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2.2: Defining terms - A vocabulary for discussing professionalism

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    • Brenda Boyd & Linda Felch

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    Understanding terminology is a helpful way to start an investigation of professionalism in ECE. The terms profession and professional are used frequently in our everyday conversations. But our common usage of the term does not ensure that we understand what these terms mean as we apply them to our work as educators.

    In our work life, we may use the term professional to refer to the fact that we are committed to doing our jobs well, that we are good employees (punctual, respectful to colleagues, dress appropriately), that we provide reliable and competent service, or it may simply mean that we get paid for what we do (Feeney, 2012). You might use the term professional as a compliment, indicating that you see that person as being good at their job.

    While we may use the term professional as a verb to describe how we behave at our jobs, it is important to note that a body of scholarly literature exists in which academics from various disciplines have discussed the meaning of these terms.

    In this section, we will further define terms that assist in understanding the conversation about ECE becoming a profession.


    You have likely heard reference to the “field of ECE”. In fact, we use that phrase in chapter 1 of this book. Calling ECE a field allows us to create a boundary around what we mean by ECE; it allows for defining what fits into this category. Similarly, you have probably heard mention of those who work in the business field, the medical field, etc. As Goffin and Washington (2019) suggest, the term ECE field describes all of the programs, services and occupations that currently reside within the boundary of what we call ECE—childcare, either in centers or family childcare homes; preschool; and care for infants and toddlers, for example.

    Field of Practice

    A field of practice refers to a specialization or a defined scope of work undertaken by an identified group of practitioners. It is a term often used in defining specialties in medicine or social work. Stacie Goffin has also applied the term “field of practice” to ECE (Goffin & Washington, 2019; Goffin, 2015). A field of practice, according to Goffin, indicates the roles that directly focus on the learning and development of children. In other words, the ECE field of practice refers to those who do the work of educating and facilitating development. Calling ECE a field of practice allows for defining the focus—the learning and development of young children. Naming it as a field of practice also highlights that the field’s main objective is competent practice and suggests that we understand what it means to competently educate young children. In sum, the ECE field of practice is populated by those who do the work of direct service to children, which also assumes a level of competent practice to be successful.


    The term profession is commonly accepted to mean an “occupation that serves the public welfare and that requires specialized educational training in some branch of learning or science” (Feeney, 2012, p. 6). Thus, a profession requires specialized education not held by others, and serves a public good, as opposed to serving one’s self-interest alone (i.e., simply getting a paycheck).


    If a profession is an occupation that serves a public good, and requires education, a professional is the inhabitant of a role in that occupation—the person who does the work of the profession. Applying the definition of profession just shared, a professional is the person who has made a commitment to serve the public good related to that field and has achieved the educational requirement necessary to play that role. In the field of ECE, it is common to hear about efforts to professionalize the field. This often refers to incremental efforts to improve the practice of individuals, rather than being about system wide efforts to meet the full definition of a profession.

    A large body of academic literature has identified the defining features of a profession. Although there is not complete agreement on these features, some appear frequently and are accepted as critical markers. Feeney (2012) identifies 8 criteria that are common in the literature about professions. Table 1 describes them.

    Table 1 Criteria for Defining a Profession
    Criteria Details of Criteria
    Specialized body of knowledge and expertise
    • Evidence-based knowledge (grounded in research and scholarship)
    • Skillful application of knowledge
    • Obligation to stay informed about new information
    Prolonged training
    • Acquisition of evidence-based knowledge through training/education that occurs over time
    • Includes study and practical experience
    Rigorous requirements for entry to training and eligibility to practice
    • Admission to training programs is competitive
    • Graduation from training may be followed by an exam
    • Go through background screening required for licensure
    Standards of practice
    • Follow standards to ensure competent practice
    • Make decisions on the basis of standards (practice is not “cookie cutter”)
    Commitment to serving a significant social value
    • Dedicated to public interest
    • Altruistic and service oriented
    Recognition as the only group in the society who can perform a function
    • No other group can perform this function
    • Only those with credentials, training, licensure can play this role
    • Self-governed
    • Internal control over quality of services provided—national organization provides
    Code of ethics
    • Obligations to society spelled out
    • Moral behavior for practice codified
    • Instills confidence that public good will be prioritized

    How do you use the terms profession and professional? Do they mean different things to you? Do you see yourself as a professional in your work with young children? Why is that?

    Reviewing the list of criteria, consider if ECE meets enough of these criteria to be labeled a profession. If you are not sure if ECE meets enough of them, imagine what ECE would look like if it met all or many of these criteria.

    ECE as a Profession

    In recent years, many have questioned whether ECE meets the definition of a profession (e.g., Feeney, 2012; Goffin, 2013, 2015). There seems to be a consensus that it currently does not, and review of the list in Table 1 provides evidence that this conclusion is accurate. While ECE has developed some of the characteristics above, not all are currently in place. For example, a Code of Ethical Conduct, put forth by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC, 2011), has been in existence for several years, though there is no universal requirement that ECE practitioners are aware of or abide by this code. Similarly, in terms of standards of practice, many states have adopted a set of guidelines defining the skills and knowledge necessary to provide quality childcare. However, each state can define these guidelines as they see fit, and a wide variety of licensing requirements can be found across the US. As guidelines, they carry no authority over the continued practice of a practitioner who chooses not to follow them.

    Moreover, these competencies are often set by the state legislature and defined by the state agency responsible for childcare licensing, rather than being defined and agreed to by the profession. This fact points to the absence of autonomy. Having autonomy is another marker of a profession. Licensed childcare, a central mode of delivery in ECE, is heavily regulated by the state, rather than by the profession, providing notable evidence for the lack of autonomy in ECE, another critical feature in a profession.

    Further, prolonged training with rigorous entry requirements are not required for entry into ECE with any consistency. Similarly, too many in the general public still view childcare as “glorified babysitting” to all us to say that ECE is recognized as being based on specialized knowledge, or that there exists a particular set of practitioners who alone can do the work of ECE.

    This analysis should make it clear that ECE has work to do before it can claim the title of profession and before those engaged in this work can claim to be professionals. Identifying this reality has not, however, made it easy for ECE to move toward the status of profession. While numerous efforts have aimed to solve the problem, no large-scale success has been achieved. Early childhood educators remain unrecognized for the significance of their work, remain undercompensated, the field of early childhood education remains fragmented and siloed with no clear definition of its boundaries, and little specialized knowledge is required for entry (Institute of Medicine and National Research Council, 2015).

    This page titled 2.2: Defining terms - A vocabulary for discussing professionalism is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Brenda Boyd & Linda Felch.