Is Early Childhood Education a Profession?

by Teri Talan

March 8, 2017

This may seem like a no-brainer but, in reality, this seemingly innocuous question forces practitioners to answer tougher questions first. What does it mean to be a profession? Are those who currently self-identify as early childhood practitioners willing to accept and promote the professional necessity of narrowing the scope of practice of early childhood educators?

Early childhood education is inherently inclusive so that any definition that creates boundaries where some colleagues are in the profession and some colleagues are out of the profession creates discomfort. This discomfort can lead to resistance. Many of us were raised on the story of The Sneetches and received our first lesson in social justice by learning of a society that privileged those born with stars on their bellies and excluded those without.

My first reaction to the NAEYC initiative, Power to the Profession, was one of wholehearted support. I considered myself an early childhood professional and wanted those not in my field of practice to respect, value, and compensate early childhood professionals commensurate with our competencies. But, as it has been pointed out to me, before I can be a professional, there needs to be a profession.

All recognized professions are built on a common purpose and identity, with agreement on the unique roles, responsibilities, and attributes of their members. Power to the Profession, an NAEYC initiative led by a 15-member taskforce (comprised of national associations) and guided by a 30-member stakeholders’ group (comprised of national organizations) has taken on the challenge of establishing early childhood education as a profession:

Members of the Early Childhood Education Profession are responsible and accountable for:

  1. Planning and implementing intentional, developmentally appropriate learning experiences that advance the cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development of children
  2. Establishing and maintaining a safe and healthy learning environment
  3. Developing reciprocal relationships with families and communities
  4. Advocating for the needs of children and their families
  5. Advancing and advocating for the early childhood education profession

These responsibilities and accountability are consistent across early education settings including elementary schools, centers, and home-based businesses.

I say Yes! I am responsible and accountable for all of the above. But not so fast. I work in higher education, providing leadership development opportunities to program administrators and other program leaders. Do the above responsibilities really apply to me? What about the program leaders themselves—are they truly accountable for all of the above? Suddenly, I am a Sneetch without a star on my belly and it feels lonely.

But my story, like that of the Sneetches, has a happy ending. I thought long and hard about the development of other professions such as nursing and social work. Each of these caring professions has taken ownership of its work. Nurses and social workers are accountable for their practice; they are also respected and compensated commensurate with their level of competency. There is another important consideration—these professions are closely allied with other professions to best serve the needs of their clients. Nurses work collaboratively with doctors. Social workers partner with psychiatrists. I have come to realize that early childhood program administrators and college faculty that prepare teachers and leaders in early childhood education are allies to early childhood educators. I am not lonely anymore; I am comfortable being an allied professional playing a critical role supporting the early childhood education profession.

Read more about the McCormick Center’s participation in this initiative and how you can add your voice to the national discussion here.


Dr. Teri Talan is the Michael W. Louis Chair at the McCormick Center and Professor of Early Childhood Education at National Louis University. She is co-author of the Program Administration Scale, Business Administration Scale for Family Child Care, Escala de Evaluación de la Administración de Negocios, Who’s Caring for the Kids?, and The Status of the Early Childhood Workforce in Illinois

16 Responses to “Is Early Childhood Education a Profession?”

  1. Karen Ponder says:

    Teri: Thanks for your reaction to the Power of the Profession. You have stated your view so clearly and eloquently and I appreciate your perspective. As always, thanks for all you do to support early childhood leaders.

  2. Teri Talan says:

    Thank you Karen. I think it helpful to think of other professions when understanding the growing pains of the profession of early childhood education. We should also think about school principals. They are closely allied with teachers to support the learning and development of their students. For the most part, they are first teachers who later become principals. Program leaders in early childhood settings tend to follow this same career trajectory. Educational leadership programs that prepare principals build on the knowledge and experience of teachers. Leadership academies for working principals are beginning to focus more on improving their instructional leadership practices. As we define the profession of early childhood education it is critical that we don’t adopt an either-or perspective on program leadership. Effective early childhood administrators (principals and directors) in all early childhood settings need to have competencies in both pedagogical and administrative leadership because the functions are so interdependent. For example, instructional leadership involves ensuring organizational supports for teaching and learning. Ensuring sufficient financiial resources for embedded professional development or peer learning opportunities for teachers requires administrative leadership as well as pedagogical leadership. The program administrator, as an allied professional to the early childhood educator, needs competency in all three domains of Whole Leadership–pedagogical leadership, administrative leadership and leadership essentials.

  3. Kathleen Alford-Young says:

    Thank you Teri, your responses are timely and affirming, particularly to those of us who have dedicated our practice in the spirit of responsibility and accountability. We strive to demonstrate our knowledge of the work,now more than ever, through unified practices, to the community (students of ECE, policy makers ) as well as the children and families we serve.

    I continue to serve in a position of leadership after more than twenty years. I am pleased with progressive steps we are making as a profession.

    Thank you for your continued work toward making this a reality. I am reminded of a clear outline of this vision, articulated in the book, Ready or Not Leadership Choices in Early Care and Education. Stacie G. Goffin and Valora Washington. (2007)
    Teachers College Press.

  4. Brenda Boyd says:


    I am glad you found yourself with a happy ending! I agree that those of us in higher education have an important role in preparing the early childhood educators NAEYC is seeking to define. Does that mean we are not early childhood educators ourselves? I guess so and that feels ok. But it does not diminish our important contribution to the profession through professional preparation and advocacy for the profession itself. I wonder what that means for our role in defining the profession? If we are not “in” the profession and by definition a profession holds itself accountable, what is our role? I may be oversimplifying, but if we are to be lead by guidelines that define a profession, this question seems to come up. These discussions are not simple, but I applaud NAEYC for stepping up to the plate to organize them and to bring the discussions to national visibility.

  5. Hi, Brenda – so glad you chimed in. In the spirit of deepening our understanding of professions and how they’re structured, in the professions I’ve studied, clinical faculty have to be licensed to practice. This obligation doesn’t apply to faculty who teach in the discipline(s) that inform and undergird the profession practice. The latter is what distinguishes MD faculty, for example, from PhD faculty

    I’m curious: Does this information inform your questions/thinking in any way?

  6. Brenda Boyd says:

    Hi Staci: As always, thanks for sharing what you’ve learned. This info makes me wonder what that should mean for those who teach (prepare teachers) in the developing profession of ECE. How could we be licensed? Should we be? I think it points out that just as with the practitioners themselves, we who do the preparation are not part of a coherent, well-organized, or standard field of practice. Some of us operate in colleges of education, where others of us do not. More thinking and work to do!

  7. Janice Fletcher says:

    Brenda and Staci,
    Will the Early Childhood Educator (the current working term for the early childhood professional) be a teacher by definition? If that is so, then it seems the work of professionalizing the field gets easier by default. And, Brenda, you and I would find our higher education roles much more defined to teacher education. Would we not? The clinical faculty role would certainly be appropriate for the professor who would also be a practicing early educator. This same thinking might also apply to consultants and trainers. The credential would be the Early Childhood Educator credential, and would be desirable for those who wish to show current competence in the professional world of early childhood education. Have I got this right?

  8. Kathleen Alford- Young says:

    Janice / Brenda
    I agree and understand this logic;
    Students and other practitioners learn foundational and
    fundamental aspects of our profession at colleges and universities. We know that faculty and other stakeholders come from a myraid of disciplines. Often these disciplines are inter-related through societal and nor developmental ascepts of working with young children and thier families. Offering a comprehensive overview , providing resources, evidence based best practices; as well as current trends, in an Early Childhood Credential or endorsement could be effective toward greater unification.

  9. Teri Talan says:

    Early childhood education faculty are members of several possible professions, including teacher educators or educational researchers. Each of these professions has an association. What is the profession to which ECE program administrators belong? Building leaders working in schools have an association for school principals; is it time for a professional association of ECE program leaders working in all settings serving young children birth to age eight?

  10. Jen Smallwood says:

    I’m so glad for this conversation! When I filled out the survey, I was at first delighted at the prospect of this work, then dismayed, and frankly, offended, that I (as a program leader) would not be considered an early childhood professional in this model. Now I’m trying to step back and consider this from other perspectives, but am still feeling challenged to figure out where I might belong, if not the early childhood profession. Further, I’m not sure I fully understand (yet) *why* we’d make this change.

    Despite the fact that I am not regularly in a classroom, we know almost ALL early childhood program leaders ARE in classrooms from time to time- some daily, some less often, due to the realities of staffing ECE programs. I think I still, above all, consider myself a teacher, whether I’m reading a story to children in a preschool room or having a conversation about reading stories with my teachers. It’s a very blurry line, but all I do is toward quality results for early childhood teachers, children and families, by way of classroom practice.

    I guess I’m feeling a little defensive- lol. It’s an interesting conversation!

    The only one of the 5 responsibilities I am not directly responsible for every. single. day. is number 1. And while I’m not responsible for doing it, I am accountable for it getting done, and am accountable for helping my teachers understand what it means and how it might look.

  11. Teri Talan says:

    Jen, I thank you for your honest response. I am mulling over your distinction between what program administrators are responsible for and what program administrators are accountable for. This is why I I believe shared leadership (e.g., a model with a pedagogical leader and an administrative leader) needs to be understood as distributed leadership. A principal distributes leadership to teacher leaders but is ultimately accountable for the school climate and culture that leads to effective teaching and positive student outcomes. How do we apply this to program administrators of community-based early childhood programs?

  12. I empathize with Jen. As the CEO of a children’s museum I am not sure where I would fit. Yet, like Jen the only responsibility I am not directly involved in is number one although have been there for many years in my past. Although a Museum and not a formal learning environment we nevertheless focus on all early learning attributes whether it be through our exhibits, programs or professional development training. Early childhood educators are crtical to the success and impact of the Museum.

    Teri this is a great discussion to be having and I so appreciate your leadership.

  13. Early childhood educators who work with children in their own homes as nannies and governesses

    The American Council of Nanny Schools has a curriculum
    recognized by The Ohio Board of Career Colleges and Schools.
    Although there are qualified educators teaching children in their own homes the early childhood profession has no standard for nannies and governesses to designate levels of competency.

  14. Teri Talan says:

    Sheridan and Sheilagh,
    Thanks for keeping the discussion going! There are many roles in our field of practice; I hadn’t considered either of yours as I have pondered shared knowledge, competencies, responsibilities, and accountability. I think it might be useful to think about whether the five responsibilities listed for the early childhood educator are the primary responsibilities of a given role in our field of early childhood education. As a CEO of a museum, are the five responsibilities your primary professional responsibilities? What about the primary responsibilities of a nanny?

  15. Robin Howell says:

    I can understand all of the comments here and the uncertainties. But we are at a point where we can’t stay still anymore. I have a unique position too. I am an adjunct professor who graduated with a B.S. in Elementary Education (and then a Master’s Degree in 1990) only later to land in early childhood programs as a teacher and then a program specialist and finally a center director. Then, after 30 years, I returned to my Alma Mater to teach in Early Childhood Education. As a professor, I also have duties in 3 early childhood programs as a liaison between our university as the Lead Agency and the 3 programs for Pre-K Counts. Aside from that, I teach as a PQAS instructor for early programs and am a PDS specialist for the CDA program. I really am not sure where I fit in the new structure. But I won’t care as long as we can make positive changes for ECE!

  16. Teri Talan says:

    Robin, well said! You are an allied professional and proud of it. This is the same place I ended up. Thanks for your comment.