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Professionalism: An Introduction

Working with infants and toddlers requires a commitment to providing the very best care and education. In your daily work, you assume significant roles that greatly affect children, youth, and their families. Therefore, it is critical that you strive for excellence. In this lesson you will learn about professionalism and its significance to the field of child and youth care.

  • Reflect on what it means to be a professional staff member.
  • Describe practices that are associated with professionalism.
  • Describe the significance of professionalism when working with children and families.



"Learning is like rowing upstream; not to advance is to drop back." - Chinese Proverb


Take a moment to record any words or phrases that come to mind when you hear the word “professionalism.” To start your reflection consider these prompts. What does it mean to be professional? What characteristics and qualities make up a professional? Why is demonstrating professionalism important? Your responses may include some of the many roles you or others you know assume such as demonstrating and sharing knowledge about interacting with children, families, and colleagues. All your descriptions offer a window into your sense of professionalism.

Consider the following definitions that different dictionaries provide about professionalism: The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines professionalism as “the high standard that you expect from a person who is well trained in a particular job,” and “great skill and competence.” The Merriam-Webster website defines professionalism as “the skill, good judgment, and polite behavior that is expected from a person who is trained to do a job well” and “the conduct, aims, or qualities that characterize or mark a profession or a professional person.” How do these definitions compare to your own definitions of professionalism?

This course will help you better understand the concept of professionalism and how it relates to your own competence, confidence, commitment, and awareness as a professional. This course will also help you learn how you can develop a sense of professionalism and what that means to you as a direct-care staff member.

What is Professionalism in Child Care Programs?

For many years much of the general public has viewed early care and education providers as babysitters. To counter that thinking, the field of early care and education, through several professional organizations, has developed professional standards that describe the competencies needed to be an early care and education professional. Interacting with children, families, and colleagues must always be done in a professional manner. As a direct-care staff member, it is critical to be knowledgeable about and model professional behavior.

Families rely upon the program staff to be much more than “babysitters” for their children. In your daily work, you make conscious, intentional decisions about how to interact with children, parents, and colleagues. You may also be faced with difficult ethical situations. Following an ethical code can help with those decisions. You should look to your program's written code of ethics to help you in decision-making. With the guidance of training and curriculum specialists, program directors, and other mentors, you should strive to set and maintain positive examples of professionalism in your daily interactions with fellow staff, children, and families. Outside of work as a staff member you represent the program. It is also important to show an awareness of how your social media presence reflects your professionalism.

Professional organizations that work on behalf of children, families, caregivers, teachers, and youth-development workers have created standards and competencies to guide child and youth professionals. Each professional organization includes standards that address professional behavior. Professional organizations rely on research-based principles and bring together highly respected experts to draft and verify the standards and competencies for the field. For example, the National Association for the Education of Young children (NAEYC), the largest professional organization in the field of early care and education, has developed The Code of Ethical Conduct to guide professional behavior. NAEYC has also developed an accreditation process that includes a self-study for programs to examine how well the program addresses the standards for high-quality care in programs for young children. The Division of Early Childhood (DEC), a sub-division of the Council for Exceptional Children, the largest international professional organization dedicated to improving the success of individuals with disabilities and/or gifts and talents, has developed Recommended Practices that guide professionals and families who work with young children with developmental delays or disabilities. When you review the various organizations’ sets of standards and competencies you will find many similarities when it comes to professionalism. This indicates a common understanding that engaging in professional behavior is important for those working with young children, youth, and families.

What does it mean to be a Professional Staff Member?

Infant, toddler, preschool, and school-age providers play powerful roles in children’s lives, and your encounters with children and their families leave lasting impressions. Children’s growth takes place over time, and each experience affects development. Who children become has everything to do with the experiences they have early in their lives; the experiences they have while they are in your care. As a direct care staff member, you play a crucial role during the critical years of development. Optimum development is strengthened when children engage in meaningful interactions with adults who adhere to high-quality professional standards. As an individual working with children, youth, and families, you engage in numerous activities that require you to maintain high-quality professional standards. Think about some of the experiences you participate in your daily professional life like:

  • Interacting with children and youth
  • Engaging with family members
  • Interacting with supervisors and managers
  • Collaborating with fellow staff members
  • Interacting with community partners

Establishing and maintaining high-quality professional standards are important to every task you accomplish every day. This process continues to evolve and develop as you encounter new situations.

The work you do with children, youth, and their families lays the foundation for healthy development, growth, and success in school and life. Recognition of the significance of the early years on children’s development has strengthened desire to strive for excellence when interacting with children, youth, and families (Feeney, 2012). This course will help you understand how your professionalism contributes to the growth and development of children and families you serve.

As a direct-care staff member, you are likely to encounter children, families, and co-workers from a variety of backgrounds and life experiences. It is important for you to understand the significance of always striving for high-quality practices while acknowledging diversity, individual and cultural differences. A colleague or family member may not share the same values with you when it comes to topics such as sleeping, toilet training, or completing work independently. As a direct-care staff member, you will need to be able to provide children, youth, and their families with culturally and developmentally sensitive care and help them be successful in the classroom now and in the years ahead.


It is important to think about your own sense of professionalism. Watch this video to hear staff members share what being professional means to them.

Professionalism: An Introduction

Hear staff members share what being professional means to them.


In the field of early childhood education, professionalism encompasses many specific behaviors and skills that address how individuals present themselves to other adults. Take time to review the following traits identified by Gigi Schweikert (2012) as they contribute to professionalism in the field of early care and education:

  • How you present yourself to others through your appearance and communication
  • Knowledge of the field of early care and education
  • The quality of your work
  • Relationships with others
  • Your work ethic
  • Your determination and dedication
  • Most important, your attitude

By including professional behavior as part of your evaluation, trainers and managers can actively work with you to support your professional growth. By including a focus on professional behaviors (appearance, communication, attitude, interpersonal relationships, etc.) you will enhance the quality of the program for children and families.

Completing this Course

For more information on what to expect in this course, the Professionalism Competency Reflection, and a list of the accompanying Learn, Explore and Apply resources and activities offered throughout the lessons, visit the Infant & Toddler Professionalism Course Guide.

Please note the References & Resources section at the end of each lesson outlines reference sources and resources to find additional information on the topics covered. As you complete lessons, you are not expected to review all the online references available. However, you are welcome to explore the resources further if you have interest, or at the request of your trainer, coach, or administrator.


Professionals working in early care and youth program settings should be held to high standards and expectations for professional behavior in those programs should be explicit. Your service branch may prescribe the professional dress, attitudes, and behaviors that you and your colleagues must follow.

How might a trusted colleague or supervisor rate you on this assessment? Are there areas of professionalism you that you want to improve upon? What goals do you set for improving your professionalism? What professional atmosphere do you want to set for yourself, children, and families? Complete the Self-Assessment: Are you a True Professional? handout, to reflect on your own professional behavior. Take a few minutes to read and respond to these questions. Then, share and discuss your responses with a trainer, coach, or administrator.

Building a collection of professional resources that you can easily access and share with colleagues is a great way to support professional growth. One way for professionals to keep up with new information, knowledge and research in their field is by joining professional associations. Use the Early Childhood Associations activity to create a list of early childhood associations that provide the latest research, best practices, and resources to support professional growth. CDA candidates should use the activity titled CDA Early Childhood Associations for this activity.


Take time to reflect on the skills, dispositions, and knowledge that make one a professional. Use the resources provided in the Building and Strengthening Competencies attachment to learn more about how professional organizations have created standards and competencies to guide professional behavior. You may feel quite skilled in many of these competencies, or they may be new to you. Think about these competencies as you engage with the infants and toddlers in your care and their families. 


Someone who teaches or gives help and advice to a less experienced and often younger person


True or false? When striving for professionalism in your practice with children, youth, and families, you do not need to consider diversity or individual differences in beliefs, values, or growth.
Which of the following traits contribute to professionalism in your work as a direct-care provider?
A co-worker mentions that she feels more like a “babysitter” than a professional. How do you respond?
References & Resources

Allred, K.W., & Hancock, C.L. (2015). Reconciling leadership and partnership: Strategies to empower professionals and families. Young Children, 70(2), 46-53.

Bloom, P.J., Hentschel, A., & Bella, J. (2013). Inspiring peak performance: Competence, commitment, and collaboration. The director’s toolbox Management Series. New Horizons.

Division for Early Childhood. (2014). DEC recommended practices in early intervention/early childhood special education 2014.

Feeney, S. (2012). Professionalism in early childhood education: Doing our best for young children. Pearson Education, Inc.

Feeney, S. and Freeman N.K. (2015) Focus on ethics: A difficult working relationship: The response. Young Children Vol (70) 4.

Kouzes, J.M., & Posner, B.Z. (2012). The leadership challenge: How to make extraordinary things happen in organizations (5th ed). Jossey-Bass.

National Association for the Education of Young Children. (2019). Professional standards and competencies for early childhood educators: A position statement of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Schweikert, G. (2012). Winning ways for early childhood professionals: Being a professional. Redleaf Press.

Simon, F. (2015). Look up and out to lead: 20/20 vision for effective leadership. Young Children, 70(2), 18-24.

Sullivan, D.R. (2010). Learning to lead: Effective leadership skills for teachers of young children (2nd ed.). Redleaf Press.

Wisconsin Early Childhood Collaborating Partners. (2014). Wisconsin core competencies for professionals working with young children & their families.

Zero to Three. (2016). ZERO TO THREE Critical competencies for infant-toddler educators related professional criteria.