Early Childhood Education vs. Elementary Education

teacher in classroom with kids raising their hands

When comparing early childhood education vs. elementary education, both disciplines help to give young children a strong foundation to build upon throughout their academic careers and their entire lives. 

The main difference between these two areas is that early childhood education focuses on developing language, literacy, and social skills in children from birth to approximately eight years old, while elementary education focuses on advancing students from kindergarten through 5th grade, engaging them in a curriculum of math and language skills, as well as continuing their social development. 

We’ll delve deeper into these two areas of study, helping prospective teachers learn more about the skills required for both early childhood education and elementary education, as well as key differences.

What Is Early Childhood Education (ECE)?

Early childhood education (sometimes referred to as “ECE”) is a sphere of academia that focuses on teaching very young children, ranging from infants to roughly eight years of age, preparing them for life inside and outside the classroom. In addition to helping students develop cognitive skills, social and emotional learning, and fine motor skills, ECE also grounds them in fundamentals such as literacy and reading comprehension required for formal education. 

At this early stage, children need both nurturing and engagement to support their development. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the first eight years of a child’s life are critical to their later health and development. Providing them with a safe environment with plenty of stimulation can help set them up for future success. 

“You want children to explore the world through conversations, reading, play, and other ways that they would naturally learn from in a family environment,” observes Donna Elder, ED.D, Interim Dean of National University’s College of Education.  “You ultimately want to create a space where children have a lot of opportunities to talk with each other and experience new things.”

Key components of an effective early childhood education program

An effective ECE program is comprised of a multi-faceted approach, including: 

  • Play-based learning helps young children develop key skills by using play as a means of learning. It can involve guided play with a variety of toys, engaging in activities, or imaginative/role-playing games. According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), guided play “features two crucial elements: child agency (the child directs the learning) and gentle adult guidance to ensure that the child progresses toward the learning goal.”

    Play-based learning is self-directed by the child, and they choose the activity, but teachers support the child by prompting them to explain more about the direction their activities take. For instance, a child may decide to build something with blocks, and a teacher can ask them to tell them about the structure they’ve created, the colors they’ve chosen, and who lives inside the structure.

  • Social and emotional development focuses on helping young children understand their feelings and express them with words, develop healthy relationships with peers and adults, as well as explore and engage with their environment.  

During early childhood, kids develop a sense of self, understanding who they are and how they fit into the world around them. For example, social and emotional development can involve a child articulating their feelings verbally and recognizing emotions in others – such as if a parent or friend is sad.

  • Language and literacy skills in ECE are two different-yet-related disciplines that key in on a child’s ability to communicate in both written and spoken word. Language skills measure a young child’s ability to listen and understand what is being said to them, as well as communicate in return. One example of a child putting language skills into practice may involve a young student listening to their teacher and following simple instructions.

    According to an article by Timothy Shanahan, Ph.D. and Christopher J. Lonigan, Ph.D. that appeared in Language Magazine, the National Early Literacy Panel (NELP)’s scientific research discovered that “alphabet knowledge, oral language, or phonological awareness present in the preschool years … provides the basis for later reading success.”

    As it pertains to literary skills, there are a variety of milestones for children to achieve, depending on their age and how advanced they are cognitively. For instance, an infant may respond by looking at pictures in a book when an adult speaks to them and explains the image. A toddler putting literacy skills into practice may involve holding the book right side up, turning pages appropriately, and requesting a favorite story – or potentially reading parts of the book aloud along with a teacher or parent.
3 elementary school aged children, a girl writes with a pencil with boys on either side looking down at her paper

What Is Elementary Education?

Elementary education (sometimes called “primary education”) is a child’s first foray into a formal classroom setting, beginning with kindergarten and extending through 5th grade. Elementary education builds on top of social, language, and literacy skills learned earlier, but expands upon them by immersing children in a structured curriculum that develops curiosity and retention of information around a variety of subjects. 

Key components of an effective elementary education program

An elementary education program covers both social and academic areas, helping develop in such areas as: 

  • A foundational knowledge of reading, writing, and math. As the old song goes, basics like “reading and writing and arithmetic” are a key part of elementary education. Without learning these fundamentals, children stand less of a chance at excelling in other subjects.

    Reading comprehension helps children absorb information and develop an understanding of other subjects and the world around them. Writing allows them to express themselves better, as well as ideas on different subjects – as well as offering children a vehicle for creativity. Basic math – such as learning to count for kindergarteners, addition and subtraction for 1st graders, and more advanced mathematical concepts like multiplication for older elementary school students – not only help them understand quantities and calculations, but can also help kids develop a sense of logic.
  • An introduction to science, social studies, and the arts.  If basics like reading, writing, and math form the bedrock of a child’s formal education, the arts and sciences build on top of that foundation and foster a sense of curiosity about the world around them. Science builds upon the logic of math, while social studies teach children about other cultures and how people relate to one another. Exposure to the arts, on the other hand, helps children develop an appreciation for music, fine art, visual art, and storytelling – and can inspire them to express their own creativity in different ways.
  • Development of critical thinking and problem-solving skills. A structured academic curriculum helps elementary-age students continue to evolve their critical thinking and problem-solving skills, but teachers can also leverage lesson plans to develop further children’s abilities to While disciplines such as math and science can help them approach scenarios in rational ways, reading and writing can hone in on more social and emotional behavioral patterns – expressing themselves in healthy and constructive ways. 
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What’s the Difference Between Early Childhood Education and Elementary Education?

There are a few key differences between ECE and elementary education. Perhaps the biggest difference is the age range of children and, as a result, the types of age-appropriate skills they develop to help them throughout the course of their lives. ECE is geared toward infants and toddlers, helping develop their social, cognitive, and emotional abilities. Although elementary education builds upon these skills learned during ECE, it also incorporates a focus on academic achievement in reading, writing, math, as well as arts and sciences.

ECE and elementary education also differ in terms of learning approach. In ECE, the child is often in the driver’s seat, taking the lead in a play-based approach with the teacher supporting their play and prompting them to talk through choices and imaginative ideas. By contrast, the teacher takes more of a leading role in elementary education, working with students through a structured curriculum.

Elementary education typically takes place inside a school or classroom setting, while ECE can occur in a variety of settings, such as a preschool or early learning center.  

Education Requirements to Work with Young Children

In addition to the differences in the subject matter covered and learning approach, there are slightly different education requirements for those pursuing a career in ECE vs. elementary education. 

The educational requirements for a career in early childhood education can vary from state to state, and the type of facility where a professional may work. Typically, individuals in the ECE field will need at least an associate’s degree in early childhood education or a related field. However, some settings (such as a public preschool) may require a bachelor’s degree. 

Many ECE professionals also choose to obtain a Child Development Associate (CDA) credential, a nationally transferable certification demonstrating they have passed an exam based on core principles and verification visits, observing them working with young children.

In addition to an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, an individual pursuing a career in ECE will need to be licensed in the state where they plan to work, as well as pass a background check and complete a supervised internship or practicum.

Individuals interested in pursuing a career in elementary education may also see differences in requirements depending on the state where they plan to teach. Still, universally, this career path requires a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, as well as completing a student teaching program under the guidance of a licensed teacher. As part of obtaining full certification, individuals pursuing a career in elementary education will also need to complete an approved teacher education program recognized by a given state’s department of education and pass a state licensing exam in order to obtain a teacher’s license. 

Skills Needed to Work with Young Children 

Working with young children in any capacity requires a variety of hard and soft skills. Individuals working in early childhood education will need to have a working knowledge of the psychology of early childhood development, and educational techniques, as well as an understanding of child safety and first aid.

Hard skills required of elementary education teachers include written and verbal communication skills, a knowledge of computers and technology for presentations, lesson and curriculum planning, as well as adherence to a system of grading and keeping student records. 

In terms of soft skills, both ECE and elementary education teachers will need to have patience and empathy in dealing with sometimes-impatient youngsters, creativity, organizational skills, and curiosity. 

woman teaching two young children in a classroom

What Jobs Can I Get in Early Childhood Education?

A degree in early childhood education can prepare you for a variety of careers. Some of the most popular include: 

  • Preschool teacher: Preschool teachers work with children under the age of five, engaging them in a wide variety of educational activities to prepare them for kindergarten and beyond. These teachers typically work in either public or private school settings, as well as childcare centers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for preschool teachers is $30,210. In terms of job outlook, the demand for preschool teachers is expected to grow 15% before 2031 – significantly faster than the average for all occupations. 
  • Childcare worker: Childcare workers can typically be found in such settings as daycare or childcare centers. However, some childcare workers operate from their homes or are employed privately by other families. They work with very young children, helping them to develop foundational skills while also caring for their needs. Based on statistics from the BLS, the need for childcare workers is expected to increase by 6% by 2031, which is an average rate across all occupations. The median annual pay for childcare workers is $27,490.

What Jobs Can I Get in Elementary Education?

A degree in elementary education can set you up for a long and fulfilling career across a multitude of jobs, including: 

  • Kindergarten and elementary school teacher: Both kindergarten and elementary school teachers (typically, grades 1 through 5) work in either a public or private school setting, with summers off. They guide children through a curriculum rooted in such studies as math, reading, and language arts, preparing them for more advanced work in middle school and high school. They also devote time (either during designated prep periods or after school hours) to grade assignments, keeping a record of student performance. According to the BLS, the median annual wage for kindergarten and elementary school teachers is $61,400. The need for elementary teachers is anticipated to grow 4% by 2031. However, roughly 120,300 new job openings for teachers in this area become available each year, filling gaps due to teachers retiring or moving on to different careers.
  • Instructional coordinator: An instructional coordinator with a degree in elementary education can oversee curriculum choices and standards for students in a K-5 setting. Sometimes referred to as curriculum specialists, these professionals create instructional materials and roll it out to other teachers within a school or district. An instructional coordinator will typically work in an elementary school, with educational support services, or even with state and local government agencies. Typically, a master’s degree is required of instructional coordinators, alongside practical experience as a teacher in an elementary school setting. The median annual salary for an instructional coordinator is $63,740. According to the BLS, the projected need for these specialists is anticipated to grow 7% by 2031. 

How Do I Choose Between ECE and Elementary Education?

When deciding between a career in early childhood education and elementary education, it’s important to weigh your personal and professional goals for both the near future and the long-term. 

If you enjoy working with babies and toddlers, a career in ECE may be ideal for you. While you will need to complete at least an associate’s program and consider earning a CDA, the requirements are less stringent than a career in elementary education, which requires a bachelor’s degree. If salary and earning potential is a factor, it’s important to note that, early childhood educators earn approximately 50% less than those with a degree in elementary education, according to median annual wage statistics from the BLS.

A career in elementary education, however, opens the doors to opportunities outside the classroom. Although most individuals with bachelor’s in elementary education start out teaching children in kindergarten through 5th grade, some choose to take on a more administrative role in driving curriculum for young minds. If working with children in an academic setting appeals to you right now, but you may want to consider an out-of-the-classroom role in education later in your career, earning your bachelor’s in elementary education can put you on track to a long and fulfilling career. 

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Earn Your Degree or Teaching Credential with National University

Helping prepare children for life inside the classroom and beyond can be a rewarding experience. Enrolling in National University’s Teacher Education program can help set you down the path toward a gratifying career working with young children. 
With a National University Bachelor of Arts Degree in Early Childhood Education (BAECE), you’ll learn the skills required to foster a love of learning in children under the age of eight, helping them build social and emotional learning skills.  Our Master of Arts in Education program can help you advance your career in the classroom with advanced teaching practices, or consider an emphasis in education administration. We also offer multiple or single-subject teacher credential programs designed to prepare students to teach in a preK-12 classroom setting. Regardless of the path you choose, National University is here to help you along your journey in helping prepare for tomorrow’s future.

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