Supporting Early Childhood Education Teachers | UDaily – University of Delaware

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Excellent early care and education (ECE) often begins with great teachers. Yet, according to research by University of Delaware faculty, just over one-third of all ECE centers meet national benchmarks for teacher degrees, and even fewer can prioritize staff professional development. 

With a new associate degree in early childhood education, University of Delaware’s College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) is working to meet the demand for high-quality ECE teachers through a flexible, accessible and primarily online degree program designed for working professionals. 

This degree offering also comes at a critical time for Delaware teachers. To raise the overall quality of early childcare in the state, the Delaware Department of Education will soon require ECE professionals to hold a certificate in child development or an associate degree. 

ECE professionals in high-demand 

According to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2023 brief, employment in the childcare industry dropped by more than one-third during the first two years of the pandemic. Across the nation and within Delaware, many families still wait for months on early childcare waitlists, hoping that a coveted spot for their child will open up.

At CEHD’s Early Learning Center (ELC), co-directors Kelly Freel and Jessica Peace are excited about CEHD’s associate degree in early childhood education program. The program, they hope, will help encourage new professionals to enter the ECE field and help teachers deliver high-quality care in their current ECE centers. 

“High-quality care is only possible with a great team,” Freel said. “The heart and soul of the ELC are the teachers who partner so intimately with families and young children.”

Leia Heckman, a pediatric speech, language and feeding therapist and an ELC parent, couldn’t agree more. All three of her children have attended the ELC, and she is grateful for the excellent care and education that they have received. 

“Knowing that my kids are not only safe and cared for but also being educated is extremely important to me,” Heckman said. “It’s so important for our teachers to be educated. It’s one thing to keep a child safe, but it’s another thing to help them reach their developmental milestones and be kindergarten-ready. As a parent that works full time, I would not be able to do that.” 

Program experiences 

Designed for both working professionals and traditional students, the associate degree in early childhood education program gives students the skills to deliver high-quality ECE for children from birth to age 5 in center-based and home-based settings.

Through small classes, practical field experiences and partnerships with community early childhood programs, the program helps students advance their careers, facilitate high-quality care, gain real-world experience and join a supportive network of early childcare providers.

Jessica Slade, assistant professor in CEHD’s Department of Human Development and Family Sciences and associate in early childhood education program coordinator, emphasizes that CEHD designed the program with particular attention to first-generation and non-traditional students, including those who have already worked in the ECE field for many years. 

“It’s unfortunate, but many ECE professionals are often told that they’re not ‘meant for college’ and that the work that they do is not valued by our society,” Slade said. “We want to change that perception and provide a degree program that is not only accessible to them, but meaningful as well.” 

For this reason, flexibility is a key aspect of the program. Students can choose fully online courses without set meeting times, hybrid courses with some in-person meeting times during the evenings or weekends or traditional in-person courses during the day. Depending on their schedules and career goals, they can complete the program part-time or full-time. 

Significantly, students working in an early childcare setting can also complete their field experience requirements at their workplace. If they are not working, they can complete their field placement on CEHD’s Children’s Campus, at the ELC or Lab School

“The program allows students to use their classroom experience to support their learning in their UD classes,” Slade said. “For example, after they’re introduced to a new concept, they can look within their own classroom and their own practices to complete their assignment in a meaningful, personalized way based on what they’re observing and experiencing in that moment. The curriculum is open-ended in nature to allow for that individuality, but still stays true to the learning objectives of the course.”

The program also offers supportive, developmental advising from UD faculty, which considers students’ current skill sets and places them in courses that best suit their needs. 

Supporting ECE professionals 

UD and the state of Delaware are also working to ease the financial barriers that prevent students from pursuing a college degree. For example, Delaware residents can apply for funding through the state’s Student Excellence Equals Degree (SEED) scholarship program. SEED scholarships, funded by the state, cover tuition for eligible full-time students enrolled in UD’s associate degree programs. Students who complete their associate degree at UD can continue to a UD bachelor’s degree program and use SEED funds to cover an additional year of education. 

Similarly, Delaware’s Early Childhood Innovation Center also offers a statewide scholarship and incentive program to support members of the early childhood workforce in attending college. And, UD offers need-based financial support for associate degree students through federal grants and loans. This financial aid can cover tuition or other costs, like textbooks and supplies.

CEHD is also working to support the ECE field broadly. In February 2023, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services awarded CEHD’s DIEEC and five other partners a cooperative agreement to establish and operate the first-of-its-kind National Early Care and Education Workforce Center. With a $30 million investment over five years, the center will provide technical assistance and research to advance the recruitment and retention of a diverse, qualified and effective early childhood care and education workforce.

Visit the CEHD website to learn more about the associate degree in early childhood education program and how the college supports children, families, and ECE professionals.

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