Professionalism in early childhood care and education

The early childhood care and education profession is faced with many challenges, but it is good to know we have a strong base underpinning our practice.

Ingredients of a professional.
Ingredients of a professional.

Early childhood educators are known by a variety of titles, among them child caregiver, teacher and child care provider. Whatever the title we are given or call ourselves, we want to be sure we are meeting professional guidelines of behavior. The practice of professional behavior is guided by four documents that have been developed by governmental agencies and professional organizations. In this Michigan State University Extension article, we will introduce the types of documents professional early childhood educators use to practice professionalism in our daily work with children and families.

First, let’s look at the definition of a profession. “Established professions are built upon a shared purpose, common identity and agreement on the unique responsibilities and characteristics of their professionals, defined by the profession itself.” This definition was developed by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), a professional membership organization in the United States that works to support high-quality early learning for young children as newborns through 8 years old.

Among the things professionals in other occupations have is legal guidelines, a code of ethics and a set of standards and expectations for practice. Let’s familiarize ourselves with the code of ethics and standards for early childhood education professionals in Michigan.

Early childhood education and care is regulated by the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) of the State of Michigan. Rules established by this agency are available at LARA's Rules and Statutes. There are separate rules for home child care programs and child care centers. Unlike some states, any Michigan facility that cares for non-familial children under 13 years old must abide by these regulations. These rules provide the foundation and minimum guidelines for the safety and health of children.

We also have an established Code of Ethical Conduct, which was developed by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. These guidelines describe the responsibilities early childhood education professionals have toward children, families, colleagues and the community. Like the ethical guidelines for physicians, our first directive is to “do no harm.”

In general, the NAEYC Code of Ethical Conduct helps early childhood education professionals make decisions in challenging situations that have a moral or ethical component. For example, the Code of Ethical Conduct guides us to keep personal information about child, families and colleagues private, but to be open with families about situations that involve their own young children.

We also have established a set of standards that guide Michigan early childhood education professionals in high-quality practice and developmentally appropriate expectations for young children. The documents are “Early Childhood Standards of Quality for Prekindergarten” and “Early Childhood Standards of Quality for Infant and Toddler Programs.” These standards, developed by the Michigan Department of Education, support early learning educators in establishing high-quality programs for early education. They go beyond the basic guidelines in the licensing rules and cover a variety of aspects of early education and care, including curriculum and learning activities, the learning environment, philosophy of care and staffing support.

The document “Developmentally Appropriate Practice” is also designed to identify research-based approaches to teaching young children. The foundation of “Developmentally Appropriate Practice” is three core considerations: Teachers should know what is developmentally appropriate, what is individually appropriate and what is culturally appropriate. “Developmentally Appropriate Practice” was developed by NAEYC and is consistent with the Michigan Early Childhood Standards of Quality.

Together, these documents provide valuable knowledge founded on scientific research about how we can support learning and growth in the early years. Rather than basing our practice on tradition or how we were taught, we can rely on expert advice from professionals in the fields of psychology, philosophy and education. Our profession is faced with many challenges, and will continue to be in the future, but it is good to know we have a strong base underpinning our practice.

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