Contemporary Perspectives: careers, contexts, and principles

“America’s future will be determined by the home and the school. The child becomes largely what it is taught, hence we must watch what we teach it, and how we live before it Jane Addams (1860–1935)

Lesson Objectives

After reading this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Explain the careers available to early childhood professionals and describe the settings in which they take place.
  • Identify the major early childhood professional organizations.
  • Describe the differences between appropriate and inappropriate reasons for choosing an early childhood career.
  • List and explain the professional teaching standards of the early childhood professional.
  • Describe the major philosophical traditions of early education.

As you think about and apply lesson content on your own, you should be able to:

  • Begin to identify the best options for your own future career.
  • Start formulating your own philosophy of early education.”

You have chosen to study early education at a time when the field is undergoing a period of growth and change. In the 1990s, research in early development became widely known among the general public as did the effects of early education on children characterized as at risk of failure in school. It was suddenly apparent that although love and kindness are vitally important for infants and young children, they are not sufficient for the kind of well-being that can take youngsters successfully into adulthood.

Brain research, for example, was beginning to explain the effects of very early experiences on humans’ lifelong capacity to learn. Additionally, the long-term benefits of early education became apparent as a large group of low-income children of the 1960s—some urban, some rural—grew to adulthood, demonstrating greater successes in all aspects of life than did their unpreschooled counterparts.

Old, half-forgotten discussions were reopened nationwide, at all levels of society. The undervaluing of early educators as expressed in their insufficient pay was one new–old topic: Parking lot attendants and grocery clerks often made better wages. The high turnover of teachers and caregivers along with their lack of appropriate education was another topic, with due respect paid to the influence of low wages on the situation. Increasing numbers of state governments became interested in funding education for 3- and 4-year-olds, particularly for those at risk in their development or those from low-socioeconomic families.

Early childhood professionals were well prepared for this historic window of opportunity. Although late 20th-century findings from brain research were, in part, new, earlier studies and the development of theory had already alerted the profession to the importance of the early years. The discrepancy between the important task of fostering young children’s development and the accompanying low levels of pay, of course, had been long and painfully obvious. Over the previous decade, there had been concerted efforts by early childhood professionals to deal with this issue. By the late 1990s, when a nationwide awareness of inadequate pay had evolved, position statements and the people to deliver them were ready and in place.

Taking leadership was the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Headquartered in Washington, DC, this organization had been growing in size and influence for many decades, until it had become the largest and best known organization devoted to the well being of young children. (As defined by NAEYC, early childhood comprises the years from birth to age 8.)

In the mid-1980s NAEYC, with support from other related organizations and many early educators and researchers, responded to developments in education that they found alarming. Although theory and research were making it increasingly apparent that young children learn best through active learning approaches, there was a widespread trend toward providing them with just the opposite: rote learning, out-of-context skills, too much whole-group instruction, and readiness tests that unfairly retained children or denied them enrollment entirely. NAEYC’s response was to create a series of position papers that laid out the results of research, showing the inappropriateness of such trends in early education. These statements eventually led to a major document, published in 1987 and known as Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8 (Bredecamp, 1987). Over the next decade, reactions from the field informed NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children) of alterations that should be made to the document and of additional voices that needed to be heard as decisions about these modifications were made. The revised edition of the book was published in 1997 with accompanying video conferences for educational leaders. Thus, as public awareness of the importance of the early years arose, a nationwide network of early childhood professionals was ready to respond with shared knowledge and understanding of what was at stake.

Likewise, when the discussion of insufficient wages was reopened, the professionals were prepared. Over the same decade or more, there had been extensive discussion of what it meant to be a professional educator of young children and how levels of responsibility should be equitably and rationally divided. The result was another NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children) document, The Early Childhood Career Lattice: Perspectives on Professional Development (Johnson & McCracken, 1994). We often think of professional growth in terms of a career ladder, but the concept of a career lattice was chosen to reflect the variety and complexity of the early childhood profession. The vertical strands of the lattice represent the many roles and settings available in the profession; these are crossed by horizontal levels ordinarily thought of as the career ladder that leads to increased responsibility and higher salary; finally, diagonals on the lattice demonstrate the movement that professionals can make across the various roles. Taken together, all these interconnected strands add up to the unique entity that is the early childhood profession.

The NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children) creators of the career lattice concept noted two challenges that remained to be met, and some years later, these are still of concern. The first regards the historical but artificial separation of care and education for young children. In reality, youngsters learn continually from the world around them whether those in charge of them think they are offering education or not. On the other hand, people who designate themselves as teachers cannot foster growth in young children unless they include a strong element of care. Despite the fact that early care and education are intimately intertwined, they are generally funded and regulated by different agencies. It is also usually true that people officially engaged in caring are compensated less satisfactorily than people officially designated as teachers.

The second challenge affects special educators and those in general early education as well. Traditionally, children with special needs were separated from the larger population so that they could receive focused education and training. This is no longer always the case, with the concept of inclusion taking strong precedence over removal. This complicates the career lattice in all directions as teachers in general classrooms gain skills for working with special needs children, and vice versa, and as compensation for greater knowledge and skill is earned.

The trend toward inclusion of young children with special needs in early childhood programs is reflected in collaborative activities between NAEYC and the Division of Early Childhood (DEC). DEC is a national professional organization for early childhood special educators, a division of the Council of Exceptional Children (CEC). Membership in DEC has grown dramatically since the mid-1980s, when preschool special education became a national mandate in the United States. DEC provides leadership for the field of early childhood special education through publication of The Journal of Early Intervention, annual conferences, state chapters, training workshops, and position papers on current issues. The DEC and NAEYC alliance is a powerful force and resource on behalf of all young children and their families. Publications on inclusion can be found on each organization’s Web site and in joint publications.

There are a number of ways in which early childhood professionals can prepare themselves for their work. In general, the more years spent learning and the larger the number of credentials or certificates, the greater the remuneration and professional acceptance. It also demonstrates the complexity of the profession and the high level of preparation that is necessary if the education of young children is, at last, to be taken with full seriousness by our society.

The beginning of the 21st century, then, brings early childhood education to something of a crossroads. We can choose to move forward with providing experiences for children that reflect our rapidly expanding understanding of how they develop and learn. Or we can resist change—always uncomfortable, no matter how beneficial—and stay with more familiar but outdated methods of teaching. Additionally, we can gather our courage to demand the respect that should come from having prepared ourselves as professionals. Or we can simply complain about the unfairness of a culture that pays lip service to the value of children and the need for equitable wages and then acts inadequately. It is your generation of early childhood professionals that will be most responsible for deciding the directions that will be taken as the new century begins. Perhaps you don’t as yet know which way you will go, or even if this will be your next or final career choice. As you read this book, take your education courses, and work in the field, reflect on the issues that face the profession of early childhood education and then determine your place in it.

Early Childhood Positions, Credentials, and Responsibilities

Position: Director or principal

Minimum Education: Usually BA or BS degree or MEd.

Responsibilities: Oversees and manages enrollment, parent relations, curriculum, budget, general running of school.

Position: Program or educational director, curriculum coordinator, resource teacher

Minimum Education: Usually BA or BS or MEd, teaching experience.

Responsibilities: Monitors programs, materials, and testing; coordinates curriculum; provides in-service programs and program development.

Position: Head teacher

Minimum Education: AA degree and/or CDA certificate, or BA or BS degree.

Responsibilities: Coordinates curriculum and schedules, calls and runs meetings, represents teachers, may be responsible for personnel issues and aide training.

Position: Teacher

Minimum Education: AA degree and/or CDA certificate in preschools. BA or BS in K–3 grades; state certificate in public schools.

Responsibilities: Designs curriculum, plans schedule, has primary teaching responsibility for a single class.

Position: Associate or assistant teacher

Minimum Education: Usually AA degree and/or CDA certificate.

Responsibilities: Supervises and/or teaches under direction of teacher.

Position: Teacher aide or teacher assistant

Minimum Education: Depends on site or local regulations.

Responsibilities: Helps teacher as directed.


Young children are interesting and appealing, but they are also sensitive and vulnerable. How we care for them, what we do and say each day affects their happiness and well-being as they grow.
(Hendrick, 1987, p. 1)

Young children soak up knowledge about their world with the eagerness of thirsty sponges. Because they don’t yet have the cognitive sophistication to sort through those things that are valuable to learn and those that are less worthy, they take in just about everything. Thus, this quote by Joanne Hendrick, a leading writer in the field, suggests that people who work with young children have an ethical obligation to choose a career in early childhood education with serious intent and for the right reasons. Here are a few of those reasons, as suggested by Hendrick, with some observations to accompany them.

• Because you like to teach. It is possible, even probable, that you have had experiences with children already and that these have been sufficiently positive to lead you into the field. If you have not, then do acquire some experience before you go much further. After all, you probably wouldn’t buy a car or even a suit without trying them out first. It is even more important to try out a career to be sure it fits you. If, on the other hand, you have had some experience but it has been of only one type, find time to try out some related options. Teaching Sunday school is quite different from spending an entire day with toddlers, which is quite different from teaching a classroom of second graders, and so on.

• Because you can make an important difference in children’s lives. At the start of this lesson, we described briefly the long-term benefits of early preschool experiences for children born in poverty; those who attend preschool are found to reach adulthood with much more success in their professional and personal lives than those who do not. The research that has reported these benefits infers that what teachers of young children do has enormous impact! Because the growth in young children is often concrete and visible, one satisfaction for their teachers is seeing positive changes on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps a new kindergartner overcomes his shyness and asks to join others in the dramatic play area, and they accept him graciously. Or a whole class of 3-year-olds suddenly understands the art of getting both arms into their coat sleeves. Or a third grader who has been unable to relate rote-learned arithmetic tables to real life begins to show her understanding of the processes by creating story problems of her own. Such small victories collect and build to successful lives for children and satisfying careers for their teachers.

• Because you can enrich the lives of the families you serve. Children are tied to their families more intimately in the early years than at any other time in their lives. The ensuing three-way relationship among parents, teacher, and young child also tends to be closer than in later years. Parents are often welcomed into the classroom not just for formal and informal meetings but as observers or helpers too. Some careers in early childhood send the professional to the homes of the youngsters. Whatever the setting, the opportunities are many for communication about a child’s growth and the effectiveness of various approaches to fostering that growth.

• Because you like diversity and challenge. People who teach young children are seldom able to rest on their past experiences but, rather, must prepare each day carefully, thinking through a variety of options before creating an hours-long schedule. Furthermore, that schedule generally includes long periods of time when several activities are occurring at once, and the teacher must be aware of what is happening with each activity at any given time. A kindergarten teacher once found herself dealing with the following: several boys in the block corner negotiating for increased space in the next-door housekeeping corner that was inhabited by three territorial and angry girls; one boy “flying” around the room knocking games and books off shelves; two children at a woodworking table having trouble sawing a piece of lumber; several others quietly looking at books in the library corner; three or four at the sand and water table that was just beginning to leak out one side; and all while she tried to get a stuck zipper opened for a boy who was in desperate need of the toilet. She could only laugh, realizing—as any teacher of young children must—that flexibility and a sense of humor are important traits for success in the early education profession.

• Because you are needed. The population of young children is growing and will continue to do so. As we continue to have high numbers of marriages with two parents working and single parents in need of child care while they work, the demand will be steady or will increase. As society and the workplace become more complex, making learning experiences from the earliest years of ever-greater importance, the need for caring, dedicated, well-educated professionals grows. Perhaps you should be one of them!

Although these reasons for choosing a career in early childhood are sound, there are others that, as Hendrick (1987) says, are “based on illusion rather than reality” (p. 5). She lists three that can be observed or heard frequently. If any of these is your primary reason for choosing this career direction, it might be a good time to reflect on your choice, perhaps spending more time in a teaching situation before making your final decision.

• Because young children are so cute and lovable. This reason is often stated as, “I just want to be a teacher because I love children and I always have.” Of course it is good to love children, but as a primary reason to choose the profession, it comes up lacking. Almost no child is lovable at all times. Furthermore, in every group of children there will be some who are easier to love than others. Frequently, it is the children who appear least lovable to adults who are most in need of adult attention and who may make the greatest strides in school, given proper care, teaching, and intervention. The professional teacher regards his or her children as real human beings and understands that they can be moody or calm, enthusiastic or disinterested, happily obedient or strongly independent. And sometimes cute.

• Because young children are easier to control than older children. Some prospective teachers have tried working with older children and have found management and discipline to be a barrier to success. They assume that working with younger, smaller children will be easier. This is definitely not the case! Young children are egocentric, as yet unable to see things very well from another’s point of view. They haven’t yet developed much skill at patience and want their way n-o-w. Although they will bend to the will of an authority figure while he or she is in view, they often revert to their own desires once the authority isn’t looking. Furthermore, they are in constant motion, but tire quickly, and are impulsive rather than planful in their actions. It takes a skilled professional to know how to attain an atmosphere of well-managed calm in a classroom of younger children.

• Working with young children is just baby sitting and play. Yes, play happens in an effectively taught class. But it is assuredly not baby sitting, although caring for and about youngsters is always a crucial element of this work. Teachers of young children do not just provide play and hope or trust that learning will follow. For play to be an effective mode of learning, it must be carefully orchestrated, planned, and integrated with a wide variety of learning experiences. Successful teaching through play is a skill acquired through study and practice.

A career in early childhood education can be highly rewarding in many ways, particularly if it is chosen for some of the better reasons discussed previously. For the benefit of children as well as the career satisfaction of the teacher, it is also a career that should be chosen only by those who plan to take it seriously, as professionals.


The dictionary defines a profession as an occupation or vocation that requires advanced education and training as well as intellectual skills, and teaching is often included as an example. To be a professional, dictionaries tell us, requires an active commitment to the chosen profession’s high standards.

One educator, researcher, and writer (Fromberg, 1997) lists six characteristics of a profession that expand on this definition:

  • An expectation of ethical performance.
  • The required high level of expertise and skill.
  • A body of knowledge and skills not possessed by lay people.
  • Considerable autonomy in its practice, including control of entry into the profession.
  • Commensurate compensation.
  • A professional organization.

To be a professional, then, requires a good amount of self-motivation, effort, and integrity. It also includes the need to continue one’s education over a long period— probably for the duration of one’s professional life—and to participate in, as well as agree to the tenets of, the applicable professional organizations.

More specifically, to be an early childhood professional, your task will be to fulfill your state’s requirements for certification; demonstrate your capabilities as you interact with children; subscribe to the codes of ethics laid out by NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children) and DEC (Development Exchange Centre); keep up-to-date on research, theory, and developments in the understanding of best practices; and participate at some level in your choice of professional organizations.

At the end of this lesson, you will find a list of professional organizations that it will be helpful for you to know about. Think about the boxed statement you find here. It accompanies the NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children) code of ethics and speaks to the commitment we need to make as early childhood professionals. Take a moment to reflect on your own readiness to adopt it.


As an individual who works with young children, I commit myself to furthering the values of early childhood education as they are reflected in the NAEYC Code of Ethical Conduct.

To the best of my ability I will

• Ensure that programs for young children are based on current knowledge of child development and early childhood
• Respect and support families in their task of nurturing children.
• Respect colleagues in early childhood education and support them in maintaining the NAEYC Code of Ethical Conduct.
• Serve as an advocate for children, their families, and their teachers in community and society.
• Maintain high standards of professional conduct.
• Recognize how personal values, opinions, and biases can affect professional judgment.
• Be open to new ideas and be willing to learn from the suggestions of others.
• Continue to learn, grow, and contribute as a professional.
• Honor the ideals and principles of the NAEYC Code of Ethical Conduct.


In 1987, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) was founded by educators with support from school boards, college officials, business executives, and state governors. The core challenge embraced by the board was “delineating outstanding practice and recognizing those who achieve it” (National Association for the Education of Young Children [NAEYC], 1996, p. 55). The philosophical foundation underlying any definition of outstanding practice, the board proposed, should include five assumptions:

  1. Teachers are committed to students and their learning, treating them equitably while recognizing their individual differences;
  2. Teachers know the subjects they teach and how to teach them;
  3. Teachers are responsible for managing and monitoring student learning, and know how to engage students in disciplined learning;
  4. Teachers think systematically about their practice and learn from experience, exemplifying themselves the virtues they hope to instill in their students; and
  5. Teachers are members of learning communities, working with colleagues and parents to make decisions for their students’ benefit.

From these five assumptions or propositions, age-related professional teaching standards were developed. For the early childhood years, there are eight standards. It is understood that these are standards to which only accomplished, experienced teachers should be held. Think of them as goals for your not-too-distant future. They are presented here in brief summary form; actual descriptions as available from the NBTPS or NAEYC appear in much richer detail.

• Understanding young children. There are three ways in which teachers need to understand their children: They must have a knowledge of universal principles of physical, social and emotional, and cognitive development; they need informed awareness of the roles that culture, history, and the values of community and family have in children’s development and learning; and they must know the attributes of the children in their own classrooms. With a good understanding in all three areas, teachers are then able to plan programs to engage children in meaningful learning and to assess their progress.

• Promoting child development and learning. Based on their understanding of young children, teachers are able to structure a physical and social and emotional environment that successfully fosters development and learning. Teachers are aware of the importance of play in all aspects of children’s development. They incorporate play throughout the day and can explain its use as a learning tool to parents, colleagues, and administrators. To promote health and physical growth, teachers provide both movement and rest, fine- and gross-motor activities, and education in health and hygiene. To enhance social development, teachers educate children about behavioral expectations, learning in groups, and the importance and meaning of rules. To support emotional development and self-respect, teachers encourage independence, risk taking, and persistence. To foster language acquisition, teachers provide plenty of opportunities to use both oral and written language. And to encourage growth in knowledge, teachers provide appropriate resources and opportunities for children to engage their curiosity while learning to take risks, be persistent, and work with peers.

• Knowledge of integrated curriculum. Integrating the curriculum involves crossing academic disciplines to create learning that is personally relevant and meaningful to children. The core academic subjects for young children include literacy, language arts, mathematics, science, social studies, and the visual and performing arts. A multidisciplinary approach to teaching might include organizing a learning project according to key concepts, themes, or topics of interest to the children; in each case, appropriate learning would be pulled from each of the academic areas. Accomplished teachers have learned to do this to such an extent that the casual observer might find it difficult to sort out what subjects are being taught when. Still, teachers also know that each academic area has its own integrity, major ideas, and concepts and are sure to incorporate these within the learning experiences of their classes.

• Multiple teaching strategies for meaningful learning. Referring back to the first standard, we see that teachers need to be aware of universal development principles, cultural and societal influences, and the needs and interests of their individual children. The complexity of this awareness ultimately leads to complexity in teaching approaches. There is a good mix in the classroom of varying activities, discussions, and social interactions. Teachers must observe, listen, ask skilled questions, facilitate discussions, select and adapt materials, and know when to intervene and when to let children alone. They can arrange and rearrange the physical environment, including technology, to implement activities appropriately. Accomplished teachers recognize when children are developing outside the typical range or are learning English as a new language. They make curricular and environmental alterations as necessary, knowing when to seek assistance from others, including the families of these children.

• Assessment. Teachers need to judge the effects of their work and make decisions about the things that happen next in the classroom. They are also accountable to children and their parents as well as to the general public. Teachers of young children know that assessment of their work must go on daily as they observe youngsters working and playing, interacting socially, engaging themselves physically, and gaining cognitive knowledge. Their assessment strategies are varied and include observations, questions, listening, anecdotal records, systematic sampling of work products, and standardized instruments when they are appropriate.

• Reflective practice. Effective teachers engage in ongoing self-examination. They consider the role of their experiences, cultures, biases, and values on their decision making and interactions with children. They are open to innovation and positive change while being aware of the difference between important breakthroughs and momentary fads. They see the need for self-renewal to strengthen the quality of their work and know that this means lifelong learning. As effective teachers reflect, they make use of and select from research studies, theories old and new, and current discussions about best practices. They continually look for ways to grow personally and professionally.

• Family partnerships. Accomplished teachers know that positive outcomes result from viewing families as allies in their work. They know that young children are especially dependent on their families and that children who feel as though home and school are well connected will be happier, more self-confident, and more motivated. These teachers know that families come in varying types and sizes and are respectful of them all. They are able to evaluate each parent’s special abilities and interests and then engage them effectively in the classroom, with projects that can be done at home, or in support of their own children’s growth. Important teacher skills include the ability to listen to and learn from family members as well as to share information about children’s progress and events in the classroom. And they are able to share information about child development, as well as an understanding of child behavior, in ways that are useful to parents.

• Professional partnerships. This final standard is based on the need for teachers to take what they have demonstrated within the other standards and share their knowledge with others, to receive information from other knowledgeable professionals, and to work effectively with colleagues from all levels. Effective teachers can be supportive as they offer criticism and stay positive and open-minded as they receive it. They can skillfully challenge those who engage in behaviors that are detrimental to children, and they are diligent in finding other teachers’ classroom activities to celebrate publicly. They give and attend workshops, network with others in the profession, participate in professional organizations, perhaps become involved in child-related community issues or service, and even write or make presentations about what they have learned and experienced as teachers.

The NBPTS early childhood committee responsible for delineating the eight standards just summarized, recognized that their expectations might “seem extraordinarily demanding,” yet “every day they are upheld by teachers . . . who are hard at work in our schools inspiring the nation’s children.” The committee hoped that the standards would “promise to be a stimulus for self-reflection on the part of teachers at all levels of performance” (NAEYC, 1996, p. 101). Thus, they have been included here for you to think about as you consider the demands of a profession that has always been of critical importance but is only now beginning to be widely understood in that light.


An early childhood career provides a choice of age groups with which you can work. Although the early childhood years typically cover from birth to age 8, different programs divide these ages in different ways. Some schools and centers segregate each age group, making it possible to focus on the changing needs of the child at each identifiable stage. Others place two or more age groups together so that children can learn from each other and also share their growing knowledge and expertise. There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach, and as you work with children of different ages, you will no doubt discover that you have some preferences. There may even be some ages you are not comfortable working with at all. Try to identify your preferences and capabilities during your teacher education, as this is the time when it is easiest to experiment, take risks, and learn from others’ feedback.

In addition to selecting particular age groups to work with, focus on specific roles within the early childhood profession. In part this will be determined by the level of training you undergo, but there is still quite a bit of flexibility. You may decide to own your own school, and that could mean caring for a small group of children in your home or creating a larger enterprise with its own buildings and a large staff. Eventually you might not work with children at all, preferring instead to become director of a center or even to attend law school and specialize in education-related legal issues. As a teacher, you can work with privately run centers that are either nonprofit or profit driven; teach in public preschools, kindergartens, or primary grades; or be employed in corporate care centers. Some public libraries hire people with early childhood training for their children’s rooms, and there are hospitals that run nurseries for their patients or even the patients’ visiting siblings. Wherever young children gather, there is a career waiting for you. Here are some of the more traditional jobs in early education, along with expected preparation, responsibilities, and rewards.

Teacher Aide or Teacher Assistant
This job requires little or no training, and the pay, which is minimum wage or close to it, reflects this. An aide helps the teacher in whatever ways are needed, usually assisting children in activities that require adult help: preparing supplies, grading projects and papers, keeping the environment cleaned and straightened. Primary qualifications for an aide are to enjoy, respect, and relate well to young children. Often, people who begin working with children by being an aide discover that they enjoy the work and would like to take more responsibility. Naturally, this requires more education. There may be people in your class now who have followed this route.

Associate Teacher or Assistant Teacher
An associate teacher has more credentials than a teacher aide, the most common being an associate of arts (AA) degree or a child development associate (CDA) certificate. The CDA program is offered by many community colleges and vocational–technical institutes that have early childhood programs, although it is also possible to be informally educated through in-service workshops. These programs require the student to demonstrate specific competencies in order to receive the certificate. The associate teacher, like the teacher aide, works under the direction of the regular teacher, usually in a center-based (as opposed to school-based) environment. The associate teacher supervises children as the teacher directs and may do some team teaching, particularly by reading stories or singing songs. Although this job generally pays more than the teacher aide position, the salary is still low.

Teacher, Including Regular and Special Education Preschool Teacher, and K–3 Entry-Level Teacher
In an early childhood center, a teacher will usually have an AA degree, possibly with the CDA certificate. Centers may also have teachers who hold bachelor’s degrees, but the pay is generally lower than in the public schools, so this is less common. In public schools, kindergarten through the grades, entry-level teachers must have baccalaureate degrees, although some states are moving toward a required master’s degree. As each state passes legislation to create publicly funded preschool education, decisions must be made concerning teacher training. In some cases, only an AA is required, thus lowering the personnel cost for the state; in others, a bachelor’s degree is required.

In a school setting, the teacher is usually the highest level person to come in contact with the children. In early childhood centers, the teacher may also answer to a head teacher. In either case, the teacher makes lesson plans based on the school’s philosophy and goals, arranges and maintains the environment, keeps records of children’s progress, and does the actual day-to-day instructing.

Head Teacher
Typically found in an early childhood center or in special education public school preschool classrooms, the head teacher coordinates the curriculum and classroom functioning with the other teachers and staff. The head teacher takes a leadership role in meetings and planning sessions and may do some training of aides. Depending on the center and the head teacher’s experience and capabilities, his or her background might include an AA, a bachelor’s degree, or even a master’s degree. Head teachers can often, but not always, expect to earn as much as public school teachers.

In public schools there may also be a head teacher, who is appointed by the principal or elected by other teachers, usually in the same grade. In this case, the head teacher is not expected to monitor the teaching or organization in other classrooms but coordinates the curriculum, calls meetings for the group, and speaks for the group in communications with administrators. There may well be no extra remuneration for this task, but the teaching load might be reduced in some way. Most people reading this book will be training to be a teacher or head teacher.

Program Director or Supervisor, Assistant Director, Educational Director, Curriculum Coordinator, or Resource Teacher
People in these positions have had experience, often in-depth, teaching young children. They have been successful at it and are willing to accept responsibility on a broader level. Their positions can be defined as a midway point between the administration and the teaching staff and generally provide pay that is above a teacher’s but lower than an administrator’s. These supervisors and coordinators are responsible for monitoring the programs of each teacher, coordinating curriculum, providing in-service programs, maintaining teaching materials, supervising testing, and spearheading program development. People in these positions may have an AA but can usually be expected to have at least a bachelor’s degree and often some graduate work.

Director or Principal
Whatever the school setting, these positions require the most responsibility and the most unpredictable working hours. They also provide the highest pay. A director or principal must be able to work well with faculty, staff, parents, and the community as needed. In addition to overseeing the staff, this person must also manage the school’s budget, coordinating it with the school’s academic and caregiving goals. A director or principal generally holds a bachelor’s degree and, increasingly, a master’s or specialist’s degree. In some places, principals and directors even hold doctoral degrees. In this case, they are usually expected to contribute professional research or extra programs for the community. Directors and principals have almost always had several years of teaching experience.

As you take your courses and have opportunities to work in classrooms, centers, and homes, think about the settings within which you will feel most comfortable. Then, choose an appropriate career direction and try setting goals for the next 5 years or so. Finally, be sure that you are acquiring the necessary training and credentials when you need them. This advice might sound

“painfully obvious, but many prospective teachers ignore such suggestions and eventually find themselves taking redundant courses, going back to school for requirements they overlooked, or changing careers because the credentials they need require too much time, effort, and money. It is well worth the effort to think through now what professional roles you will want to play over the next several years. In looking forward to your future career, you will also want to consider the different settings available to you. The next section describes the most common ones.


This book is intended to provide the reader with information about being a teacher of young children, thus the focus of our discussion is on learning sites that have been created by adults. Yet it should always be remembered that humans begin to learn before birth and continue to do so for a considerable time before they enter an educational setting. Furthermore, even after adult-directed education begins, youngsters continue to learn both before and after school or caregiving hours. Parents and other family

“members are a child’s first teachers, both chronologically and in importance. Professionals must always remember this and give these teachers the greatest respect, turning to them for advice and suggestions and with a willingness to collaborate in their child’s education. Following are descriptions of other places young children learn.

Nursery School and Preschool.
The concept of nurturing very young children lay behind the creation and naming of the nursery school. At the turn of this century, Margaret and Rachel McMillan noted with dismay the sad state of health of many of England’s youngsters. The sisters were inspired to create a school designed to give children plenty of fresh air, good food, and hygiene in addition to academics and socialization through play. Their employees were qualified both as nurses and as teachers. When transported to the United States, nursery schools often became cooperatives, with parents sharing the responsibilities of running them, thus keeping costs down. Children who attend nursery schools are generally between the ages of 2 and 4, or even 5.

The term preschool is often used interchangeably with nursery school. It is, however, a more modern term, implying a strong focus on academics and socialization and less on nutrition and hygiene. Attendance ages are the same.

Early Intervention Services
Specialized services for infants and toddlers who experience disabilities or have delayed development have been available in the United States and Canada for more than 20 years. Early intervention services provide individually designed assessment, therapeutic, and developmental programs and are funded by a tenuous combination of federal, state and provincial, school district, and private sources. Current best practice guidelines (DEC, 1993) indicate that services for newborns to 3-year-olds be centered in the lives of individual families, with caregiving activities and parent– child relationships the primary context and content for intervention.

Early intervention professionals work across a variety of settings and with a number of professionals from other disciplines. They make visits to homes, hospitals, and center-based classrooms to assess, design, implement, and monitor developmental interventions in movement, socialization, cognition, self-care, and communication domains. They coordinate educational and developmental services with physical, occupational, and speech therapists; pediatricians; family-service specialists; and early childhood professionals. Because so much of early intervention work occurs within family and community settings, infant and toddler specialists must also be competent at working across cultures and with adults as well as with infants and toddlers.

Typically, kindergarten is 1-year learning experience, immediately preceding first grade. As originally created in mid-19th-century Germany, it was for children between the ages of 4 and 6. In many countries it remains so today. The idea, as conceived by Friedrich Froebel was that kindergarten would be a bridge between home and the primary grades. As public schools in the United States added a 1-year kindergarten to their regular programs and as more and more children began to attend preschool and child care, the role of kindergarten began to change. It may still be a bridge between home and the primary grades for many children, but it has also become a transition experience following preschool or child care. Kindergarten curricula vary depending on the philosophy of the school or district. Traditionally, the focus was on play with one academic purpose—readiness for first grade. In recent years, kindergartens have become much more academic, a move that has produced some degree of controversy.

Transitional Kindergarten, Pre-First Grade, and Interim First Grade
Some children do not seem ready to enter the primary grades after 1 year of kindergarten. To ensure success in later years, transitional programs were created. Some educators believe that if children appear to be at risk for academic failure, it is better to hold them back at this time than later, when the feeling of failure can be more damaging, academic momentum is lost, friends may be forever separated. Others argue that the primary reasons for holding children back in kindergarten tend to indicate a first-grade education that is developmentally inappropriate for the age: Children do not yet understand letter–sound relationships, follow directions well, work easily on paper-and-pencil tasks, raise their hands to talk, or speak only in turn. Many states have some form of transitional kindergarten, and this may be a career option.

Developmental Preschool and Kindergarten
In the United States, federal legislation (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 1997) requires that local school districts provide special education services for all eligible children beginning at age 3. Half-day developmental preschool classrooms are the most common setting for delivery of specialized instruction and related therapeutic services for 3- to 6-year-olds. Because public schools do not routinely serve the general population of preschoolers, developmental preschools have traditionally served only children with disabilities and developmental delays. The benefits of inclusion, however, have prompted many districts to explore creative alternatives to self-contained special education classrooms for preschoolers. Many districts have begun to enroll typically developing preschool peers in developmental preschool classrooms, or to provide special education services to eligible children in community child-care and preschool programs.

The timing of kindergarten entry can be a complicated issue for young children with special needs. Youngsters who are eligible for special education services may have already attended public school programs for 2 or 3 years already by the time they are 5, yet many 5-year-olds with disabilities or delays lack the social and pre-academic skills expected in kindergarten. In addition to the transitional programs previously described, a number of larger American school districts have designed alternate models rather than adhering strictly to age 5 or a specific group of skills as kindergarten entry requirements. One such program is supplementary kindergarten, which young students attend every day and for increasingly longer days to receive additional instruction in preparation for first grade. Another model is the continuation of developmental services in a special education kindergarten classroom, sometimes offered as a supplementary program to regular kindergarten attendance.

The role of developmental preschool and kindergarten teachers emphasizes enhancement of specific skills that will increase children’s chances of success in the primary grades. Families are still a big part of youngsters’ lives during the preschool years, so teachers and parents work together as partners. Developmental services often include speech and motor therapies integrated into classroom activities and coordinated with the teacher’s curriculum.

Head Start
Head Start is a federally funded preschool program for economically disadvantaged children. It primarily serves children over the age of 3, but there are some home-based services for younger ages, an Early Head Start for birth to age 3, and a few primary grade pilot programs. Although it is now comprehensive in scope, with benefits for the entire family, Head Start was begun in 1965 as a summer-only program focusing on prekindergartners’ health and social development. President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty promoted much creative thinking from the various governmental “warriors,” and a number of social programs were begun almost simultaneously. Head Start was one of them and was viewed as a way to close the gap between the lives of economically disadvantaged children and those of their wealthier peers during the summer before the start of school. Today, children may attend Head Start for 2 years, and programs have academic orientations along with health and socialization.

Primary Grades
Traditionally, early childhood education has been thought of as encompassing children from birth to age 8. In some ways, ages 6 to 8 are transitional years between early and middle childhood. The primary grades, 1 through 3, are concerned with educating children during this transition. The changes that begin to occur in youngsters’ lives cover all aspects of their development. Socially, they become less focused on self and more interested in group interactions, less concerned with what adults think of them than with the opinions of their peers. Physically, they become more stable; more able to accomplish the fundamental movements that will enable them to participate in sports; and more adept at hand–eye coordination, leading to the ability to do pencil-and-paper or computerized school work. Cognitively, they begin to understand the world as adults see it, making academic learning possible.

Of course, not every child attains the same understandings and skills at exactly the same time in just the same way. Because children develop so unevenly during these years, it is important that primary teachers have a strong understanding of child development. Thus you will observe that teachers in the first three grades often have training in early childhood as well as in elementary education. Primary teachers are charged with introducing young children to all the academic subjects they will encounter for the next several years of their lives: literacy, oral and written language, mathematics, science, social studies, and the arts. However, because these are transitional years, separating the subject areas and teaching them formally is not usually the best approach. Primary-grade teachers generally find themselves seeking ways to integrate the curriculum into more meaningful themes, topics, or projects.

Child Care
The purpose of child care is to provide a secure and happy place for young children while their parents work. Typically it serves children from birth to school age, but it can also provide after-school care for older children. Types of child-care centers vary widely. Family day care is common and popular and is usually provided by a mother who wishes to stay home with her own children while earning income by caring for other children as well. Corporate or employer child care is provided by a company for its employees, although outsiders are often permitted if space is available. Proprietary child care is offered by for-profit organizations, some of them regional or national chains or franchises. Educational components in child-care settings vary widely and at times may not exist at all.

In many countries, child care is supported for all working parents by public money, but this has not been the case in the United States. Finding good care continues to be a nationwide problem for many families. It is an especially difficult problem for poor single parents in states with welfare-to-work laws. Just as their work skills increase sufficiently to apply for entry-level jobs and their welfare payments run out, they are faced with an inability to find affordable child care. In recent years, some states have developed child-care networks and referral agencies that provide parents with information on licensed centers and financial assistance.


Beyond choosing your career role and venue, there is another decision to be made, equally as important. Any kind of teacher in any setting must be able to knowledgeably choose materials for learning, activities to fill the day, management and discipline options, and teacher–child interaction styles. Learning how to make these decisions comprises much of a college student’s teacher education program. Underlying this learning must be the development of a philosophy of early education.

From the time of the ancient Greeks until today, such philosophies have emerged, been tried, disappeared, and occasionally reappeared. At the beginning of the 21st century, there is no single philosophical orientation that is subscribed to by every educator of young children, but there are general categories that can be described.

Three Orientations to Early Education.
A major component in successful teaching is a teacher’s awareness of the students’ intellectual, social, and emotional maturity. This is true whether the students are teenagers taking driver’s training, middle schoolers meeting their first algebra class, or 3-year-olds learning a new singing game. However, in the case of children in the early years, the teacher’s awareness of development is most important because young children change so rapidly. Their developmental status and their learning capacity are more intertwined than at any other time in their lives.

For this reason, research and philosophy related to early education have been dominated by psychological theorists as well as educators. In this section we look at three orientations to education: behaviorist, maturationist, and constructivist. All three are based in psychology, and the second and third are grounded in theories of development. Each orientation is intimately associated with the people who created it, and they are introduced in each section.

The Behaviorist Orientation
At the beginning of the 20th century, psychology (along with many other fields) was moving toward a more scientific orientation. Carefully controlled experiments on animals were used as inspiration for the study of humans, including very young children. These influences on this new way of observing children can be traced to the 17th-century English philosopher, John Locke1 who regarded children’s minds as blank slates, ready to be written on by the environment. Although Locke would agree that heredity plays some part in a child’s makeup and capacity for learning, he believed that external forces determined most of a child’s progress. External forces included teaching materials and techniques as well as an appropriate approach to discipline. The latter, he argued, should be positive when possible and should almost never include corporal punishment.

Locke’s views are echoed by modern-day behaviorism, the scientific approach to psychology and education that emerged in the early 1900s. The person most associated with behaviorism, particularly in relation to classroom applications, has been B. F. Skinner. Skinner’s two primary contributions to education were the teaching machines (now replaced by computers) that made programmed learning possible and behavior modification, which produced new approaches to motivation and discipline. The behaviorist orientation includes the following concepts.

There are two types of behavior: reflexive, such as a knee jerk or eye blink, and operant, or voluntary. Operant behaviors, which are the focus of education, are controlled by their consequences, that is, by the pleasure (positive consequences) or pain (negative consequences) they produce. Behaviorists believe that careful structuring of the environment can produce desired social and cognitive behavior patterns in children.

Positive Reinforcement
The frequency of desired behaviors can be increased by giving special food, toys, praise, hugs, or anything else the child sees as positive. For example, extra time on the playground is a positive reinforcer for most children and can be used as a motivator for academic work.

Negative Reinforcement
Instead of adding a rewarding consequence, as in positive reinforcement, something aversive is taken away. For example, a child who is being disruptive during circle time may be required to sit next to an adult, whose hand stays on his shoulder during the ensuing activities. When the adult perceives that the child has calmed down, the hand is removed, and the child is once again permitted to participate freely. (This only works, of course, if the child does not consider sitting next to the adult a special treat.)

Skinner objected to punishment because of its undesirable side effects: anger, dislike of school, and the return of the undesired behavior. Researchers have found that punishment can change behavior, but it must be administered soon after the undesired behavior takes place.

In this case, the teacher simply ignores a behavior, either good or bad. A reason to ignore good behavior might be that it is time to wean a child from an expectation of continual rewards. In the case of bad behavior, nonreinforcement can often cause a child to stop the behavior because there is no reward in it.

Behavior Modification
A child’s behavior is modified, or changed, through the use of any of the methods just listed.

Teachers who subscribe to the behaviorist orientation must have very clear goals, and these must be stated behaviorally. For example, it is not enough to say that your class will understand addition. A specific goal must be established, such as attaining a score of 90% on a 5-minute written quiz of addition problems with sums of 10 or below.

Learning is generally sequenced, moving from the simple to the more complex, from the concrete to the abstract. Usually, larger bodies of knowledge are broken down into more manageable pieces. The goals of learning are defined by the teacher, not the children, and the teacher controls the way in which reinforcements are used to help achieve success.

A number of program models have been created based on the behaviorist orientation, and most teachers occasionally use some aspects of behaviorist theory, even if only informally, but it is in special education that behaviorist techniques are most pervasive. The clear-cut, straightforward approach, with learning broken down into small chunks, has had much appeal for those who use specialized instructional strategies to teach specific academic and social skills.

The Maturationist Orientation.
A second move in the early 20th century toward a more scientific view of child development led to the maturationist orientation. Its roots can be traced to another philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau, a Swiss whose 18th-century writings were partly responsible for the French Revolution. Rousseau saw children not as blank slates but as inherently good and needing only proper nurturing to achieve their full potential, just as any plant matures according to a predetermined plan as long as it is given reasonable nourishment. In practice a teacher must provide an environment conducive to a child’s progress, but the focus on nurturing the child’s preprogrammed development is greater than on manipulating the environment to create a successful human being.

In the 20th century, Arnold Gesell became the leader in updating Rousseau’s thoughts for a scientific age. Basing his theory on observation of large numbers of young children, Gesell argued that much of a child’s development takes place in invariant, predictable stages. Each stage is a major step forward, and after it is reached, there is a period of consolidation before the next major step is taken. Other principles of the maturationist orientation include those discussed next.

Decades of observing children led Gesell to define what children are like and what they should be able to do at specific ages. These developmental expectations or norms were made for each 6-month period of life.

Children should not be pushed into kindergarten or first grade just because they have reached a certain chronological age. First, they should be tested to see if they have reached prescribed intellectual and physical norms. If not, they should be held back until they are ready. Similarly, children should not be forced to read until they have reached their own internal maturational level of at least 6 years.

Children in a maturationist classroom are all at about the same stage of development. The teacher and the classroom environment nurture children but don’t push them. Materials and activities are chosen because they are appropriate for the developmental stage of the children in the class. If children avoid them, this is a signal to the teacher that the level may be inappropriate and not that some sort of reinforcement might make them more attractive. The teacher’s role is “acceptance, gentle guidance, and facilitation of children’s wants and interests,” but “directing, correcting, or actively modifying behavior are questionable or undesirable” (Lay-Dopyera & Dopyera, 1990, p. 172).

The Constructivist Orientation
Constructivist theories of how children learn developed about the same time as behaviorist and maturationist theories, but they did not reach the United States until the middle of the 20th century. From Russia came the ideas of Lev Vygotsky, but not until they were no longer suppressed by the repressive Soviet government of Joseph Stalin and finally could be translated into English. From Switzerland came the theories of Jean Piaget, but his dense writing style was daunting to many readers, even when translated into English, and the selection of his own children as his research subjects was suspect, so it was several decades before he gained acceptance in this country.

Of the two theorists, Piaget became widely known first, and his views offered a contradictory perspective to both behaviorism and maturationism. Whereas Piaget agreed that the environment influences child development and that there is a biological sameness among humans, he also argued that children help construct their own intelligence through active exploration of their individual environments. To Piaget, a child’s biology is the primary factor in learning that comes right after birth. But, as time goes by, the child has more input from the environment and from social experiences, and these factors become more important than biology. By the time the child enters preschool, the environment and social experiences are primary influences in learning. Yet, the child does not just passively absorb the environment but actively operates on it and, in the process, constructs his or her own intelligence.

As children learn, they progress through stages, but the constructivist’s view of these stages is a bit different from the maturationist’s. The maturationist sees stage development as a predetermined, natural, flowerlike unfoldment; the constructivist argues that this is only part of the picture. When children actively operate on the environment, their experiences influence their maturational processes. Thus, their learning is determined both by environmental influences and by maturation.

Piaget’s ideas were taking hold among a vast number of early childhood thinkers, researchers, and educators when Vygotsky’s work was translated into English in the early 1960s. Because of Piaget’s popularity, it was another two decades before Vygotsky’s views were accepted too. The two men’s ideas were generally complementary, but their basic philosophies of how the world should work created some distance.

Piaget came from the long and strong democratic tradition of his country. His belief in the rights of the individual led to a theory of development that gives due respect to the powers of the individual child in self-construction. Vygotsky, on the other hand, graduated from Moscow University in the same year as the beginning of his country’s communist revolution. Having been a cruelly repressed Jew in the czarist years, Vygotsky quickly grasped the idealism of the new socialist state. Quite naturally, he developed a theory that suggests the need for social interaction as a major element in a child’s self-construction.

As translated into classroom practice, the two theories lead to slightly different approaches to teaching. (Piaget wrote about education with some reluctance since he was primarily interested in the development of knowledge. Vygotsky embraced the challenge and added pedagogy to his psychological studies.) In a more Piagetian classroom, children can be seen directing their own learning to the extent that their maturity permits them. In a more Vygotskian setting, adults and more knowledgeable peers will intervene more often and earlier in the learning process. The first method respects the child’s individualistic approach to learning, whereas the second pays homage to the power of the group. You will undoubtedly find a place for both approaches in your own work.

In any situation, however, there are some notable differences between the constructivist classroom and the behaviorist or maturationist. The carefully sequenced small bits of knowledge favored by behaviorists give children little opportunity to carry out the kind of exploratory learning and play that constructivists feel is needed. The maturationists’ use of developmental stages as a guide for planning is seen by constructivists as an insufficient framework for understanding early learning. In the latters’ view, the goals of learning are not so much a predetermined set of facts or a particular level of accomplishment but opportunities for children to add onto their existing mental structures through active learning. They are likely to be found experimenting, questioning, and planning. Learning periods tend to be long and unstructured rather than neat and orderly.


These three orientations to learning are quite different from each other. Although you will find schools and centers that profess to be aligned with one or another of them, it is more likely that you will see a mixture of two or even all three at the same site. For example, you might visit a transitional kindergarten (maturationist) that teaches arithmetic through repeated drills (behaviorist) and has a long afternoon period when children experiment freely with many kinds of materials (constructivist).