Association (NEA), children in early childhood education programs are:

  • Less likely to repeat a grade
  • Less likely to be identified as having special needs
  • More prepared academically for later grades
  • More likely to graduate from high school
  • More likely to be higher earners in the workforce

“We have a lot of scientific data about brain development at this age, but there is a huge gap between figuring out what young brains need to thrive and actually making policies or funding programs based on that information,” Dr. Negussie shares.

She wishes that more people would understand that children have an impact on everyone — not just parents. “We forget that kids grow up and become leaders and decision-makers,” she poses. “ECE should be at the forefront of political, social, state and federal discussions because every single child deserves a high-quality education, regardless of race, ethnicity or class.”

Signs You’re a Good Fit for an Early Childhood Education Career

Early childhood educators need to wear many hats, teaching a range of subjects and integrating various content areas. According to Dr. Julianne Zvalo-Martyn, effective ECE teachers understand how young children learn and develop and use this understanding to build relationships with students.

Curriculum developer and teacher trainer Dr. Laura Colker has conducted a wealth of research on the characteristics of effective early childhood educators. She interviewed several ECE professionals to gain their perspectives on the inherent personal characteristics they share. We used her findings, Dr. Zvalo-Martyn’s insight, and data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to determine the following seven traits that could help you find success in an early childhood education career:

  1. You’re a Confident Leader: ECE teachers must be confident in their leadership abilities and handle difficult situations to motivate and guide students.
  2. You’re Driven to Make a Difference: Feeling like you’re making a difference can motivate you to persevere, even on the hardest days.
  3. You’re Creative: Crafting engaging lessons for young children requires creativity, especially with diverse backgrounds and abilities.
  4. You’re Patient: Working with young children takes an admirable amount of patience and the ability to create environments that engage them.
  5. You Have Strong Interpersonal Communication Skills: Connecting with young children and their families is crucial, as is maintaining open communication with colleagues.
  6. You’re Adaptable: Organization is crucial, but adaptability is key when dealing with unexpected changes.
  7. You’re Energetic: A certain level of stamina is necessary to keep up with young students and create an enjoyable classroom atmosphere.

What Does a High-Quality ECE Program Look Like?

Successful childhood learning programs are dynamic, challenging, enriching, and carefully planned. According to the Learning Policy Institute (LPI), the most important elements of a quality ECE program include:

  • Sufficient learning time and small class sizes with low student-teacher ratios
  • Well-prepared teachers who provide engaging interactions and classroom environments
  • Research-based, developmentally appropriate early learning standards and curricula
  • Assessments that consider children’s academic, social-emotional, and physical progress
  • Ongoing support for teachers, including coaching and mentoring
  • Meaningful family engagement

Ready to Launch Your Early Childhood Education Career?

Committing to an early childhood education career means you could help young learners reap long-term benefits. If you recognize these qualities in yourself, you might want to explore how you can make an impact on young students. One of the first steps is acquiring the education and training that will help you succeed. Learn more about UMass Global’s flexible, affordable bachelor's degree in early childhood education.

For more information, explore the School of Education at UMass Global.

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