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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 Training & Curriculum Specialist puts you in a position to create a program environment where professional behavior and excellence in caregiving is the norm.

  • Describe ways to support staff professionalism.
  • Describe shared leadership and decision-making practices as ways to engage staff members as valued professionals.
  • Reflect on bias and discuss ways to promote equitable staff support.



Kenisha has been a T&CS in child development and youth 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 young school-age children at one of the centers. Brenda seems to enjoy the children, but she has difficulty communicating in a professional way with other staff and the program director.

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 work in child development and youth programs. The program director mentioned 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 director.

As a program leader 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 staff approach their work. In the previous lesson, you learned about the competencies related to professionalism. In this lesson, you will learn more about how to develop staff members’ professional behaviors and address unprofessional behaviors. 

In the scenario above, Brenda’s lack of communication with other staff members has become a barrier to her success in the program. Communicating professionally to support relationships is an important professional competency for Brenda to develop. Kenisha, the T&CS, can build on Brenda’s clear commitment to relationships with children and youth. Part of developing as a professional is learning that relationships with youth are strengthened when relationships with adults are also strong. Brenda will be more effective in her work as a professional when she is able to team more effectively. Kenisha may be able to identify Brenda’s strengths with children and use those as assets in building her work with colleagues. 

In the scenario, professionalism is defined by Brenda’s long-term effectiveness with children, families, and colleagues. It is not about Brenda’s personal traits like appearance or language. Consider the table below and reflect on the ways professionalism standards can be misapplied.




Staff are provided with comfortable and appropriate uniforms or dress code guidelines that are inclusive of body types, gender, cultural practices, and physical needs. Discussions about appearance only relate to safety standards (e.g., wearing the color shirt that corresponds to one’s training level).Staff members are punished or forced to change cultural practices related to hair, dress, or body art. Uniforms or dress codes enforce rigid gender expectations.
Communication style
Communication is considered within relationships with children, families, and staff. Languages are considered assets. There are clear technology policies that support staff communication and focus.

Staff members are evaluated poorly for non-standard English, speaking slowly, or using languages other than English

Staff members are evaluated for different comfort levels with eye contact, resistance to touch, etc.

Timeliness is considered related to child safety and team ratios. Relationships are prioritized and staff schedules are designed to allow time for transitions, unexpected events, and conversations with families and coworkers.Punctuality is prioritized above all. Policies are applied unevenly (e.g., a staff member who comes in late because of traffic is treated differently from a staff member who comes in late due to a bus delay). Important cultural events outside of the federal holiday calendar are not considered or accommodated (e.g., Ramadan, Yom Kippur).
Specific shared values are identified and evaluated: curiosity, taking initiative, advocacy, collaboration, etc. Leaders and staff discuss what these mean and the range of ways staff may display them.Staff members are evaluated based on personality traits (quiet, friendly), or there is a focus on broad qualities (e.g., “having a good attitude” or “being difficult to work with”)

When program leaders over-emphasize subjective traits such as appearance, the risk of bias is high. Reflect on the ways your professional expectations support staff members’ growth:

  • Do you expect perfection, or do you value growth and progress? Do staff feel comfortable taking risks?
  • Do you focus on critiquing what’s wrong, or do you look for what is right?
  • Are professional standards applied evenly to all staff? Are behaviors judged differently based on gender identity or race?
  • Is professionalism something you all work towards together, or are individuals singled out as professional (or not)?
  • Are you transparent about professional guidelines? Do you help staff members understand why professional boundaries are in place? Do you openly discuss tensions you feel about guidelines with your supervisor or colleagues and help come to decisions together?

Growing as a professional is important for everyone, so professionalism standards are an important part of staff members’ performance reviews and goal setting. Give staff members opportunities to self-assess on these competencies and to talk with you about their progress. Set goals together that are meaningful for the staff member and the children, youth, and families they serve. By including a focus on professional competencies 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 program’s expectations for professional behavior. 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.

You are also a role model: Your professional behavior and that of other staff can assist new staff members who are learning to be professionals. You may observe classroom interactions that are not in the best interests of the children or program. Finding opportunities to address professionalism when coaching 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. You 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 (coach or Program Manager) complete the same assessment on the staff member and compare responses. Adults like to be in control of their learning, so this is one way to come to a shared agreement about one or two 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

Shared leadership and decision-making helps staff know that the leaders value their ideas and suggestions. The staff members need to have opportunities to provide input into decisions that affect them. Staff will be more satisfied in their jobs and more invested in the program when they feel some sense of control over their own experiences. 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., inviting 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

All staff want to feel safe and appreciated in the workplace. This means 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 that it is acceptable to admit to mistakes. When you admit your own mistakes, you show 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 leaders must recognize which decisions should include staff input and group consensus and which decisions should be made by the leadership team. Giving staff autonomy and trusting them to make good decisions encourages staff to feel ownership about the quality of the program. Some decisions can only be made by the program’s leadership team, but many can be made by the staff. Standard operating procedures or policies should be described 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 child development and 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. Sharing in this way, builds community among the staff while also focusing on growing as a professional team of colleagues.

Engaging staff members as leaders during this activity is another way to foster shared decision-making and leadership among staff members. Job embedded book groups 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 provide time and space for staff to reflect, meet, plan, and evaluate their work with children and youth. Program leaders that foster a group learning climate encourage staff to support children’s outcomes, to grow professionally, and to participate in continuous program improvement.


Developing Professionalism

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


Program leaders can engage in their own continuous learning about professionalism. Part of this is learning to recognize potential bias in evaluating and supporting professionalism among staff. Psychologists and business leaders have identified several ways that bias can impact staff performance reviews and professional development. Consider the three types of bias outlined in the Reflecting on Bias in Supporting Professionalism activity and reflect on how you could prevent them in your work with staff members.


Expectations for professionalism in early care and youth program settings should be made explicit to staff. All staff (including T&CSs and Program Managers) should be held to high standards. Your service branch may prescribe the 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 set for your staff, children, and families?




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 are concerned about a staff member who is seen as "having a bad attitude". The best first step to support the staff member is...
References & Resources

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

Galinsky, E. (2012, February 12). Modern ECE professional learning communities. [Webinar]. Early Childhood Investigation Webinars.

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.

Schweikert, G. (2014). Winning ways for early childhood professionals: Being a supervisor. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.