Early childhood or Elementary ed? Which one is best for me?

early childhood or elementary ed

You love working with children. You know you want to be a teacher. But which license should you get – early childhood or elementary ed? This was the exact scenario I found myself in when I was applying to college. I just didn’t know which age levels I wanted to teach and I didn’t know the differences between early childhood or elementary ed. 

What grades are early childhood education?

what grades are early childhood education?

One of the main differences between early childhood and elementary education are the grade levels that you will be certified in. There is some overlap. And unfortunately, the licenses are different in different states. The early childhood years are birth through eight years old. Some states give early childhood licenses for preschool-third grade, some narrow down to pre-k to 2nd grade, like my license in Massachusetts. Elementary licenses are mostly 1st grade through 6th grade, although some states might include kindergarten in their early childhood license. For the most accurate information, you should check the department of education in the state where you want to teach. Some people study to be teachers in states outside of where they want to teach and then are surprised that the license in their own state is very different or has different requirements than where they studied in their teacher preparation program. 

Early childhood or elementary education?

So if you know that you only want to teach preschool or pre-k… your decision is easy! Study early childhood. If you know for sure you want to teach second grade or older, your decision is easy! Study elementary education. If you think you want to teach kindergarten or first grade, or you’re unsure what grade you want to teach, then you might be confused. Here is where I come in!

early childhood or elementary education

Developmental approach

One of the biggest differences in the pre-professional teacher preparation elementary and early childhood programs is the content of the classes pre-professional teachers are expected to take. Early childhood education courses focus on preparing teachers for a developmental approach. Early childhood educators learn about child-development and how to support students develop across different developmental areas, like language, cognitive, physical, and social-emotional. Teachers understand that development is a range and each classroom is full of students with different developmental needs. 

Content approach

early childhood or elementary ed

Elementary education courses focus on teaching the content. Elementary education students learn how to teach science, social studies, math, and literacy. They learn about the range of content and how it progresses over each of the grades. They also learn a lot of content themselves so that they can be experts in the fields they are teaching. For example they take college level science, social studies, math, and literacy courses, as well as classes on how to teach those content areas. 

early childhood or elementary ed?

Whole child approach

Personally, I am very thankful that my education has focused on a more developmental approach. It has taught me to support the range of needs in my early childhood classrooms. The content changes constantly and there are lots of training opportunities for how to teach the different content areas. However, there aren’t a ton of resources out there for teaching the whole child – teaching all the developmental domains – and meeting the child where they are developmentally. I also learned about the importance of play and how to incorporate play into academics. This is something that I believe strongly in – play must be the early childhood classrooms (Preschool – 2nd grade). 


So which one is right for you – early childhood or elementary ed? Well, first look at what the grade levels you would be licensed in your state and see if that helps decide.  If you want second grade or above, you definitely want an elementary license. If you want Kindergarten or lower, you definitely want an early childhood license. Deciding between kindergarten and first grade… it gets trickier.

Think about the types of training you would get in your program before deciding what makes the most sense for you and your professional training. And if you are still in doubt… reach out! Reach out to me, reach out to your programs of interest, reach out to your previous teachers, just ask! Maybe spend some time observing or helping with the different age groups! Talking it through often helps clarify things. And remember… the first year or two at college can all be about exploring your options! You can switch if you realize you changed your mind or tried out a kindergarten classroom and realized you loved it or hated it. Whatever you decide, I know you will be a great teacher and I am here to help you along the way!


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