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I'm a Teacher, not a Babysitter!: Professionalism in Early Childhood

I'm a Teacher, not a Babysitter!: Professionalism in Early Childhood
Natasha Crosby Kile, MS
April 17, 2018

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Editor’s note: This text is an edited transcript of the webinar, I'm a Teacher, not a Babysitter!: Professionalism in Early Childhood, presented by Natasha Crosby Kile, MS.  

Learning Outcomes

After this course, participants will be able to:

  • List the four dimensions of professionalism in early childhood.
  • Explain who the early childhood professional is.
  • List characteristics of early childhood professionals.

Introduction and Overview

In the field of early childhood education, the topic of professionalism is of great importance. As ECE professionals, we need to make sure that we're recognized for the valuable work that we do. Working with young children and their families is one of the hardest jobs that there is. It's emotionally exhausting, and more often than not, challenging. It is extremely difficult to convey this importance to anyone who does not do what we do for a living. As early childhood professionals, we must hold ourselves to a high standard if we want to change the way that we are seen by society. Today, we are going to discuss the four dimensions of professionalism in early childhood education. Throughout our discussion, we will also examine how to achieve these dimensions in order to reach a high standard of professional consideration. 

Who is An Early Childhood Professional?

First of all, an early childhood professional is someone who has the personal characteristics, knowledge and skills necessary to provide programs that facilitate children's learning. This seems like a simplistic definition. However, what we do, while it is difficult, it is also quite simple. We are facilitators of an environment that allows children to learn and grow, to be safe, and to gather the skills and acquire the abilities that they're going to need for later success.

Next, an early childhood professional is someone who has the ability to inform the public about child and family issues. We need to be able to get out there and let people know why early childhood matters, so they are aware of what is so critical about those first five years. What we do is important, and we need to be recognized for the important work that we do. It is vital that we are seen as professionals in our field. 

An early childhood professional is someone who promotes high standards for themselves. We make sure that we're doing absolutely the best that we can for young children. We following the NAEYC Code of Ethical Conduct, which we'll talk a little bit about later. We also hold our colleagues to high standards, as well as our students. It's important that we hold ourselves and our colleagues to high standards, because that's what our children deserve. 

An early childhood professional is also someone who is continuously improving. We're always trying to expand our knowledge base, and to hone our skills and our abilities. An early childhood professional is someone who finds answers when they are unsure about something. We call upon our resources to figure out the answers so that we can make sure that we're doing our absolute best for our children.

How early childhood professionals are viewed by society relates to many factors, one of which is how we present ourselves. In order to be viewed as a professional, we must act as professionals. When a parent picks up their child, as an early childhood professional, it is important that we share with them positive aspects about their child. Inform them what their child learned today, or the skills that we focused on. Those are the types of things that start to change how parents see us. Another component that allows the ECE professional to be viewed in a positive light is if we have a good understanding of and background knowledge of the field of early childhood development. That way, when parents have questions, they feel like they can come to us with those questions, and that we would be able to deliver competent answers.

Dimensions of Professionalism

There are four main dimensions, or standards, of professionalism in the field of early childhood:

  1. Professional Knowledge
  2. Competence
  3. Commitment to the Ethical Standard
  4. Personal Characteristics

Professional Knowledge

Professional knowledge is essential knowledge of best practices within the field. For example, knowing that three-year-old children learn best through manipulation of materials. A three-year-old will learn to count a lot better with counting bears or sorting mats, than looking at a worksheet about how to count. We need to be able to honestly share that knowledge, sometimes with our colleagues, and very often with parents.

Another aspect of professional knowledge is understanding the way children learn and grow, and applying that knowledge. That's part of what separates us from the rest of the education field. Early childhood professionals focus on teaching the way that children learn, and the way that the brain acquires skills and information, versus trying to teach to the actual skill. As teachers, as facilitators of the environment, we can apply this knowledge to engage children in a way that will maximize learning.

Professional knowledge also includes staying in the know about issues that affect young children and their families. This might include learning more about legislation that relates to early childhood or young children. It might mean staying up-to-date with school zonings, or changes in curriculum in the public school realms. We have a responsibility to stay current on issues that pertain to our children and families. Additionally, it is beneficial for us to stay up-to-date on issues that affect early childhood professionals and our work with young children and families. Are there issues that involve how we can do our job better, or how we can be more successful? Perhaps new research has emerged suggesting new techniques that would benefit how we teach the children in our classroom.

On-the-job training and experience are valuable sources of education that contribute to our professional knowledge. In my experience, after I obtained my degree and entered the workplace, there were many times where the knowledge that I was gaining on the job was so different than what I learned in the classroom. Those on-the-job applications helped me a great deal when I went back to school, because I had that background knowledge of being in the field.

While field experience and learning on the job is an essential source of professional knowledge, having a formal education is one of the greatest ways to break down barriers with society viewing the early childhood field as a valid profession. When a teacher has formal education, with letters after her name, sometimes parents will take that teacher a little bit more seriously. That formal education might prevent parents from perceiving the early childhood teacher as "just a babysitter." I have actually had parents make similar comments to me. If you hear those types of remarks, you might respond by saying, "Let me tell you about the importance of what I do. I'm here every single day for your child. Did you know that these early years of your child's life are the most important, and that they are learning more now and have more brain connection now than they will have for the rest of their life? I'm playing a key role in your child's development." Sometimes, knowing that you're educated and you've gone that extra mile makes parents view you a little bit differently.

Once a professional acquires their formal education, it's important that we maintain our knowledge by seeking out additional information. For example, we can attend trainings like this webinar. We go above and beyond what is expected and required of us to learn new techniques and developments within the field. We can take classes on the topics of behavior guidance, positive guidance, or conscious discipline. We could implement new ideas in the classroom, such as materials and information about the brain and brain development at different stages, to put into each learning center. It is important for all of us to hone our skills, so we can add tools to our tool belt. Because you can never have too many tools. If all you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.

Depending on your career goals, your professional development plan should include a variety of topics that can assist you in achieving those goals. Know what's offered in your state. Are there extra certificates or credentials that you can obtain? Are there sets of classes that comprise a larger certificate of knowledge? Once you decide on your goals, write them down. A dream is in the mind, but a dream written down is a goal. Understand that part of those goals should be professional development. Look at a variety of topics that can assist you. If you're interested in one day becoming a supervisor, look into supervisory-related trainings. Supervising adults is challenging, and can be even more difficult than supervising children. Make sure that you are well-versed about all the aspects of supervision so you can make an informed decision before you go down that path.

Seek out training and professional development that will stretch you as a practitioner, and strengthen your current skills while developing areas of new knowledge. You could compare gaining professional knowledge to how we teach in the classroom: We tie new learning to what the children have already acquired, so it becomes long-term learning instead of simply memorization. Taking classes can spark new ideas that re-energize you and renew your enthusiasm for the classroom. In my experience, I've always valued training for its ability to motivate and inspire me.


The next dimension of professionalism is competence. Competence has many facets. First, when we portray ourselves as competent in our skills and our professional abilities, we exhibit a professional image. Parents want to know that we are capable and competent in our position. When a parent picks up their child, if something happened to the child during the day (e.g., they hit their head), it is frustrating when they are told "I don't know what happened to your child. I wasn't in the room because I was on break." Those kinds of phrases make us seem less competent in our work. A better answer would be to tell them, "I'm not sure, but let me find out for you." That presents a more professional image to your parents.

There are a wide variety of things we can do to portray competence. One of the things we can do is to get to know the children in our classroom. Remember their names, get to know their personalities, find out their preferences. Parents are impressed when you know what their child likes and doesn't like, as well as when you know a little bit about their temperament and personality.

Portraying competence also can include developing a philosophy of education. It includes assessing the growth and development of children, as well as your own growth and development as a professional. If you want to put forth the competent image that you are well-prepared, that requires a lot of planning, reflecting and thinking. Review your lesson plan, and determine whether or not you are meeting your learning goals. Are you challenging the children enough? Are you challenging them too much? It is also essential that we report data, either to parents or to other stakeholders, such as your director. It may be necessary to submit information to your state legislators, or other people who are responsible for funding your program.

Of course, we can exhibit competence by being capable teachers in the classroom. As teachers, we must engage in ethical practice, which means following the Code of Ethical Conduct set forth by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). We can collaborate with families, colleagues and community stakeholders. As an early childhood professional, collaborating with colleagues is vital to our success and bolsters our competence. Just as physicians consult other physicians, we can bounce ideas off each other, offer opinions, and share tips and techniques. We can meet in groups to brainstorm ideas and provide support to one another.

As stated earlier, in order to maintain a competent and professional image, we need to seek out professional development opportunities. Early childhood professionals wear a lot of hats, so to speak. As such, we should make an effort to go above and beyond what is required of us, to ensure that we obtain enough professional development hours to remain competent and current in all aspects of our field.

Early childhood professionals must have a basic understanding of the ECE field and make a commitment to professionalism. We have to understand what it means to be a professional, and commit to those standards, even when it's difficult. When children or parents pose challenges, when we have a bad day, we might not want to go back the next day. However, because of our strong commitment, not only to the field, but also to the children and families we serve, we press on and persevere.

It goes without saying that working in the field of early childhood, we must be able to demonstrate a basic understanding of child development, and apply this knowledge in practice. How many of you have ever worked with someone who truly loved children, but they didn't possess that basic child development knowledge? Often, you'll see them doing activities with the children that are developmentally inappropriate, because they don't know any better. As a professional, possessing a strong understanding of what's developmentally appropriate and why will allow us to best serve not only the children, but also help to educate younger, newer teachers. Sometimes people will express their dislike or dread in training new teachers, claiming that it is exhausting. Our field is known for having a high rate of turnover. Sometimes just as soon as we train someone, they leave and we have to start all over. However, we need to put aside that frustration and realize that someone a long time ago took the time to train us. We must make sure that we're growing and grooming that next set of professionals. Part of that process is understanding child development, and being able to apply it and explain it to others.

We need to be able to observe and assess children's behavior for use in planning and individualizing curriculum. The ability to assess children's behavior is a skill that takes a lot of practice, and involves using the ABC mentality. In other words, we need to recognize the antecedent, the behavior, and the consequence for the behavior. How is the child benefiting from this action? What kind of reward or consequence is coming because of the behavior? How do we stop that cycle? If we're not good observers, it becomes very difficult for us to truly evaluate why children are acting a certain way. If we are not good at assessment, we will have difficulty ascertaining how our learning goals are being met, or if our lesson plans are effective. Are we challenging children enough, or too much? Are we frustrating children because we're expecting them to do things that they are not biologically ready to do yet? That's all part of observing and assessing, so that we can implement an appropriate and individualized curriculum, as well as a welcoming and safe classroom environment.

Early childhood professionals must be able to establish and maintain a classroom environment that ensures children's safety and their healthy development. This goes above and beyond basic health and safety from harm. We also need to ensure that the children's mental, physical and cognitive needs are being met. We need to be able to plan and implement developmentally appropriate programming that advances all the areas of children's learning. It is important to understand that high-quality childcare is education. The children in our care are learning the ABCs and the 123s. They are learning about boundaries and discipline, and above all, they are being nurtured and made to feel welcome. 

Early childhood professionals must be able to establish supportive relationships with children. The younger the child, the more dependent they are on those relationships. Additionally, we need to implement appropriate guidance techniques to teach children socially acceptable behavior. As part of this welcoming and nurturing environment, it is also important that children are provided boundaries. Children (and all humans, for that matter) crave boundaries. Often, we might think that we don't want them, but boundaries are good for us, and we do need them. As part of that environment, teachers have to be consistent in providing those boundaries and appropriate guidance techniques, so that children know where they fit in. If we are inconsistent with our discipline, or if we use inappropriate guidance techniques, that makes children mistrust us, because they don't quite know what to expect from us. Children react better and they develop stronger relationships with people that are consistently the same every single day. That's why it is critical for us to teach those positive guidance techniques, and to provide replacement behaviors when a child is acting in a way that's not socially acceptable.

Another branch on the competence tree is establishing positive and productive relationships with families. Admittedly, sometimes dealing with parents can be the most difficult part of our job. However, we need to take a step back and realize that these parents are entrusting us with their most-prized possession: their child. They are trusting us to keep their child safe and return them to us in better shape than when they arrived. What a responsibility that is! Because the parent trusts us enough to care for their child, we have to return that trust with professionalism. We can do this by exhibiting consistency, dependability, relatability and sincerity. Those are all important parts of making sure that our relationships with parents are productive and positive. Often, parents don't have a positive view of their relationship with the school. If day after day, a parent picks up their child, and they are given a rundown of everything negative the child did and said that day, that has an impact on how the parents perceive the childcare center environment, which may translate to negative feelings about entering a school system. It's not that the parents don't care about their child's actions; it's that they are trusting us to care for their child throughout the day. Complaining and providing lists of negative behaviors makes us look unprofessional. We can work to change the mindset of parents, and lay the foundation for how families and children will feel once they enter the school system.

It's important that we support the uniqueness of each child. We need to recognize that children grow up in the context of their environment, and that families are a key part of who this child is. The child can't exist without the family. A child does not develop in a vacuum. As early childhood professionals, we have to realize that while we may not be able to control the home environment, we are in control of the childcare/classroom environment. We can control the teacher-to-child relationships. We can control the teacher-to-teacher relationships. We can control the teacher-to-supervisor relationships. Working in a ECE environment is a continual juggling act that involves giving 110% of your energy, and providing an emotional investment into those children. It is vital that in the midst of all this juggling, we appreciate and support each child's uniqueness.

While still on the topic of competence, in this next section we will focus on some key areas where we can exhibit competence:

  • Philosophy of Education
  • Planning
  • Assessment
  • Reporting
  • Thinking and Reflecting
  • Teaching
  • Collaborating

Developing a philosophy of education. A philosophy of education is a set of beliefs about how children develop and learn, and what and how they should be taught. Developing your own personal philosophy of education can be a little bit overwhelming, because you need to evaluate the reasons why you believe what you believe. There is no right or wrong answer, because it is your opinions and beliefs.

If you have not written your philosophy, some of these headings may help you get started:

  • I believe the purposes of early childhood education are... For example, you may believe that the purpose is to provide children social-emotional development and opportunities for growth. Your answer may be to provide a foundation for academic knowledge so that children can succeed when they go to kindergarten. You may feel that ECE provides a safe, nurturing place for children during the time that they are away from their families.  
  • I believe that children learn best when they are taught under certain conditions and in certain ways. Some of these are... You may think that children learn best when they are surrounded by natural materials. Or, it may be when children are surrounded by other children of various ages and developmental levels, so they can benefit from peer-challenging and peer mentorship. You may believe that children learn best through hands-on exploration of the environment. Finally, your response might be that children learn best through STEM opportunities (science, technology, engineering and math). 
  • The curriculum of any classroom should include certain "basics" that contribute to children's social, emotional, intellectual and physical development. These "basics" are...  Do you feel that a basic component of the curriculum would include opportunities for children to resolve conflict on their own? Maybe you think the basics includes hands-on exploration of things in different learning centers in different areas. Maybe you feel that circle time is important. 
  • Children learn best in an environment that promotes…  Perhaps you are of the opinion that the best environment is one that promotes social-emotional development. Maybe you feel like children learn best in an environment that promotes relationships. You might believe that children can't thrive and grow if they don't feel safe and feel comforted by the people that are taking care of them.
  • All children have certain needs that must be met if they are to grow and learn at their best. Some of these basic needs are…  You might reflect back on Maslow's hierarchy of needs. You may work in a program that serves high-risk children, and they have different needs that must be met before they can reach a point where they can form strong, nurturing relationships. I personally believe that children need to feel safe above all else. 
  • I would meet these needs by…  As I just stated, I believe that children need to be safe. What would I do to meet those needs? I would make sure that my preschool children knew what the safety rules were and why. I would use language like, "Let's be safe when we're doing that," or, "Oh, that's not safe, let's get down. I would focus on safety as a key milestone in the classroom. 
  • A teacher should have certain qualities and behave in certain ways. Qualities I think that are important for teaching are… You might feel that an important quality in a teacher is that they should be approachable. If families aren't comfortable approaching you to talk to you about situations, then it's very difficult to create a relationship with them. You might believe that it's important for teachers to dress professionally. You might feel strongly that ECE teachers should have that higher education. Not only does that education provide the teacher with an understanding of child development, it also can help to counteract the "you're just a babysitter" mentality. 

Planning. Also within the realm of competence is the ability to plan. Planning involves several key actions, including:

  • Stating what children will learn and what children are able to do. When you're working on your lesson plan or planning activities, make sure that you have some sort of learning goal tied to that activity. Sometimes in early childhood, we do engage in activities simply because they are cute and are enjoyed by the children, but they don't necessarily have a learning goal. However, if we want to do an activity for a certain purpose, if we want it to be meaningful to the children long-term, it needs to be tied to a certain learning goal or expectation.
  • Selecting developmentally appropriate activities and materials, and ones that are based on children’s interests. It is important to follow the children's interests as far as the curriculum goes. We want to make sure that we are letting them be the leaders of the curriculum, because the curriculum and the classroom are for them. It's the children's place, it's the children's room, it's the children's lesson plan. If they're not interested in what's in that environment or what's on that plan, then it's just a waste of time. 
  • Deciding how much time to allocate to an activity. As ECE professionals, we do need to stick to a classroom schedule. That being said, if the children are highly engaged in an activity, maybe we can allow it to continue for five or ten more minutes. My personal philosophy is if a four-year-old wants to sit down and focus on something for 30 minutes, I'm going to allow it because I think that's wonderful. 
  • Deciding how to assess activities and the things that children have learned. How do we measure what children have learned from a specific lesson plan? How do we measure the learning goals that have occurred through these activities?

As professionals, we sometimes have to explain to families, as well as colleagues and supervisors, why certain topics of study, certain activities, and certain materials might be less developmentally appropriate. While we want to focus on what is of interest to children, it's also important that we focus on things that are relevant to young children's lives. For my staff, I use a good rule of thumb: If children (especially infants and toddlers) can't see it, lick it, touch it, smell it, and hear it, it's probably not a good topic of study.

My staff and I use a chart to help with planning our curriculum when working with different age groups (Figure 1).


Figure 1. Curriculum planning for infants, toddlers and school-age children.

  • Infants: Me and Mine. With infants, the focus on curriculum and lesson planning should be me and mine. In the infant stage, it's all about themselves: myself, my body, my family, things like that.
  • Toddlers: My Community. When they get to be toddlers, it's still all about me and mine, but you can add my community for the toddlers. Toddlers need to learn about me: my body, my family, my home. They also need to learn and are interested in learning about community helpers. They're interested in their extended family. They're interested in other topics that have to do with the community around them. Things that they can see, things that are relevant to them.
  • School-Age: The World. When they reach school-age (kindergarten and above), the focus can still include me and mine. Keep in mind that kindergartners still want to know about themselves. There's no one more important to a child than himself. They want to learn about their community as well, but they also want to and need to learn about the world around them.

Assessment. Competence also includes assessment, which is the process of gathering information about children's behavior and achievement. Then, on the basis of this data, we make decisions about how to meet children's needs. First, we observe. We observe children in the centers, we observe children in learning experiences. Then we take the data that we've gathered in these observations and we use that to plan. If you're assessing children for a learning goal, if you're assessing children for a certain skill, then that might tell you that you need to incorporate more of that skill into the environment. For example, let's say that you're in a preschool classroom, and you notice that several of your children can't count to 10, which is a learning goal of importance. What you might do is create activities or learning experiences that focus on counting to 10. We could incorporate one-to-one correspondence, or use materials and manipulatives to try to enhance or strengthen their ability to count to 10.

Assessment should adhere to the following guidelines:

  • Assessment should be strengths-based. We want to focus on what the child can do, and what they are good at.
  • Assessment should be systematic. There should be some sort of system in place to make sure that we are assessing. Assessment should occur over time and be conducted on a regular basis. In my programs, we conduct formal assessments a minimum of twice a year. However, as teachers, as early childhood professionals, we're constantly assessing children's development and learning.
  • Assessment should be conducted in the child's natural environment. You don't pull a child out of their classroom into an office to assess them on their learning and development. The child is not going to perform well in a non-natural environment.
  • Assessment should guide planning, practice, and reporting that we provide back to parents and other stakeholders.

Reporting. Another aspect of competence involves reporting, which should also be systematic. Every time we do a formal assessment, we should have some sort of reporting afterwards. This may be reporting to the parents, reporting to supervisors, or other stakeholders about how children are developing and learning. Reporting should answer the question, "How is this child doing?" Reporting helps us as professionals to be held accountable to families. We're also accountable to the public, because we're responsible for fulfilling that role of helping children learn and be successful. Part of how we do that is through observation, assessment, and also reporting.

Thinking and reflecting. The other part of competence is thinking and reflecting. Confucius says, "By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest." I could not have said it better, because a lot of times, classroom experience can be quite bitter, especially in the beginning. It's important that we think before we teach, think while we teach, and think after we teach. Thinking after we teach is the reflection piece.

Teaching. Teaching involves making decisions about how to set up and facilitate an environment where children can acquire skills and meet learning goals. Teaching involves engaging children in learning activities, collaborating with colleagues and community partners, and continuously seeking new information and knowledge to better our skills, and to better ourselves as professionals.

Collaborating. Another component of competence is collaborating with parents and families. Children's learning begins and continues within the context of the family unit, whatever that might look like. Learning how to comfortably and confidently work with families is as essential as teaching children. One of the things that has helped me in my relationships with parents, is that while I'm an expert in child development, I'm not the expert on that child. The parent and the family are the experts on that particular child. Keeping that in mind has helped me in developing strong family relationships.

We also need to collaborate with our community partners. It's essential to get "buy-in" from our community. If we can get our community to understand the importance of what we do as ECE providers, then parents will follow suit. It is vital that we raise awareness about the importance of those early years. For example, if I work for a corporation, I might wonder why I should care about early childhood, and ask why is that relevant to me. It is important, because these children will comprise your future workforce. We're making sure that they have the skills to be competitive later on in life.

Commitment to the Ethical Standard

Commitment to the Ethical Standard is the third dimension of professionalism. This is responsible behavior with children, families, colleagues, and community members. These standards can be traced back to the NAEYC position statement on the Code of Ethical Conduct and Statement of Commitment. This document is the cornerstone for early childhood professionals, so that we know what's expected. It includes seven core values for ethical conduct:

  1. Appreciate childhood as a unique and valuable stage of the human life cycle. Early childhood does not exist so that we can hurry children along and make them kindergartners faster. It is a valuable and unique stage that needs to be valued and respected, and taken for what it is, in all those opportunities for learning.
  2. Base our work on knowledge of how children develop and learn. We need to understand how the brain of a developing young child works.
  3. Appreciate and support the bond between the child and family. We don't try to replace that or alter that bond in any way.
  4. Recognize that children are best understood and supported in the context of family, culture, community, and society. Remember that they don't develop in a vacuum.
  5. Respect the dignity, worth, and uniqueness of each individual. This includes not only the children we teach, but also family members and colleagues. We respect and support each other.
  6. Respect diversity in children, families, and colleagues.
  7. Recognizing that children and adults achieve their full potential in the context of relationships that are based on trust and respect. During this presentation, we've talked a lot about relationships. It is critical to remember that both adults and children thrive when they are in trusting and respectful relationships.

Personal Characteristics

The fourth dimension of professionalism involves some personal characteristics, which fall into four categories:

  1. Personal Character
  2. Emotional Qualities
  3. Physical Health
  4. Mental Health

Personal character. Having a love and true respect for children is something that cannot be taught. That's something that you're born with. Also, as alluded to earlier, having an understanding of children and their families is important as well, in order to develop positive relationships. An ECE professional must exhibit ethical behavior. This means having high moral and value standards, as well as being legally and ethically proper. The ECE professional must be guided by the NAEYC Code of Ethical Conduct to inform our practice. We must possess civility and courteousness toward others. Do people have trust in us? Do we have trust in others? Are we tolerant, are we dedicated, are we motivated to do our absolute best in this field?

Emotional qualities. The ECE professional should possess compassion, empathy and sensitivity. I know for some of us in the field, we're extremely sensitive, and some of us think that's a downfall. I happen to think that's a positive trait. There's something to be said for a sensitive, tender-hearted person. We must exude friendliness, kindness and warmth, in order to be perceived as approachable. Are we patient and helpful? Do we have enthusiasm and excitement for the job? Do we have excitement for working with children? Are we excited to come to work most days? If you wake up every morning and you dread going to work because of the children or because of the job itself, then this might not be the best field for you. Do you have a genuine passion for seeing young children learn new skills?

Physical health. Why is it important to be healthy and fit as an early childhood professional? First of all, when you're healthy, you can do your best and be your best. Children are naturally energetic. When we're healthy, we can keep up with them. We can chase them. We can get down on the floor and play with them, and participate in all of those active situations that we might miss if we weren't physically healthy. Wellness and healthy living are vital for energy and enthusiasm, and for that stamina that teaching requires and demands. We've got to be able to keep up with the interests, desires, and needs of the children. In addition, we're role models for young children in every single way. We have to demonstrate a concern for our own physical health. We have to make sure that by our example, we are modeling a healthy lifestyle. That doesn't mean that every early childhood professional needs to be a supermodel or a bodybuilder. It simply means that we need to be physically healthy and that we can take care of ourselves, so that ultimately, we can take care of the children.

Mental health. Just as our physical health is so important, our mental health is as well. Good mental health is important because it enables us as early childhood professionals to instill good mental health habits in children. If we feel good about ourselves, about the profession and the work that we do, then we can make sure that children feel good about themselves, about their childcare center, and about what they're learning. We can make sure that children feel good about their families and the members who comprise their family.

A good ECE professional should possess the following key mental health qualities:

  • Optimism: Positivity about the future, and about what's to come. Thinking in terms of "can" and "able", instead of "can't" or "unable".
  • Attentiveness: Awareness of what is going on around you and the ability to stay focused on a task are good mental health habits. Focusing on a person when they're communicating with you is also a good mental health habit.
  • Self-Confidence: We want to teach children self-confidence at as young of an age as possible. We want children to have confidence in who they are as people. By time a child turns five, if they don't feel good about who they are, that child will likely struggle with self-confidence for the majority of their life. That's why those first five years are so important, because it lays the foundation for that child's future success, or future challenges. This also relates back to that guidance and discipline portion. If you have children that struggle and have challenging behaviors, every day is a negative. If a child thinks every day, "What kind of trouble am I going get into day?" or "How's the teacher going to be upset with me today?" that can be damaging for that young child's self-esteem and self-confidence. A child cannot grow and thrive in that kind of negative environment. Think about how you would feel if every single day you went in and your boss had a list of things that you did wrong, but never commented on things you did right. We need to constantly keep that in mind when we are working with young children.
  • Self-Respect: Self-respect is treating yourself in a way that shows that you value yourself. Not to the detriment of others, but being able to say, "This is what's right for me, and this is what I'm going to do, because I respect myself as a person."

Good mental health helps us as early childhood professionals maintain a positive outlook on life. Don't get me wrong -- there are going to be good days and bad days. What I want you to do is, after a bad day, get up and say, "I am changing things for the better, for the future. I am doing good work here. I have a positive outlook on life, and on the profession. I'm in this for a reason." For most of us, we were called to do this work. Good mental health plays a major role in that.

Having reviewed the fourth dimension of professionalism, what could be considered the most important personal characteristic of an ECE professional? For the answer to that question, I like to look to the following quote:

"Good Early Childhood Professionals care about children. Great Early Childhood Professionals care about all children and their families."

Summary and Conclusion

In summary, the four dimensions of professionalism (professional knowledge, competence, commitment to the ethical standard and personal characteristics) work in tandem to make up a qualified, competent, and ethical workforce of early childhood professionals. Ultimately, if we wish to change how society views our work, we can use these four dimensions as a guide for ensuring that we hold ourselves to the highest of standards. Because after all, we are teachers, not babysitters!

To conclude, I'd like to offer some tips and suggestions for newer teachers on building on the four dimensions of professionalism. If you are relatively new in the field, I encourage you to seek out professional development training so that you can grow your professional knowledge. Find a trainer that you like, one that speaks your language and that you can relate to. I find it helpful to attend classes where the trainer has been a classroom teacher. As you're going through the material and you ask questions, you know that person has been in those shoes. Then, take that new information back to the classroom and implement it. Try it out. Stock your tool belt with a wide variety of tools.

Also, for newer ECE professionals, you can build your competence level by writing your own philosophy of education. Figure out what's important to you. What do you value as a major principle of early childhood education? Why are these first five years so vital to children's education and success? With regard to your commitment to the Ethical Standard, don't be afraid to be vocal. I don't mean vocal in the way of shutting other people down, but vocal in the sense that if you see something that you think is not appropriate, say something. You could approach that person and let them know what you saw, and ask them to explain it to you. Or tell them how you feel about the issue. If you don't feel comfortable going to that person, you could always speak to a supervisor. Obviously, if anyone is violating any major licensing rules in your state, for example, that would be a more serious situation.

Practice optimism on a daily basis. Some people are naturally pessimistic. I believe that it takes a lot of practice to build optimism. If you are one of those people to whom optimism doesn't come easy, when you get up in the morning, give yourself some positive affirmations. Look in the mirror and say to yourself, "I'm going to do my best for these children, because they deserve it." 

In this profession, peer relationships are very important. Make it a point to get to know your coworkers. What do they like and dislike? What are their struggles? Participate in team building activities that demonstrate the value of the "many hands make light work" philosophy. For example, one time at a staff meeting, we did this activity where we all were holding up a heavy table. Gradually, people began to leave the group until eventually, there were only two or three of us remaining. That activity was eye opening to the fact that one or two or three of us can't do it by ourselves -- we truly need the whole team. 

One characteristic that I have noticed in people who exude professionalism is they speak highly of the field. They don't complain much. I don't want to hear ECE teachers groaning about paperwork, or their difficult supervisor, or how bad their program is. I don't view those people as professional. I want to hear someone talk about their challenges in a positive light, and try to find solutions. A true professional will solicit opinions and ask others' advice on how to help a particular child, or how to change the environment. It doesn't mean that you never get frustrated, but it means that your general outlook on the field is positive.

Thank you so much for joining me for this session on professionalism in early childhood. Always remember that you are, in fact, teachers, and not babysitters! You should feel good about the vital role that you play in young children's lives from birth to five years! Thank you.


Butcher, K. (2017). Professionalism in Early Childhood Education. Michigan State University Extension.

Colker, L.J. (2008). Young Children. National Association for the Education of Young Children. 3(6).

Feeney, S. (2006). Professionalism In Early Childhood Education: Focus on Ethics. Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education. 16(3).

National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). (2011). Code of ethical conduct and statement of commitment.


Kile, N. (2018, March). I'm a teacher, not a babysitter!: Professionalism in early childhood. - Early Childhood Education, Article 22776. Retrieved from

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natasha crosby kile

Natasha Crosby Kile, MS

Natasha Crosby Kile, MS is a Program Coordinator for Bentonville Schools in Bentonville, AR, and works as a certified trainer, writer, coach and consultant for both the University of Arkansas and Arkansas State University. Natasha has over 25 years of experience working in the field of Early Childhood as a teacher, supervisor, trainer and mentor. She holds a Bachelor's of Science in Child Development from the University of Arkansas and a Master's of Science in Childhood Services from Arkansas State University. Natasha has served as a leader in many areas including serving on the board of Arkansas Early Childhood Association. Natasha has a passion for training early childhood professionals and finds herself right at home in a group of 5 to 5,000 teachers that are eager to facilitate the growth of young children and support their families. She is a distinguished expert, and was named Arkansas Early Childhood Professional of the Year in 2012.

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