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Myriad studies have demonstrated that the first five years of a child’s life are crucial for fostering physical, emotional, social, cognitive, and creative development. That’s one of the main reasons why U.S. leaders at all levels have been pushing for greater investments in early childhood education — President Obama, Congress, state governments, public school districts, school boards, and local non-profits.

Other crucial supporters have been, naturally, higher education institutions, including Post University. Our child studies degree program prepares students to meet many of the challenges facing early care and educational professionals in the classroom today.

Despite these advancements, early childhood education (ECE) continues to be under-appreciated in the U.S. But we’re not alone. Many Americans might not realize that some of the biggest issues the U.S. is facing in ECE are global concerns.

I got a first-hand look at this during the 3rd International Congress on Early Childhood Education, which took place at Cukurova University in Adana, Turkey. As Associate Professor in Post University’s Early Childhood Education/Child Studies program, I presented at the event with my colleague, Gayle van Dijk, M.S., Associate Faculty Member in Child Studies. Our topic was the social and emotional skills that young children need to build in order to be successful in upcoming school years.

The most important part of the experience for us, though, was what we learned about early childhood education from the international researchers, early childhood educators, and students in attendance. We saw striking similarities between the main points of the U.S. early childhood education system and that of other counties, with two issues in particular standing out. We detailed them below, along with ideas for addressing them.

The early childhood education profession is undervalued

We met Hebibe at the conference, who is studying for her master’s degree in early childhood education at Cukurova University. We got to talking about how she and many of her ECE classmates don’t feel respected for the work they do. She said her husband, who has an engineering degree from the same university, gets much more respect than her, even though their education levels are the same.

Gayle and I can relate to Hebibe. Gayle has a master’s in early childhood education and public school teaching licensure for grades pre-k through six. I have a doctorate, as well as the administrative licensure for the public schools. People have asked me why Gayle and I work in a non-profit early childhood program (West Haven Child Development Center), when we could probably be making a greater income at a public school.

Our response? We believe we need to emphasize educational programs for children ages six weeks to five years — which is what an organization like the West Haven Child Development Center does, and which is the focus of our child studies program at Post.

We must create greater respect for the ECE profession. This requires the U.S. and other countries to better understand the importance of high-quality early childhood education, and see the real-world benefits that ECE brings students and economies.

This can be done by preparing a more educated workforce in the field. Requirements for education should be consistent across the United States. Higher pay for individuals receiving degrees in child studies and early childhood education is a must. Connecticut is now working on a core set of knowledge-based competencies that all individuals working in this field in the state and across the nation should strive to possess.

Advocacy is another important aspect of gaining recognition for the work we do. Raising emotionally and socially well-adjusted children does not take place just in the classroom. Teachers need to be supported by professionals across domains. Collaborating with nurses, mental health providers, and social workers is key to addressing the needs of the “whole child.” Several presenters at the conference demonstrated research that supports this need.

National education standards for early childhood education teachers are lacking

In Turkey and other countries, ECE teachers’ education ranges from technical high school training to master’s degrees. Teachers with university degrees are typically hired by the government or public schools, while those with less education are usually hired by private schools.

We’re seeing a similar situation in the U.S. Some ECE teachers have high school diplomas and related credentialing, while others have bachelor’s degrees in the field. We need to ramp up our educational requirements for our ECE teachers, and implement them as national standards.

One example we might look to is Connecticut, which has been making headway in this arena. Sen. Beth Bye led the passage of a bill in 2011 that significantly increased the educational requirements for Connecticut teachers in any state-funded preschool program.

The bill requires 50 percent of these educators to have a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education, childhood development, or a related field by 2015, and all of these educators to have such an education by 2020. The National Association for the Education of Young Children has a similar timeline in place for teachers in its accredited programs.

Such requirements must extend to the national stage to improve the quality of ECE and generate higher respect and better jobs for ECE professionals in the U.S. This goes back to the recommendations I described under the previous section.

At the end of the day, solving these issues represents a substantial opportunity to improve graduation rates, increase students’ life success, and reduce opportunity gaps. We need to band together globally to light a fire under the progress we’ve made in ECE, starting with the issues laid out here.