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Developing Your Sense of Professionalism

This lesson will introduce you to practices that are associated with professionalism. You will learn about characteristics of effective staff members and the developmental stages of teachers.

  • Learn about characteristics of effective professional staff members.
  • Discuss the four developmental stages of teachers.
  • Identify practices that reflect professionalism in your work as a staff member.



Developing your sense of professionalism is a process that does not happen overnight. It involves a wide range of experiences. Just like when you are learning a new skill, you have to invest time and effort in getting information, practicing new things, and interacting with other individuals. Nurturing your professionalism requires ongoing work, energy, and commitment. As you think about developing your sense of professionalism, remember that each staff member is an individual. In your daily interactions with children, youth, families, and colleagues, you always bring who you are: your interests, your personality, your temperament, your background experiences, and your special abilities and talents.

Characteristics of Effective Professional Staff Members

Professionals who work directly with children and their families have a special obligation to present themselves in ways that benefit those they serve. Some values that are foundational to professions based on human relationships are caring, compassion, empathy, respect for others, and trustworthiness, according to Stephanie Feeney, author of Professionalism in Early Childhood Education. Effective professional staff members above all are dedicated to serving the needs of children, youth, and families they work with. Your program should have a clearly articulated shared mission and philosophy that is demonstrated by everyone who works in the program and that all staff understand. It is vital to familiarize yourself with this mission and philosophy.

Essential elements of professional behavior include knowledge and skills about a field, communication and relationship skills, work ethic, professional ethics, accountability, equitable practices, and passion for growth. Each of these elements is further discussed below.

Knowledge and Skills

To conduct yourself in a professional manner, you must acquire the skills and knowledge needed to work with children, youth, and families. An understanding of child development is essential to your role as an early care and education professional. Individual courses within the Virtual Laboratory School provide extensive information on each of the developmental domains (e.g., Cognitive Development, Physical DevelopmentSocial & Emotional Development) as well as strategies and practical ideas on how to promote optimum growth. For more comprehensive information about youth and child development refer to these courses. Along with child and youth development, knowledge about topics such as Safe Environments, Learning Environments, Healthy Environments, Positive Guidance, Child Abuse, and Family Engagement will strengthen your competence and enable you to positively affect the lives of children, youth, and families you engage with. Optimum development is achieved when children and youth are healthy, emotionally secure, and socially connected. It is your responsibility to make sure that:

  • children and youth are healthy and safe by keeping a clean environment and promoting healthy habits
  • they are emotionally secure by responding to their cues and addressing their needs in a nurturing manner
  • they are socially connected by fostering relationships between them and others during classroom and program routines
  • children’s families and home cultures are at the forefront of your work

Communication and Relationships

Building and nurturing relationships with children, family, and colleagues is an important aspect of your work as a direct- care staff member. As you may have learned in other courses throughout the Virtual Lab School, relationships form over time and require ongoing attention and commitment. Collaborating with others is a big part of your work, and whether you are a brand new or a seasoned staff member, your success and effectiveness hugely depend on how well you work with others. And while working with others may present difficulties or challenges, it is your responsibility to maintain professional conduct and seek the advice of your trainer, coach, or administrator when faced with situations you are not sure how to deal with.

Work Ethic

Working with children, youth and families is one of the most rewarding and challenging endeavors. It requires dedication, commitment, problem-solving skills, and a willingness to learn, change, and be flexible in order to address the multiple and often complex needs of those in your care.

Moral and Ethical Behavior

Your commitment is to present yourself with integrity in your daily interactions with children, families, and colleagues. Maintaining confidentiality is a crucial part of professionalism. You should also be very careful about how you handle your presence on social networking sites. As a direct care staff member, you should respect and protect the privacy of ALL children and families in your program. In Lesson Three of this course (Professionalism: Ethical Practices) you will learn about what it means to be an ethical staff member, identify ethical practices when it comes to interacting with children and families, and learn how you can support your knowledge and implementation of ethical practices.

Accountability and Mentorship

Each of us comes into the field with different strengths and experiences. Finding a mentor in the field can help hold you accountable for your professional goals and encourage you to extend your practice of working with young children. A mentor can provide support, be a sounding board, offer resources and challenge you to reflect on your practice as you expand your experience.

Equitable Practices

Making it a priority to show representation of each child and family in your program is vital. It’s important for children and families to feel valued for who they are as they enter a relationship with you as a caretaker. Be intentional in your conversations with children and families to understand family preferences and cultural practices. Extending your learning in this area can go a long way in demonstrating respect for the diversity in your program.


Show your passion for your work. Being a positive presence for children and families creates a safe environment. Your energy can be felt by those around you. We all have moments and days of frustration but striving to show your passion while working with children can help remind you of the important work you are doing in those difficult moments.

A Developmental Perspective

When talking about professional development, Dr. Lilian Katz identifies four developmental stages of teachers. As you read the information below on each of these stages, think about where you are in your own journey towards professionalism.

Stage I: Survival. This stage generally refers to the first year or two of teaching, when an educator’s primary concern is “surviving” in their role engaging with children and families. During this time, educators need support, guidance, and encouragement.

Stage II: Consolidation. With the completion of their initial years of teaching, educators come to see themselves as capable of managing their day-to-day responsibilities. Ongoing training and support on-site continue to be significant for their growth.

Stage III: Renewal. During this stage, teachers become interested in new developments in the field. They may benefit from joining professional organizations and participating in various professional development experiences such as conferences, or other professional meetings.

Stage IV: Maturity. It may take a few years after beginning to work with children and families for an educator to reach maturity. During this time educators feel confident about their own competence and begin to ask more complex questions about their practice. At this stage they also continue to benefit from participating in conferences or seminars, ongoing education or training, reading professional literature, and engaging with other educators.

Being an Effective Professional Staff Member

Effective professional staff members enjoy their work and show it. They create positive, welcoming environments for the children, youth, and families they work with and strive for excellence in their interactions with others and experiences they plan. Effective professional staff members value collaboration and acknowledge it is important to work together with families, other staff members, and supervisors in order to be successful. They also know it is important to have fun and laugh, celebrate successes, and acknowledge their efforts and the efforts of others, such as family members and colleagues. Your program may plan community building events for the smaller community of staff or the larger community of children, families and staff. Some examples are acknowledging individual staff members during staff meetings, celebrating staff birthdays and life events with attending a professional conference together, organizing family nights and inviting families to participate in classroom and program experiences.


Developing Your Sense of Professionalism

Watch this video to learn about developing your sense of professionalism.


Take time to review the practices listed below that highlight professionalism when working with children, youth, and families in your care:

  • Respect and support each child and family in your care and acknowledge diversity and individual differences in growth, background, values, and beliefs.
  • Build connections and demonstrate genuine interest about all children and families in your care.
  • Acknowledge that families know their children best and learn to view them as partners and collaborators in your practice. Reach out to them and invite their input.
  • Keep information about children, youth, and their families confidential.
  • Provide a variety of developmentally appropriate choices and experiences for children and youth in your care.
  • Be knowledgeable of and have developmentally appropriate expectations about children’s behaviors and be proactive when dealing with challenging behaviors.
  • Honor individual differences in children and families and strive to address the unique needs of those you serve.
  • Recognize and share positive feedback with families on a frequent basis. Even though at times you may have to address topics of concern about children and youth with families (e.g., behavioral concerns), remind yourself to also highlight a child’s successes and positive attributes.


Learning about the values and philosophy of professionals you know and admire can be a powerful tool towards your own professional development. Take a few minutes to interview a fellow co-worker. Complete the Professionalism: Creating a Climate of Trust, Respect and Safety handout. Then, share and discuss the responses with a trainer, coach, or administrator.

If you are a CDA candidate, use the CDA Competency Statement VI handout to reflect on your commitment to professionalism. This is a required item for the CDA Professional Portfolio.


Smartphones and social media have become a way of life for most of us. In your daily interactions with children or youth, you should be very careful about handling social media. Photographs or information about children and families in your program should never be shared on social media. You are responsible for maintaining confidentiality of the families in your care. It is important to consider how new technologies can affect them. As a direct care staff member, you are a direct reflection of the program outside of the physical building. Sharing information about yourself or on sensitive topics may affect how members of the program view you and your professionalism. Be thoughtful and careful about what you chose to post.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) provides some guidance in the article, Smartphones and Social Media Ethical Implications for Educators. To view a pdf file of this article, please click on the link below:

In the Professionalism and Social Media activity reflect on how you currently use social media and respond to the questions. Then, share and discuss your responses with a trainer, coach, or administrator.


True or false? An important aspect of your work as a direct-care staff member are the relationships you create with children, youth, families, and co-workers.
In your first year of teaching you…
Which of the following practices reflects professionalism in your work as a staff member?
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.

BCGEU. (2018, October 15). Steward fundamentals-social media in the workplace.

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.

Hickey, M. (2019). Becoming your best: Building professional competencies. Young Children Vol (13).

Katz, L. K. (1995). Talks with teachers of young children: A collection. Ablex.

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

National After School Association Core Knowledge and Competencies.

National Association for the Education of Young Children. (2019). NAEYC 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.

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 oore competencies For professionals working with young children & their families.