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Nurturing Your Sense of Professionalism

In this lesson you will learn how to maintain efforts to nurture your sense of professionalism. You will learn about the significance of self-care and you will explore resources for your own professional growth.

  • Reflect on what it means to continue to nurture your sense of professionalism.
  • Learn about the importance of self-care.
  • Explore resources for professional growth.



As a professional working in a school-age program, you are a role model for the children, youth, and their families in your program. Being a positive and supportive role model will strengthen your work and will positively affect the lives of children and families you interact with. You make an impact on the lives of the people in your care, so it’s important to reflect a positive presence. You will have young, impressionable minds watching, listening, and learning from you. Working with children, youth, and families is an important endeavor and you are not alone. Parents will be your partners throughout this process.  You will also collaborate with colleagues to provide high-quality care for the children and families in your program.

The field of child care has grown tremendously over the past several years, and new information and research continues to support the significant role that adults play in children’s development. You can truly make a difference. The more skilled, committed, and knowledgeable you become, the more effective, meaningful, and long-lasting your influence will be on children’s and families’ lives.  As a direct care staff member, you want your practice to be continuously improving, striving to be the best that it can be for children and families. You should reflect a positive attitude and sense of pride in creating caring environments for children and families in your care. You should also work with your trainers or coaches to continue to learn new opportunities for professional growth.  Your high standards and expectations for professional behavior will directly impact the quality of care you provide, and the quality of relationships of those around you.

Always Keep On Learning

Throughout this course, you have read about the process and the path of becoming professional as well as the attributes, skills, and knowledge you need to pursue. No matter how experienced you are or how much you know, it is important to continue pursuing education and training to learn more about your field, and to further growing as a professional. This is true for various reasons including those listed below (Koralek, Dodge, & Pizzolongo, 2013):

You care about children and their families.

To be a successful staff member, you need to care about the children and families you work with. This means that you want to improve your knowledge and skills, update what you know, and strive for practices that will better the development and outcomes for all children and families. For example, think about children and youth in your program who have special learning needs. Because you care about what you do, you will approach supporting children with diverse abilities as an opportunity to meaningfully engage them in experiences that further their development. You may invite their families in your classroom or program to share their knowledge on how to better support their child or youth. Ultimately, you want to engage in developmentally appropriate practices, and this love for what you do drives you to provide better support for children.

Continuous learning allows you to recognize, evaluate, and improve your existing practices.

Self-awareness enables you to acknowledge strengths, talents, skills, and accomplishments; at the same time it helps you recognize and identify competencies or skills you need to improve. Knowing who you are as a person and as a professional is empowering, as it enables you to engage in self-improvement and growth. You can do this by talking with colleagues and arranging to observe each other to learn more and improve each other’s practice. Or you can review materials and resources that keep you updated with new ideas and research in your area of expertise. You should also participate in professional organizations and training events and opportunities.

You want to grow professionally.

Being committed to ongoing learning can improve your knowledge, skills, and performance. This learning will help you gain new skills and hone existing skills, and this may come with increased confidence, more responsibility, and even a promotion.

There is always new information to be learned!

The Indian mystic Ramakrishna said “As long as I live, so long do I learn”, and the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates said “True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing.”

All professionals need to keep up with new information, knowledge, and research in their fields. As a responsible and committed professional, you have an obligation to keep up with new information and use that in your practice with children and families.

Set Limits and Professional Boundaries

Learning how to say “no” is a good skill to cultivate. It shows you know your limits and are able to put your needs first.  Setting boundaries and limits are a part of being a professional. Setting boundaries to support your own needs demonstrates to colleagues and families that you are a confident and competent caregiver.

When it comes to information and sharing and vulnerability, there is often a power imbalance in the relationship between families and caregivers. Families must share sensitive information about their family’s medical, professional, and financial situations. Because of this power imbalance, establishing and honoring professional boundaries ensures that caregivers use their power appropriately. 

Families entrust you with their child during some of their most important years of growth.  Sometimes the professional and personal lines can become blurred, especially in communities where families and caregivers may live in the same neighborhood and participate in the same community events. For example, you may provide care for a child and interact with them at the same church or community recreation center.  The chart below shares the differences between professional relationships and personal relationships.

Professional relationship Social and personal relationships
Take place during "paid" time Take place during "non-paid" time
Involve meeting designated job responsibilities Not based on responsibilities
Service-oriented Not intended to provide a service
Focused on serving the child and family Focused on shared interests
Goal-directed Not generally focused on a goal
Time limited - they exist for the length of time a service is provided Time unlimited - they can go on for as much (or as little time) as the people involved choose
Source: Feeney, S., Freeman, N., & Morarvcik, E. (2020, December). Focus on Ethics. Professional Boundaries in Early Childhood Education. Young Children.

Let’s take a look at some examples of boundary crossing (inadvertent, non-exploitative blur of professional lines) and boundary violations (exploitative, unfair, and potentially harmful situations), so you will be better prepared when establishing your professional relationships and personal boundaries.

Boundary crossing:

  • Attending a birthday party of a family in your program
  • Agreeing to or offering to babysit for a family in your care
  • Breaching confidentiality (sharing personal information about a child or family with another family in your care)
  • Oversharing personal information
  • Sharing your personal views on politics, religion, or other sensitive topics verbally, digitally, or in your professional dress (i.e. Political candidate t-shirt)
  • Asking for a favor or help (professional advice)

Boundary violations:

  • Demonstrating favoritism of a child or family. Treating them differently than other families in your care.
  • Approaching families to participate in outside businesses that you may have a personal connection to, and could seek financial gain from (ex. inviting a family to a direct sales party for a clothing company)
  • Accepting large gifts
  • Inappropriate behavior with a family member

To establish your boundaries and limits use the following chart called “The Zone of Helpfulness” (Kemp 2014). Set up a meeting to discuss with your mentor or coach if you are feeling challenged by where to place a boundary within the continuum.  Remember as the caregiver you are the one with more power in this relationship and it is your responsibility to set the boundary. It can be tricky setting limits while working with School Age children. As part of the relationship building process, they may feel like you are more of a friend than a classroom leader. Setting limits and rules from the beginning will demonstrate your role as a caregiver who can maintain professional boundaries.

Zone of Under-Involvement

Disinterested/uncaring - not in the best interest of child/family

Zone of Helpfulness

Caring/helpful - in the best interests of the child/family

Zone of Over-Involvement

Inappropriate engagement with family - not in the best interest of child/family

Experiences and Resources for Professional Growth

There are many excellent resources on professionalism. Educator Fran Simon (2015) provides a list of suggestions:

  • Be open to what is possible, not held back by what you think is impossible.
  • Join professional associations, attend conferences, volunteer.
  • Be curious and ask questions.
  • Value and work to establish and maintain relationships in your daily practice.
  • Make time to learn, connect, and network.
  • Be authentic and open with the people you meet along the way, even if you do not share their viewpoints.
  • Participate in live and virtual professional learning networks.
  • Share your ideas with colleagues, trainers, and managers.
  • Engage in formal professional, career, and leadership development.
  • Find a mentor! Everybody needs inspirational people in their lives.
  • Build a library on leadership and related topics.
  • Subscribe to email and print newsletters and professional journals from a variety of sources.

Considering your Own Wellness

Self-awareness is very important for your own professional growth and learning. Educators Donna Wittmer and Sandy Petersen highlight that, “Knowing ourselves involves exploring our strengths and vulnerabilities. We need to wonder about, and try to understand the meaning of, our reactions, our frustrations, and the parts of our job that bring us joy. This exploration can sometimes be difficult or uncomfortable” (2013, p. 409). Another way to think about this is the “care” that is behind the “caregiving”.

All of us can find ourselves struggling to make sense of situations and relationships involving children, youth, and families. As you likely learned in other courses, observation is one of our best strategies. Observation can help you get to know and understand a child or youth in your program better, which in turn can change your feelings.

Another strategy you can use is visualization. As a staff member, you are likely to encounter children, families, and fellow staff members from a variety of backgrounds. It is important for you to understand the complexity of culture’s influence on identity and equally important to understand individual differences. For example, a family member who has had a lifetime of encouragement, praise, and support, may have a very different parenting style, or needs from a family member who has experienced extensive criticism, doubt, and isolation. Visualize yourself interacting positively with a child or family in your program. If the child is displaying behaviors that seem to disrupt your teaching approach, try seeing this child without those behaviors and responding in a caring way. If the family has views that are different from your own views (e.g., providing assistance with tasks), try to understand the family’s point of view and respond in a respectful and caring way. As a 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.

As professionals responsible for taking care of others’ needs it is also vital to take care of our own needs.  Being proactive with self-care is not selfish.  It’s an active, powerful way to gain or maintain an optimal level of overall health. This includes not just the physical, but the psychological, emotional, social, and spiritual components of an individual’s well-being. In your role as a direct care staff member, you can create an environment that supports children’s development. Your own self-care practices can be a starting place to model the importance of self-care. Learning to use self-care practices is an indication of developing a strong self-concept, and staff members who are aware of self-care practices can act as positive role models for children, families, as well as fellow staff members.

It is also important to continue to manage your stress. Here are a few tips:

  • Consider keeping a journal. It can be therapeutic to write the day’s events and your perspectives on paper. You might also consider keeping a gratitude journal to help you be mindful about the positive aspects of your life.
  • Make connections. Reach out to friends, family, and acquaintances. Go out for lunch or for a cup of coffee with a friend. Speak to the person in front of you in line at the grocery store. These small moments can help you feel connected and supported.
  • Even a little regular exercise can help you feel better, sleep better, and cope better with life’s daily stressors. Healthful eating can make a difference, too.
  • Remember to breathe. As we get stressed out, we tend to breathe shallower. By taking a moment to take a few deep breaths, we are taking time for ourselves and lowering our stress levels.


Continuous Learning

Watch staff reflect on the significance of ongoing learning for your practice.


According to child-care expert Jeff Johnson (2010), your attitude can help you make changes in your life and your program. Johnson has six suggestions:

  • Positive outlook: Thinking positively about situations and people can help you bring about beneficial outcomes. Your personal outlook on life plays a critical role in your level of self-care.
  • Self-awareness: Knowing who you are includes being aware of your feelings, your emotions, your thoughts, and your relationships. Start by taking an inventory of your strengths and weaknesses. Examine your life, past and present. Notice how far you’ve come and the skills you possess that got you to this point.
  • Healthy selfishness: It’s important to recognize your own needs as valid and do what is necessary to meet them.
  • Relinquish control: Allowing yourself to relax and see things as gray instead of black and white can allow you to see more options and opportunities.
  • Playful attitude: Changing your mindset requires playfulness, curiosity, and excitement. Try exploring life through the eyes of a child and see how different things seem.
  • Thoughtful choices: As life gets busy, slow down and make sure you are making thoughtful choices. Reconcile with yourself that you may never master a task perfectly and sometimes it is going to have to be good enough. Focusing on self-compassion over judgments and comparisons enables us to focus our energy positively on what we value and brings us joy, instead of focusing this energy on our negative thoughts. This promotes personal wellness and helps in presenting a positive and professional role model for school-age children.


Watch this video to learn about the importance of self-care.


How do you plan to work towards your ongoing professional development? For this activity, visit the National AfterSchool Association website and choose an article to read that applies to your work. Use the Professionalism: Ongoing Growth activity to reflect on the article you chose and to set your own professional growth goals.


Review the information provided in the Seven Roles of a Child & Youth Educator activity. Reflect on how these different roles show up throughout the day.

In the activity, Professionalism: Self-Awareness Strategy answer the reflective questions that you can use daily to help gain self-awareness and improve your practices. Share your responses with your trainer, coach or administrator.


Boundary Crossing:
Brief excursions across professional lines of behavior that may be inadvertant, thoughtless, or even a purposeful attempt to meet the needs of a child or family. They are non-exploitative.
Boundary Violation:
Exploitative, unfair, or potentially harmful situations to children and families. They may not be reccognized or felt until harmful consequences occur.


You can continue to learn more about early care and education by…
True or false? Self-care practices such as keeping a gratitude journal or exercising regularly can help you serve as a positive role model for children, families, and colleagues.
Visualization is a strategy to use...
References & Resources

Bruno, H.E., & Copeland, T. (2012). Managing Legal Risks in Early Childhood Programs. New York: Teachers College Press.

Feeney, S. (2010). Ethics Today in Early Care and Education: Review, reflection, and the future. Young Children, 65(2), 72-77.

Feeney, S., Freeman, N.K., & Pizzolongo, P. (2012). Ethics and the Early Childhood Educator: Using the NAEYC code (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Johnson, J. (2010). Keeping Your Smile: Caring for children with joy, love, and intention. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.

Koralek, D. G., Dodge, D. T., & Pizzolongo, P. J. (2004). Caring for Preschool Children (3rd ed.). Washington, DC: Teaching Strategies, Inc.

National After School Association (2009). National After School Association Code of Ethics. Retrieved from

National Association for the Education of Young Children (2011). Code of Ethical Conduct and Statement of Commitment. Retrieved from

National Association of the Education of Young Children. (2020). Focus on Ethics: Professional Boundaries in Early Childhood Education.

Porath, C. (2018). Why being respectful to your coworkers is good for business. TEDxUniversityofNevada. Retrieved from

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

Wittmer, D. S., & Petersen, S. H. (2013). Infant and Toddler Development and Responsive Program Planning-A relationship-based approach (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice-Hall.