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Early Childhood Education Journal, VoL 24, No. 4, 1997
Infants and Toddlers
Professionalism in Early Care and Education
Rick Caulfield, Department Editor
utilization of specialized knowledge and adherence to
professional standards in a particular occupation in order
to achieve desirable outcomes. In early care and education, a constellation of specific skills is needed to
improve or maintain the consistency of contact between
professional caregivers and their clients, namely young
children and their families. Professionalism has gained
momentum during the last decade as concerns about the
quality of early care and education have increased.
Although individual caregivers in the past have always
sought to improve their own professional development,
national efforts, such as the formation of the Center for
Career Development in Early Care and Education at
Wheelock College in 1990 and the National Center for
the Early Childhood Work Force in 1993, have provided
further impetus and rationale (Bredekamp & Willer,
Any discussion of professionalism is fraught with
questions about early care and education as a profession.
A profession generally implies that its members demonstrate a certain level of proficiency in their vocation, such
as doctors or lawyers (Vander Ven, 1988). In contrast to
medicine and law, however, professional caregivers who
work with young children enter their careers at different
levels. Some work as assistants with limited experience
and educational preparation while others start with an
associate degree or a baccalaureate. The lack of equitable
compensation creates barriers in the recruitment and
retention of highly qualified adults. Further, the demands
of work and family limits professional opportunities to
achieve an advanced degree. Solutions are needed to
address concerns, such as equitable wages and public
recognition of professional caregivers' contributions to
the lives of young children and society. Because of the
efforts of dedicated caregivers and other concerned voices, significant progress has been made.
The following article is the fourth of a four-part
series on the development of infants and toddlers. The
first two articles focus on physical, cognitive, social, and
emotional development; the last two examine caregiving
issues, partnership with families and professionalism in
home- and center-based early care.
Two caregivers are sitting on the floor at opposite
ends of their center as infants in their care are exploring
the enclosed room. One infant, 8 months old, crawls to a
low shelf, gets into a sitting position, grabs a red teether
with four protruding textured surfaces, and puts the toy
into her mouth.
"Oh, you put one end into your mouth," says Mrs.
W. "Does it feel bumpy?"
The infant removes the teether from her mouth,
looks at Mrs. W., and examines carefully the different
textures with her eyes and hands. Again, she puts the
teether into her mouth.
"Now you put another end into your mouth,"
responds Mrs. W. "I bet it doesn't feel the same, does it?"
The infant glances at a hard covered book on the
floor and drops the toy from her mouth. She opens the
book and finds an interesting page with familiar pictures.
"Bah-bah," she smiles as she points with a finger to
something on the page.
"I see," replies Mrs. W. "You're looking at a boy
who's playing with a leaf in a puddle."
Mrs. W. scoots over to the infant and points to other
pictures in the book. The mutual interaction between the
two--pointing and responding, smiling, and talking-continues over the next several minutes.
In contrast, Mrs. Y., the other caregiver in the room,
sits in one spot. Although she keeps a watchful eye on the
infants and performs her caregiving responsibilities, she
rarely initiates or responds to their social overtures.
Professionalism in the context of early care and
education has received considerable attention in recent
years. Children as well as professional caregivers benefit
from increased interest in professionalism. It involves the
Professionalism in early care and education
1082-3301/97/0600-0261512.50/09 1997 Human Sciences Press, Inc.
includes common threads that differentiate the field from
other occupations. A number of articles has been written
on the subject (Bredekamp & Willer, 1993; Willer,
1994). The following discussion is not meant to duplicate
previous efforts in defining the parameters of professionalism in early care and education. Instead, professionalism is discussed in the context of required caregiving
beliefs and practices in working with infants and toddlers. Professional caregivers' shared set of beliefs and
practices transcends the level of education and experience they possess and the types of care they provide.
Adherence to the common threads requires constant,
ongoing professional development.
Specialized Knowledge of Children's Development
Professional caregivers in early care and education
share a common base of knowledge of children's development during the first few years of life. It involves an
awareness of the uniqueness of individual children who
follow the same sequence of stages but at their own rates.
Knowledge of children's development provides guidance
in planning developmentally appropriate activities, creating a safe, healthy environment that maximizes their use
of senses and engagement with objects, managing inappropriate destructive behavior such as hitting and biting,
and understanding the rote that cultures play in childrearing practices. Infants and toddlers thrive and form
secure attachments when supportive, responsive adults
understand and meet their basic physical and psychological needs.
Continuous efforts are made to share information
with parents about their children's progress on a regular
basis and highlight upcoming events in written forms of
communication. Professional caregivers who work with
infants and toddlers attempt to respond to any concerns
that parents share and to respect cultural diversity in their
Observation and Assessment
Professional caregivers are keenly interested in the
actions of children because observations provide invaluable information about children's current level of development and immediate needs. Anecdotal records that are
collected are used to share children's progress with parents during the course of the year. If developmental concerns are noted from repeated observations, an assessment is warranted to compare children's progress with a
standardized sample. Perhaps, the existing curricula is
adjusted, but sometimes, further supplemental assessment is needed to meet the special needs of affected children.
Parents appreciate written in addition to verbal
communication about their children's progress. Even a
simple spiral notebook with anecdotes and photographs
of selected activities in the program provides an excellent
tool to keep in touch with children's families.
Code of Ethics
Attendance at workshops and conferences continually provide current information on children's development. In addition, enrollment in 2- or 4-year postsecondary programs provide excellent opportunities to not
only hone existing skills but demonstrate commitment to
ongoing professional development.
All professions adhere to a shared code of ethics. It
encourages professional conduct and raises the quality of
caregiving practices with infants and toddlers. It includes
ethical responsibilities not only to the children and families but to co-workers, employers, community, and society. A code of ethics reflects the aspirations of a group of
dedicated, committed adults who continually strive to
improve their professional skills and meet the challenges
that they face each day in providing exemplary early care
and education (NAEYC, 1996).
Partnership with Families
Professional caregivers understand the importance
of families as the primary socializing agents in the lives
of children. Parents, their children's first and foremost
teachers, provide valuable information and resources in
any program that serves infants and toddlers. When professional caregivers form partnerships with parents, children benefit from the consistency in common goals
between home and the program. Parents' involvement in
the program enhances its quality when they volunteer
and share their expertise (Caulfield, 1997).
An awareness of NAEYC's Code of Ethical
Conduct provides a valuable starting point. It summarizes the collective accumulation of experience from
practitioners who work with young children and attempts
to provide guidelines in discussing and resolving ethical
dilemmas that professional caregivers face.
Professionalism in Care and Education
Professionalism refers to the utilization of specialized knowledge that its members need to accomplish
specific outcomes. It involves a shared set of skills that
are used to improve the quality of caregiving practices
and interactions between professional caregivers and the
children and families that they work with in their respective programs. Professionalism is not an end in itself---a
state of b e i n g - - b u t an ongoing e f f o r t - - a process of
becoming. New knowledge of children's development
needs to be incorporated into professional caregivers'
existing repertoire. Their words and actions do matter
greatly. As Nell Postman wrote in his book, The
Disappearance o f Childhood, "Children are the living
messages we send to a time we will not see."
Bredekamp, S., & Willer, B. (1993). Professionalizingthe field of early
childhood education: Pros and cons. Young Children, 48(3), 8284.
Bredekamp, S., & Willer, B. (1994). Introduction. In J. Johnson and J.
B. McCracken (Eds.), The early childhood career lattice:
Perspectives in professional development (pp. 1-3). Washington,
Caulfield, R. (1997). Partnership with families. Early Childhood
Education Journal, 24,
NAEYC, (1996). NAEYC's code of ethical conduct: Guidelines for
responsible behavior in early childhood education. Young
Children, 51(3), 57-60.
VanderVen, K. (1988). Pathways to professional effectivenessfor early
childhood educators. In B. Spodek, O. N. Saracho, and D. L.
Peters (Eds.), Professionalism and the early childhood practitioner (pp. 137-160). New York: Teachers College Press.
Wilier, B. (1994). A conceptual framework for early childhood professional development. In J. Johnson and J. B. McCracken (Eds.),
The early childhood career lattice: Perspectives in professional
development (pp. 4-23). Washington, DC: NAEYC.