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Early Childhood Education vs. Elementary Education: Which Path Is Right for You?

November 4, 2022

Our first teachers can arguably be our most influential ones, sparking a fire for learning and shaping the methods and tools we need to cultivate knowledge. For graduates considering a path in early childhood education vs. elementary education, the distinction may come down to the type of teaching they hope to do and which skills they’re most passionate about. 

Pursuing an advanced degree in education, such as a doctorate in education policy and leadership, can provide future teachers with a strong foundation in education, as well as the opportunity to play a senior role in their institution and foster student learning. 

Early Childhood Educators vs. Elementary Educators: What Do They Do? 

As students build skills and the capacity to learn complex information, the skills and strategies required of teachers must evolve with them, and the day-to-day life and lessons for educators can look incredibly different. For future leaders in education, understanding the difference between these age groups and their requirements is both crucial to the students and highly influential when choosing a specialty. 

Early Childhood Educators

Early childhood educators interact with our youngest students, from infants to preschool age. They supervise children who have not yet reached kindergarten and help them develop the basic building blocks of learning. Due to the varying nature of early childhood programs, from day care and preschool centers to Montessori-style institutions or those focused on specialized education, teachers in early childhood education can implement a multitude of learning styles. 

Elementary Educators

Typically, elementary education begins with kindergarten and concludes when students reach middle school. Older elementary school students are often better able to concentrate, so teachers can begin to implement structured lesson plans, focusing on critical thinking and accumulating new information. They also teach various subjects in greater detail, such as language arts, math, and science.

Early Childhood Education vs. Elementary Education: Differences and Similarities

From day-to-day responsibilities to teaching standards to education requirements, the process of becoming an early childhood educator or an elementary educator can look very different. Future educators may want to consider the following elements when selecting an advanced degree program. 

Professional Skills and Core Competencies

As children grow, their learning abilities develop. Educators must adapt their teaching styles accordingly. 

Key skills required of early childhood educators are: 

  • Patience: Given young children’s short attention spans and frequent emotional outbursts, guiding them in the learning process is not linear and requires an ample amount of patience from teachers. By approaching the learning process calmly and with empathy, teachers can build relationships with their students that help them find success.
  • Creativity: From storytelling to music, visual aids to hands-on activities, much of learning for young students is sensory; they often benefit from creative approaches to teaching the basic building blocks of education. 
  • Classroom management: Managing a classroom of children who have little experience with school-appropriate behavior can be challenging. When educators develop and apply classroom management strategies, they can create a positive, nurturing learning environment. 

Key skills required of elementary educators include:

  • Organization and time management: Teachers are required to provide structure in their lesson plans and classroom routines, supporting students as they reach required learning objectives. 
  • Communication and interpersonal skills: To teach effectively, educators must build strong communication and interpersonal skills to convey knowledge and develop relationships of trust with students that are conducive to learning.
  • Subject knowledge and resource planning: As students advance, the focus of school instruction shifts to a comprehensive study of separate subject matter areas, such as algebra, chemistry, or world history. Teachers of older students must have a strong foundational knowledge of their subject matter areas. 

Education Requirements

Individuals can take many different paths to become early childhood educators or elementary educators. At minimum, most early childhood educators have an associate degree, as well as any certificates or licensure required by their state. 

In contrast, elementary educators will have completed a bachelor’s degree prior to their education certificate or licensure, normally requiring them to complete an additional two to four years of schooling than their early childhood educator counterparts. 

For educators looking to take on a high-level role in education, such as principal or education policymaker, pursuing an advanced degree such as a doctorate in education can be a crucial stepping stone. Doing so can provide educators with an in-depth understanding of the field of education, allowing them to build vital leadership skills required to make policy decisions based on proven research and education development, going beyond teaching to steer the future of education standards. 

Salary and Career Outlook

The impact of great teachers on students’ lives is immeasurable. By nurturing creativity, providing encouragement, and fostering an environment that motivates students to learn and grow to be their best selves, educators can have a life-long influence on future generations. 

The average annual salary can vary broadly between early childhood education and elementary education, depending on education, experience, geographic location, and whether a school is public or private. 

Early Childhood Education

With many educators entering the field of early childhood education with an associate degree, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported the median annual wage of preschool teachers to be $30,210 as of May 2021. However, it projects the field to grow by 18 percent between 2020 and 2030, much faster than the national average.

Elementary Education

The BLS reported a median annual wage of $61,400 for elementary school teachers and $60,900 for kindergarten teachers, as both professions require at minimum a bachelor’s degree prior to education certifications. In addition, the BLS predicts the field to grow by 7 percent between 2020 and 2030, in line with the national average for all occupations. 

Those with an advanced degree, such as a doctorate in education, are competitive for high-level roles with higher salaries compared to those of postsecondary educators who have completed a graduate program. According to the BLS, the median annual wage for postsecondary teachers was $78,160 as of May 2021.

Nurture the Success of Future Generations as an Educator 

Guiding their students toward a multitude of accomplishments, educators have the chance to watch children grow and fulfill their potential. Whether they choose early childhood education vs. elementary education or levels beyond these two, passionate teachers with an advanced degree in education have the opportunity to shape the future. 

Taking on a high-level role in education requires an in-depth knowledge of how people learn, plus the skills to teach. Pursuing an advanced degree such as the online EdD in Education Policy and Leadership from American University can be a key step toward achieving senior-level roles. American University’s program is fully online, built on practitioner-focused coursework and research, and can equip educators with the hands-on practical skills they need to succeed. 

Discover how you can shape the success of future generations as an early childhood or elementary educator.