HARRISBURG - Teachers who want to educate Pennsylvania's youngest children will face new certification requirements before they can enter the classroom.

In six years, Pennsylvania plans to require an early-childhood education certificate for teachers of students in pre-kindergarten through fourth grade under rules adopted yesterday by the State Board of Education.

The certificate would be required for newly certified teachers beginning in January 2013. Teachers who already have an elementary education certificate, which applies to grades kindergarten through six, would be exempt.

"It is designed to provide better teachers for tomorrow's classrooms and better teachers for today's classrooms," board member James Fogarty said.

Fogarty, who helped craft the regulations, said they would help carry out Gov. Rendell's push to improve the quality of early-childhood education and would improve middle-school instruction by creating a combined elementary- and middle-school certificate for grades four through eight.

"The children are going through dramatic changes. They're developing emotionally. They're developing socially and academically and then developing physically very, very quickly," Fogarty said. "Their needs are not the same as a child who is a preschooler, early elementary [student], or a high schooler."

The rules must be reviewed by the House and Senate Education Committees, an independent regulatory board, and the state Attorney General before they can take effect.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association had initially expressed reservations about the proposed change out of concern that elementary school principals would have less latitude to fill vacancies by reassigning teachers to different grades.

PSEA lobbyist Carol Karl said the organization now supports the regulations because they make either certificate an option for fourth-grade teachers, and they also allow the state education secretary to grant time-limited exceptions on a case-by-case basis.