Secondary tabs

    • 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 does not happen overnight. On the contrary, it is a process that 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 deal directly with children and their families have a special obligation to behave 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. You should 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, and professional ethics. Each of these elements is further discussed below.

    Knowledge and Skills

    A staff member who wants to behave in a professional manner must acquire the skills and knowledge needed to work with children, youth, and families. Understanding children and child development are absolutely essential in your roles as infant-toddler, preschool, or school-age and youth professionals. Individual courses within the Virtual Laboratory School provide extensive information on each of the developmental domains (e.g., Cognitive Development, Physical Development, Social & Emotional Development) as well as strategies and practical ideas on how to promote optimum growth. You should refer to these courses for comprehensive information about child and youth development. 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 job 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

    An important aspect of your work as a direct- care staff member are the relationships you create and nurture with children, youth, families, and colleagues. Establishing these relationships can make or break your experience. As you may have learned in other courses throughout the Virtual Lab School, relationships form over time and require ongoing effort 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. Whether you are engaging with children, youth, families, colleagues or supervisors, nurturing those relationships early on is critical to your success. 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 manager 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 at the same time 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 carry 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 social networking. 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.

    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 joyful events that build community at different levels: among the staff, as well as among staff, children and families. Some examples are acknowledging individual staff members during staff meetings, celebrating staff birthdays and life events with potluck suppers, attending a professional conference together, organizing family nights, inviting families to participate in classroom and program experiences, inviting families to spend time with children in the classroom.


    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 each child and family in your care and acknowledge diversity and individual differences in growth, background, values, and beliefs.
    • Demonstrate genuine interest about all children and families you work with and make an effort to get to know them.
    • 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.
    • 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.
    • Acknowledge all the great things children do on a daily basis and share those with their families often. 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. Download and print the Professionalism: Creating a Climate of Trust, Respect, and Safety handout that corresponds to your area of expertise (IT, PS, or SA). Take a few minutes to interview a fellow co-worker. Then, share and discuss your responses with a trainer, coach, or supervisor.



    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 should always think about how new technologies can affect children and families and maintain confidentiality at all times. You should also consider how information you share about yourself may affect you and be careful about what you post on social media.

    Read the article that's linked in the Professionalism and Social Media handout. After reading the article, reflect on 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 coworkers.


    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.

    Bloom, P.J., Hentschel, A., & Bella, J. (2013). Inspiring Peak Performance: Competence, commitment, and collaboration. The Director's Toolbox Management Series. Lake Forest, IL: New Horizons.

    Division for Early Childhood. (2014). DEC Recommended Practices in Early Intervention/Early Childhood Special Education 2014. Retrieved from

    Feeney, S. (2012). Professionalism in Early Childhood Education: Doing our best for young children. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

    Katz, L. K. (1995). Talks with Teachers of Young Children: A collection. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

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

    National After School Association Core Knowledge and Competencies . Retrieved from

    National Association for the Education of Young Children. (2009). NAEYC Standards for Early Childhood Professional Preparation: A position statement of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Retrieved from

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

    Wisconsin Early Childhood Collaborating Partners. (2014). Wisconsin Core Competencies For Professionals Working with Young Children & Their Families. Retrieved from