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Developing Staff Members' Sense of Professionalism

In this lesson, you will learn how to support staff members in their own professional growth. Your role as a program manager puts you in a position to create a program environment where professional behavior and excellence in caregiving is the norm.

  • Learn how, as a program manager, you can serve as a mentor to staff as they learn about professional behavior.
  • Learn how shared leadership and decision-making practices engage staff members as valued professionals.
  • Learn about building and maintaining job embedded professional growth activities within your program.


Kenisha has been a Training & Curriculum Specialist (T&CS) in early-learning and after-school programs for several years. She considers herself a positive person who sees the good in everyone. She has had some difficulty lately with Brenda, a new staff member, who works with the kindergarten-age children at one of the centers. Brenda seems to enjoy the children, but she has difficulty communicating in a professional way with her co-teacher, the program manager, and other staff members.

Brenda has told Kenisha that her job is to be “there for the children” and the adults just have to understand that she doesn’t like working with other adults. That is why she chose to be a child care teacher. The program manager has noticed that Brenda is very quiet during staff meetings. Kenisha thinks that Brenda should set some goals for communicating with colleagues, but she is not sure Brenda understands the importance of professionalism when working with other staff members and the program leaders.

As a program manager you are in the position of fostering staff members' understanding of professionalism. In the field of early care and education, professionalism encompasses many specific behaviors and skills that address how one presents themselves to other adults. According to early childhood professional development expert, Gigi Schweikert, the following traits contribute to professionalism in the field of early care and education:

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

By including professional behavior as part of staff members' evaluation and goal setting, program managers and T&CSs can actively support staff members in their professional growth. By including a focus on professional behaviors (appearance, communication, attitude, interpersonal relationships, etc.) as part of each staff member's evaluation, you will enhance the quality of the program for children and families.

Mentoring Staff Members' Professional Practices

As a leader, you will give staff members information and resources about professional behavior, so they have clear ideas about your expectations. You model professional behavior and mentor others when they are unsure of expectations. Talking to staff individually about professional behavior and your expectations of them must occur not only at initial hiring, but also during ongoing professional development activities and meetings with staff.

Individuals may not have a clear understanding of how important dress, communication, attitude and other behaviors affect the quality of experiences for children and families at your program. Your professional behavior and that of other staff can assist new staff members who are learning to be professionals. You or the T&CS may observe classroom interactions that are not in the best interests of the children or program. Finding opportunities to address professionalism when coaching or observing a staff member allows that staff member to ask questions and to practice professional skills with a trusted mentor.

Some programs assign a seasoned professional to serve as a mentor to new staff members (this is often done in public schools with beginning teachers) so the new staff member has someone to go to for advice and to answer questions. Program managers need to be sure that mentors also have training in how to support a new staff member. Some seasoned staff may make excellent mentors, but others may not feel they have the time or skills to nurture a new teacher. Mentors need to have others in that role who they can turn to for assistance if needed.


It may be helpful to ask staff members to assess themselves on professionalism and then have another person (program manager or coach) complete the same assessment on the staff member to compare responses. Adults like to be in control of their learning, so this is one way to come to a shared agreement about what professional behaviors that a staff member can focus on.

The Apply Section includes a self- assessment, "Are You a True Early Childhood Professional?" (designed by Gigi Schweiker), that program leaders and staff may find helpful to use as a starting point for self-reflection about professionalism in early care and youth program settings.

Shared Leadership and Decision-Making

If program managers and T&CSs treat staff members as adults and provide opportunities for shared leadership and decision-making, staff will know that the program leaders value their ideas and suggestions. The staff members need to have opportunities to provide input into decisions that affect their daily work. Like all adults, they want to have autonomy. Program leaders can encourage input and help staff feel comfortable asking questions by:

  • Actively listening to staff members and following through
  • Asking staff what they think and implementing their ideas when possible
  • Sharing leadership with others (e.g., allowing a staff member to volunteer to represent the program at a community forum)
  • Encouraging and acknowledging staff members who provide suggestions that contribute to the program's quality (delegate tasks to those staff who have the skills to accomplish them)
  • Recognizing staff members who show leadership abilities and take initiative

Adults want to feel safe and appreciated in the workplace. Adults need to feel like they can make mistakes, learn from them, and still be a valued member of the work team. Program leaders can foster relationships with each staff member to create an open environment where everyone’s input is important and taken seriously. Leaders can create an environment where staff feel it is acceptable to admit mistakes. When you admit your own mistakes, you show your staff that everyone makes errors and can learn from them. Providing opportunities for staff to safely problem solve important issues is critical. You will want to know what your staff members are thinking about. To learn what staff are thinking, you need to create an open environment that facilitates direct, honest communication.

Program managers must recognize which decisions should include staff input and group consensus and which decisions should be made by the manager. Giving adults autonomy and trusting them to make good decisions encourages staff to feel ownership about the quality of the program. While some decisions can only be made by the manager, many can be made by the staff. Standard operating procedures or policies should be clear in the staff handbook.

Professionals work as a team toward a common goal and vision. Providing opportunities for staff to share in meaningful decision-making demonstrates that program leaders view staff as collaborative team members drawing on one another’s strengths and talents in achieving the highest-quality services for the program’s children and families.

Building and Maintaining Professional Growth Opportunities

One of the ways to facilitate growth and professional development among staff is to build and maintain job embedded opportunities to grow as professionals.

In early care and education or youth programs, the staff may want to focus on becoming more knowledgeable about a professional topic. They may want to spend time reading a professional book or watch a webinar on a particular topic. Learning together builds community among the staff, while also focusing on growing as a professional team of colleagues.

Engaging staff members as leaders during professional development activities is another way to foster shared decision-making and leadership among staff members. Job embedded book groups, professional learning communities, or an intentional discussion about a professional topic creates a sense of professional collaboration, builds team trust, provides a structure for improving program quality, and enhances the development of children and youth in their care.

Program leaders should provide time and space for staff to reflect, meet, plan, and evaluate their work with children and youth. Program leaders that foster an environment of collaborative learning encourage staff to support children’s outcomes, to grow professionally, and to participate in continuous program improvement.

Supervise & Support

Developing Professionalism

Watch this video to learn about helping staff develop their sense of professionalism.


There are several websites that have information about job embedded professional growth in early care and youth settings. Review the list to determine if any of the resources would be of interest to you and your staff in your focus on professionalism.


Expectations for professionalism in early care and youth program settings should be made explicit to staff. All staff (including program managers and T&CSs) should be held to high standards. Your Service or program may have policies on professional dress, attitudes, and behaviors that you and your staff must follow. Use the professionalism self-assessment designed by Gigi Schweikert to reflect on your own professional behavior.

How might a trusted colleague or supervisor rate you on this assessment? Are there areas of professionalism that you want to improve upon? What goals do you set for improving your professionalism? What professional atmosphere do you want to create for your staff, children, and families?


Professional Learning Community:
A group of educators that meets regularly, shares expertise, and works collaboratively to improve teaching skills and the academic performance of students


True or false? Any seasoned professional in your program will make an excellent mentor to a new staff member.
Which of the following behaviors supports shared leadership and decision-making?
You would like to implement a professional learning community in your program. You decide to…
References & Resources

Early Childhood Investigations. (2012). Modern ECE Professional Learning Communities: A Case Study from Mind in The Making, (webinar)

Gallinsky, E. (2012). Learning Communities: An emerging phenomenon. Young Children, 67(1), 20-24, 26-27.

Graham, P. & Ferriter, W. M. (2009). Building a Professional Learning Community at Work: A guide to the first year. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Hord, S. (1997). Professional Learning Communities: Communities of continuous inquiry and improvement

Hord, S. (1997). Professional Learning Communities: What are they and why are they important?

Hord, S. (1998). Creating a Professional Learning Community: Cottonwood Creek School.

Miller, A. (2020). Creating effective professional learning communities.

Schweikert, G. (2014). Winning Ways for Early Childhood Professionals: Being a supervisor. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.

Schweikert, G. (2012). Winning Ways for Early Childhood Professionals: Being a professional. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.