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Professionalism: An Introduction

In this lesson, you will learn about practices that are tied to professionalism. The characteristics of effective leaders in an early care and education setting will be explored. Resources for professional growth and mentoring are included.

  • Learn about specific practices that are associated with professionalism.
  • Learn about effective leadership and how it contributes to professionalism.
  • Examine resources for professional growth and mentoring in early care and education settings.


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

It is very important for the general public to view early care and education providers (including those providing care to school-age children) as competent, confident professionals. To support 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 staff, families, and children must always be done in a professional manner. It is critical for training and curriculum specialists (T&Cs), program managers, and other program leaders/educational technicians to explicitly inform staff about expectations for professional behavior and to always model professional behavior.

T&Cs and program managers must take the lead by providing positive examples of professionalism. As role models, they demonstrate how to interact during difficult encounters with parents or colleagues. They are the leaders that staff members look to for guidance about what to say and do when difficult situations occur.

Families rely upon all program staff to provide a warm and responsive environment for their children. Each employee must make conscious, intentional decisions about how to interact in daily encounters with children, parents, and colleagues. T & Cs and program managers must be acutely aware that the classroom staff they coach, mentor, and supervise may sometimes face difficult ethical situations. Following an ethical code can help with difficult decisions that arise within the child-care setting.

Professional organizations (e.g., National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC); National After School Association) that work on behalf of children, families, caregivers, and teachers have created standards and competencies to guide early care and education professionals. Each professional organization created 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.

When you review various organizations' sets of standards and competencies you will find many similarities when it comes to professionalism. This indicates a common understanding that engaging in professional behavior is critical for those working with young children, youth, and families.

Characteristics of Effective Professional Leaders

Effective professional leaders above all serve as role models for the staff. Just as teachers and youth workers must build relationships with each child and family, T&Cs and managers must attend carefully to building a relationship with each staff member. Child care and youth programs must have a clearly articulated shared mission and philosophy that all staff members understand and that is demonstrated by everyone who works in the program. T&Cs and program managers support that mission and philosophy by treating each staff member with dignity and respect. Just as teachers are expected to guide children, program leaders guide the adults who work in the program. T&Cs and program managers have a powerful influence on the professional climate in the center or program. Effective professional leaders are team players who carefully listen when families and staff share their ideas and concerns that impact program quality.

It is very important for T&Cs and program managers to speak and act authentically. For example, if a program manager states that all staff should use a calm manner when speaking, then the program leaders should use a calm manner when speaking to children and colleagues. It is important that there be a match between what a leader says and what the leader does.

T&Cs and program managers view the growth and development of each staff member as an important aspect of their work. Program leaders are entrusted to intentionally guide others to exceed at their jobs. As each staff member grows professionally, the overall quality of the program is enhanced.

Effective professional leaders enjoy their work and show it. They encourage a positive atmosphere. They know that it is important to have fun and laugh, celebrate successes, and acknowledge all the good things staff members do for children and families. Leaders may plan joyful events that build community among the staff, such as acknowledging individuals during staff meetings, celebrating staff birthdays and life events with potluck suppers, or attending a professional conference together.

There are many excellent resources on leadership development. Those who are new to the role of T & C or program manager will want to read some of the excellent articles and books about leadership in the Resources and References list. Joining a face-to-face or an online community of practice with other program leaders is another way to learn more about leadership and professional behavior with colleagues.

Resources for Professional Behavior

There are a number of books, Web sites, and webinars available to help you and your staff better understand professional behavior and how it influences the quality of early care and education programs. Early-childhood leadership expert Fran Simon provides suggestions about what early care and education leaders need to do to create their vision. These are just a few listed in her article, "Look Up and Out to Lead":

  • Join professional associations, attend conferences, volunteer
  • Participate in live and virtual professional learning networks
  • Engage with social media (e.g., Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, etc.) where hundreds of thousands of educators share links to valuable information and breaking news that is pertinent
  • Engage in formal professional career and leadership development
  • Find a mentor-even leaders need inspirational people in their lives
  • Mentor promising young people and learn from your engagement with them
  • Build a library on leadership and related topics
  • Subscribe to email and print newsletters and professional journals from a variety of sources

Additionally, the reference list below contains books, articles and Web sites that you may find helpful as you learn more about professionalism and leadership in the field of early care and youth development.


Professionalism: An Introduction

Hear program leaders talk about the importance of being professional.

Completing this Course

For more information on what to expect in this course and a list of the accompanying Learn, Explore and Apply resources and activities offered throughout the lessons, visit the Training & Curriculum Specialist Professionalism Course Guide.

To support the professional development of the direct care staff members or family child care providers you oversee, you can access their corresponding Course Guides:


T&Cs and program managers demonstrate professionalism by supporting staff members to do their jobs well. When staff members are encouraged to be successful, they demonstrate increased feelings of competence and confidence in their work with children and families.

All staff members have a commitment to building relationships with the children and families they serve. In your role as a T&C or program manager, you must build a relationship with each staff member. This does not entail making all staff members close friends, but it does mean you must work to earn the respect of each staff member in order to effectively lead. Just as you create a safe climate for children and families, you must consciously create a safe climate for the staff. The staff needs to know that you are open to their issues and concerns and you will be professional in your daily interactions with them.

Think about a supervisor or leader that you admire as a role model. What did she or he do to earn and maintain others’ respect? How did he or she promote a safe climate in which to share concerns and issues? Arrange to interview this individual (in person, by phone, email, Skype). You may create your own interview questions or use the ones on the handout, Professionalism: Creating a Climate of Trust, Respect, and Safety.


One aspect of professionalism is advocating for high-quality child-care and youth-development programs for children and their families. What does it mean for you to act as an advocate for your early care and education program? How do you represent your program’s story to those outside the field of early care, education, and youth development?


A person who publicly supports or recommends a particular cause or policy; champion, supporter, promoter
Someone who teaches or gives help and advice to a less experienced and often younger person


True or false? Effective leaders do not work to build relationships with their staff; this is unprofessional.
Which of the following resources can help you and your staff better understand professional behavior?
At a recent staff meeting, you stressed to all staff members the importance of arriving on time. As you schedule evaluation conferences you want to be sure to…
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 Manager'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

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. (2014). Winning Ways for Early Childhood Professionals: Being a supervisor. 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