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The five functionings of an ECEC professional

Oct 27, 2021 | Early Childhood

What does it mean to be an early childhood education and care professional? Andrea Nolan answers this important question.


In 2008, all Australian governments made a commitment to align high-quality services for young children and their families with the professionalisation of staff in the early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector by 2013. (Council of Australian Governments 2009). This alignment is true not only for Australia but for other countries in the OECD. This decision has ramifications for the ECEC workforce. What does it mean to be an ECEC professional? What ‘beings’ and ‘doings’ do young children and families value in their educators?

Along with Dr Tebeje Molla (Deakin University), I set out to find the answer. We looked at both policy and educator perspectives. Our combined research identified five professional functionings of ECEC professionals: expertise, deliberation, recognition, responsiveness and integrity.

Five professional functionings

Expertise is about educators having the specialist knowledge and skills that they need in their profession. Our research found that while policy attention is directed to pedagogic knowledge and skills, educators also emphasised the value of professional dispositions as a form of expertise.

Deliberation involves being able to critically reflect on one’s professional practices, theories and assumptions that inform practice. Policies and educators equally valued deliberation as a learning process.

Recognition is the extent to which educators are valued and respected for their professional work. At the policy level, recognition is considered essential for professionalising the ECEC workforce. Our research found that educators tended to experience a lack of respect from their communities. This can lead them to feel undervalued in their roles.

Responsiveness represents a commitment towards fairness and social justice. To be responsive, educators must be able and ready to recognise, and professionally act on, conditions of disadvantage and vulnerability that young children and their families experience. The Australian Government frames responsiveness of educators in terms of working towards broad inclusion goals related to socioeconomic status, cultural background and special learning needs. The educators’ accounts of responsiveness however, focus more on cultural diversity.

Integrity aligns with educators acting ethically and respectfully in their professional practices. Consistent with policy expectations, ECEC professionals in our research recognised the importance of complying with ethical obligations at work.

Professional reflection

In viewing professionalisation through a capabilities lens, and so positioning it as a form of human development that gives educators choice and agency, the study focused on the real opportunities educators had to accomplish what they valued as professionals in the ECEC sector. Concentrating on professional functionings (what educators are actually able to be and do) helps improve understanding of professional capabilities. 

I encourage you to consider using the five professional functionings as foci to reflect on yourself as an early childhood professional. You may also choose to engage with some specific Essential Resources titles to further strengthen your knowledge and skills in one or more of these aspects.

For more articles on effective ECE practices, click here.

Reference: Council of Australian Governments (2009) COAG meeting communiqué, December.

Andrea Nolan is Professor of Education (Early Childhood) in the School of Education at Deakin University. For more information about Andrea and her resources, view our website.


For further reading, try these Essential Resources titles:

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