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Professionalism: An Introduction

Working with children and youth is an important profession that requires a commitment to providing high quality care and education. In your daily work, you assume significant roles that greatly impact 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 jot down a few words or phrases that come to mind when you hear the word “professionalism.” 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 and others at your program assume, such as demonstrating knowledge and sharing information through or about your interactions with children, families, and colleagues. All your responses to the questions above offer a window into your own 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. You will also learn how you can continue to develop and grow your sense of professionalism, and what that means to you, as a direct care staff member.

What is Professionalism in Child Care and School-Age Programs?

For many years much of the general public has viewed early care and education providers (including those providing care to school-age children) 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.  These competencies include professionalism. Interacting with children, families, and colleagues must always be done in a professional manner. Whether you are an infant and toddler, preschool, or school-age 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 PUBLICprogram’s written code of ethics to help you in decision-making. With the guidance of Training & Curriculum Specialists, Program Managers, and other mentors, you should strive to set and maintain positive examples of professionalism in your daily interactions with fellow staff, children, and families. It is also important to remember that, outside of your classroom you still represent your program and your role as an educator.  Therefore, your actions, including those around your social media presence, should be considered; be aware of how your presence on these platforms 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 behaviors. 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. Additionally, the National Afterschool Association (NAA) and the Council on Accreditation (COA) are two additional professional organizations that have developed professional competencies for those working with children and youth. All of these organizations have similarities when it comes to professionalism, which indicates a common understanding that engaging in professional behavior is important for those working with young children, youth, and families.

The National Afterschool Association’s commitment to professionalism for the school-age programs can be found in the Core Knowledge and Competencies for Afterschool and Youth Development Professionals. The Professional Development and Leadership section of this document contains a multi-level description of professional competencies; derived from the review of standards and recommended practices across several national organizations. You can find these professional competencies in the Apply section of this lesson. And for a more detailed list on core competencies related to the care and education of school-age children, you can go to

What does it mean to be a Professional Staff Member?

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, and 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. Optimal 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 such as:

  • Interacting with children and youth
  • Engaging with family members
  • Interacting with Training & Curriculum Specialists and Program Managers
  • Collaborating with fellow staff members
  • Interacting with community partners

Establishing and maintaining high-quality professional standards are important for every task you accomplish throughout the day and must be considered when unexpected situations arise.

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 and individual 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, coaches, and administrators can actively work with you to support your professional growth. By focusing 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 School-Age 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 child and youth program settings should be held to high standards. Expectations for professional behavior in those programs should be explicit. Your PUBLICprogram may prescribe the professional dress, attitudes, and behaviors that you and your colleagues must follow. Use the professionalism self-assessment below, designed by Schweikert (2012), to reflect on your own professional behavior.

How might a trusted colleague or administrator 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 set for yourself, children and youth, and families?

Take a few minutes to read and respond to the questions in the Self-Assessment activity. Then, share and discuss your responses with a trainer, coach, or administrator.


Review and print The National Afterschool Association Core Knowledge and Competencies. Identify competencies you feel competent in, as well as professional competencies you want to further develop. Please share your thoughts with your trainer, coach or administrator.


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. Lake Forest, IL: New Horizons.

Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (2008). Early childhood educator competencies: A literature review of current best practices, and a public input process on next steps for California. Berkeley, CA: Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, University of California at Berkeley. 

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. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

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. (2021).

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.

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.