Online Master’s Programs in Early Childhood Education

The National Education Association has documented the long-term benefits of early childhood education. Children who participate in preschool and kindergarten programs achieve higher levels of education, experience lower rates of juvenile delinquency, and reach higher rates of employment in adulthood.

Parents, teachers, and policy-makers increasingly recognize the importance of investing in quality early childhood education programs and better training for early childhood professionals. An online master's in early childhood education prepares graduates to help young children achieve developmental milestones, and cultivate a love of learning.

This guide offers helpful information about online early childhood education master's degree programs, career options, and links to resources and professional organizations.

Overview of an Online Master's Program in Early Childhood Education

Despite curriculum differences between schools, early childhood education master's programs share some common features. These course descriptions provide an idea of the theories, concepts, and instructional models you can expect to encounter.

Common Classes and Coursework

Foundations of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education

This introductory course examines the fundamental premises and concepts that guide early childhood education. Students also analyze developmental and inclusive early childhood models and practices.

Assessment in Early Childhood Education

Teachers and administrators need a strong background in early childhood measurement and assessment techniques. This course introduces the fundamentals of psychometric theory and applications, the use of standardized tests, and the adoption of alternative assessment techniques for early childhood learning. Coursework also addresses identification and intervention strategies for children with special needs.

Language Development and Literacy

Students explore speech and language development from infancy through primary-aged children and their process of acquiring literacy. The course places special emphasis on linguistically diverse populations, and on children who develop differently. Coursework addresses language development stages, theories of language acquisition, assessment of language development, and activities that promote language development.

Mathematics in Early Childhood Education

Students examine the developmental theories and research in mathematics and science that inform early learning standards, such as Common Core. The course addresses curriculum and teaching practices that strengthen problem-solving and reasoning processes, and presents effective techniques for representing and connecting mathematical ideas and relationships to young learners.

Exceptional Children

Early childhood teachers and administrators must understand all types of exceptionality recognized in special education. This course presents a comprehensive overview of physical, mental, intellectual, behavioral and emotional exceptionalities. Students examine current research about special education instructional strategies, technologies, and practices to assist children with these characteristics.

Skills You Will Gain

Earning an online early childhood education master's degree can lead to diverse employment opportunities throughout school and childcare settings, such as positions in teaching, administration, and assessment. As a result, graduates must acquire a broad knowledge base and versatile set of skills. Most importantly, these educators need a strong foundation in educational theories and instructional methods to work with children from infancy through the age of eight.

educators need a strong foundation in educational theories and instructional methods to work with children from infancy through the age of eight

Degree-holders must demonstrate an openness to exploring new developments in early childhood education and a willingness to incorporate the latest theories, models, and instructional strategies into their teaching and practice, including technological applications. Early childhood educators and administrators must also develop good observational and analytical skills to monitor progress in a child's physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development.

In addition to academic foundations, an early childhood master's in education provides graduates with specific skills to help them engage young learners, such as the integration of games, group activities, and various kinds of sensory stimuli. Early childhood professionals must also develop patience and empathy to work not only with young children, but also their parents.

A career in early childhood education requires a commitment to equity and inclusion, sensitivity to the needs of diverse populations, and an understanding of the factors that shape childhood learning in a variety of socio-economic and cultural environments.

Average Degree Length

The convenience and flexible schedules of online graduate programs appeal to students who need to balance coursework with the demands of job or family responsibilities. Most online master's in early childhood education degrees require approximately 36 credits, or two years of full-time study. The program format and the amount of time you can devote to your studies determines how long it takes to graduate. For example, programs that offer courses continuously throughout the year — or those that provide accelerated learning formats — may allow students to finish their requirements in 12-18 months.

Most online master's degrees in early childhood education require approximately two years of full-time study

Education master's programs that lead to state licensing generally require a semester of supervised student teaching that may add to the time and costs needed to graduate. A thesis, practicum experience, or an on-campus residency requirement may also affect the average length of time needed to graduate. On the other hand, an increasing number of programs offer prior learning assessment that extends academic credit for work experience; this can also shorten the time needed to complete a degree and save on tuition costs.

How to Find a Top Program

As online early childhood education master's degree programs become more prevalent, finding a quality graduate program that suits your educational needs and career goals can be a difficult choice. Before making your decision, evaluate each program based on the characteristics below.

  • Accreditation

    Regionally accredited institutions meet objective standards of academic excellence, qualify for federal financial aid, and ease the ability to transfer credits. Students planning on acquiring a state teaching license should look for schools that also hold programmatic accreditation from the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP).

  • Return on Investment

    An online master's in early childhood education is a significant investment of money and time for most students. High quality schools regularly update and publish data on tuition costs and fees, financial aid availability, student indebtedness after graduation, alumni job placement rates, and salary information.

  • Student Satisfaction

    Several websites, blogs, and media outlets provide reviews and rankings written by students and graduates. These platforms give you an indication of the overall academic experience and the quality of advising, career, and other student support services.

  • Graduation Rates

    The average length of time most students need to complete their degrees — and the rate of degree completion — provide good indicators of program quality, and how well it supports students as they navigate their way through degree requirements.

  • Online Course Delivery Formats

    Look for schools and programs that offer transparency about course delivery formats, distance learning fees, and resources for distance learners. Find out whether you can take your courses entirely online, self-paced, in a hybrid or cohort-based format, and if the program requires an on-campus residency.

Early Childhood Education Careers After Earning Your Master's

Graduates of early childhood education degrees online pursue several career paths. For instance, early childhood educators and administrators work in preschools and elementary schools, daycare facilities, and community centers. Although some early childhood positions require only a bachelor's degree, a master's can lead to broader employment prospects and higher salaries. Several states and public school systems even require early childhood educators to hold a master's degree and teacher certification.

Some of the most common careers for graduates include preschool and childcare center directors and preschool teachers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the employment of preschool and childcare center directors could grow by 11% through 2026, followed by a 10% increase for preschool teacher positions in the same period.

Special Education Teacher

Special education teachers work with students experiencing learning, physical, mental, and emotional disabilities. Earning a master's in early childhood education online with a concentration or certification in special education equips graduates to meet the needs of young children with exceptionalities.

Average Annual Salary: $59,780

Kindergarten and Elementary School Teacher

These educators instruct students in basic subjects like reading, writing, and mathematics. Kindergarten and elementary teachers who work in public schools must acquire a state-issued teaching certification. Some states and school systems require teachers to hold a master's degree.

Average Annual Salary: $57,980

Preschool Director

Preschool directors supervise staff, design and administer programs, and manage daily activities. Most preschools and daycare centers require directors to have earned at least a bachelor's degree. A growing number of employers prefer candidates who hold a master's in early childhood education or a related field.

Average Annual Salary: $47,940

Early Intervention Specialist

These specialists work with children who have experienced developmental delays related to language, motor, social, and emotional development. Working in public and private settings, these professionals evaluate the needs of their clients and determine what kinds of services could benefit their development.

Average Annual Salary: $39,384

Preschool Teacher

Preschool teachers instill language, motor, and social skills in young children before they enter kindergarten. Many schools accept an associate degree as the minimum educational credential, but public schools and head teacher positions increasingly require a bachelor's or graduate-level degree in early childhood education.

Average Annual Salary: $29,780

Source: BLS; PayScale

Additional Certifications for Early Childhood Education

Public schools in every state — and some private institutions — require early childhood educators to acquire a state-issued license to teach children from preschool through the third grade. Some states and employers may require specialized certifications in early childhood development, education, or a similar credential. Requirements for obtaining these certifications vary by granting agency.

Council for Professional Recognition Child Development Associate Certifications

The Council for Professional Recognition administers four credentials for early childhood professionals who work in all types of early care and educational settings, including Head Start, pre-K, infant-toddler, family childcare, and home visitor programs. Requirements for CDA certification include an exam, observation by a professional development specialist, and a professional portfolio documenting specific competencies.

National Board for Professional Teaching Standards

NBPTS administers several K-12 certification programs, including a voluntary National Board Certification for Early Childhood Generalists teaching children from the ages of five through eight. Designed for early childhood educators who want to obtain an advanced credential beyond state licensure, this certification requires candidates to demonstrate standards-based evidence of content areas, data and assessment, and teaching practice.

National Early Childhood Program Accreditation

NECPA administers the certified childcare professional credential for early childhood teachers and directors who have completed 720 hours of work experience in a licensed early childhood center within the last five years. Requirements include a specialist exam in nine professional ability areas, a portfolio, and a performance-based observation assessment.

Professional Organizations & Resources for Early Childhood Education Students

Early childhood educators, whether new or established practitioners, benefit from the support and resources offered by professional organizations. This list describes some of these organizations and the services they offer to early childhood teachers and administrators.

  • Association for Childhood Education International ACEI supports the professional growth of educators and others whose interests focus on children's education and child development in an international context. The organization also administers a certificate of Training in Education Diplomacy Leadership.
  • Association for Early Learning Leaders Established in 1984, AELL membership is comprised of childcare center directors and administrators. The association offers online training programs, a job board, webinars, annual conference, and other professional development resources.
  • Division for Early Childhood for the Council for Exceptional Children The Council directs its efforts toward the improvement of educational services and outcomes for children with exceptionalities, students with disabilities, and/or those who are gifted. The Division for Early Childhood focuses on young children, from infancy through the age of eight who have — or are at risk for — developmental delays and disabilities.
  • HighScope Educational Research Foundation HighScope offers a variety of support services to early childhood educators, administrators, students, and parents. The foundation provides professional learning workshops, assessment instruments, curriculum materials, and evaluation services to improve educational outcomes and foster best practices among professionals.
  • National Association for the Education of Young Children In addition to accrediting college programs, the NAEYC offers support services for professionals who teach and assist children from birth to age eight. Member benefits include discounted books and other resources, complementary magazine and newsletter subscriptions, and access to Members Only areas of the organization's website.
  • National Association for Family Child Care NAFCC promotes quality child care by strengthening the profession of family child care. The association provides technical assistance to family child care associations and administers the NAFCC accreditation process for family child care providers.
  • National Black Child Development Institute NBCDI provides programs, workshops, resources, and community-based services for African American children and their parents in early health and education, health, elementary and secondary education, parenting, and child welfare.
  • National Child Care Association This lobby group advocates for classroom equality, educational funding, and safe learning environments. The NCCA website offers discussion forums, a resource library, and information about continuing education and professional development opportunities.
  • National Head Start Association NHSA provides support for Head Start children and families by providing training and professional development to staff and disseminating research, policy information, and other resources that enrich Head Start program delivery.
  • World Organization for Early Childhood Education-United States National Committee The only world-wide NGO that focuses on the education and welfare of young children from infancy through the age of eight, OMEP improves early childhood education through supporting scientific research on child development and early learning.
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