Strengthening Professional Development  

Now more than ever, all early childhood professionals need to gain or hone the skills needed for working with English Language Learners. Education Coordinators, trainers and others tasked with providing ongoing professional development would benefit from the specific teacher competencies and attribute descriptors that are examined in the document. This article also focuses on mentoring practices and encouraging teacher competencies for working with children who are English Language Learners.

The following tip sheet is provided courtesy of the Head Start English Language Learners Project at Community Development Institute.

The following is an excerpt from the Head Start English Language Learners Project (HELLP) Guide and Resources..

Strengthening Professional Development


Professional Development Principles


Teacher Attributes and Competencies

Attribute Descriptors

Teacher Competencies

Activity: Planning a Mentoring Approach

Next Steps

The increase in English Language Learners (ELL) children and families in our communities and Head Start programs is clear. Therefore, now more than ever, all early childhood professionals need to gain or hone the skills needed for working with ELLs. Professional development is a critical component of that effort as Head Start staff members prepare to develop programs and create support for ELL children, their families, and the communities in which they live.

“Nearly a million families throughout the country place an enormous amount of trust in the staff of Head Start each year… It is imperative, therefore, that we maintain this trust by supporting the professional development of staff, so they can provide the quality services Head Start children and families deserve,” Traci A. Hefner wrote in the 2002 Head Start Bulletin, Professional Development: The Cornerstone for Trust and Empowerment. She went on to state, “Professional development not only augments trust levels and expertise, it can motivate staff to become more informed, more creative, and more intuitive. This results not only in the exponential growth of staff but also in the empowerment of the families we serve.”

The new Head Start Act signed into law December 2007 sheds an even brighter light on the importance of professional development, not only for program but also for individuals. Head Start programs are directed to develop training and technical assistance and professional development plans that focus on teacher effectiveness. The Act requires each Head Start agency and program to create a professional development plan for all its employees who provide direct services to children, and to regularly evaluate the plan’s effectiveness. Programs must ensure that all Head Start teachers receive ongoing training in language and emergent literacy.

One aspect of professional development, as it relates to ELLs, is the importance of building family and community relationships. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) notes the following in their standards for preparing early childhood professionals, “Well prepared early childhood professionals understand and value children’s families and communities; create respectful, reciprocal relationships; and involve all families in their children’s development and learning. This standard emphasizes that respectful relationships with all families – whatever their structure, language, ethnicity, and child’s ability or disability – are the foundations of early childhood education.”

Professional Development Principles
The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has established a research-based position statement: A Conceptual Framework for Early Childhood Professional Development . The framework is not intended to be prescriptive, but rather, it identifies key principles related to varying and diverse roles across the early childhood profession. It is also intended to support and guide early childhood professional development decision-making. NAEYC describes and offers these nine principles for effective professional development.

  1. Professional development is an ongoing process.
  2. Professional development experiences are most effective when grounded in a sound theoretical and philosophical base and structured as a coherent and systematic approach.
  3. Professional development experiences are most successful when they respond to an individual’s background, experiences, and the current context of his/her role.
  4. Effective professional development opportunities are structured to promote clear linkages between theory and practice.
  5. Providers of effective professional development experiences have an appropriate knowledge and experience base.
  6. Effective professional development experiences use an active, hands-on approach and stress an interactive approach that encourages students to learn from one another.
  7. Effective professional development experiences contribute to positive self-esteem by acknowledging the skills and resources brought to the training process as opposed to creating feelings of self-doubt or inadequacy by immediately calling into question an individual’s current practices.
  8. Effective professional development experiences provide opportunities for application and reflection and allow for individuals to be observed and receive feedback upon what has been learned.
  9. Students and professionals should be involved in the planning and design of their professional development program.

(Quoted from A Conceptual Framework for Early Childhood Professional Development. NAEYC 2005.)
For more information on the NAEYC’s full position statement, “A Conceptual Framework for Early Childhood Professional Development,” go to

Important ELL Professional Development Questions
  • What do I know about the cultures and languages represented in our program?
  • How can I build a bridge, or make a connection, with ELL families in our program?
  • What professional development step might best support me in making connections with families?
  • How do I gain skills in working with ELLs?

Mentoring is one of Head Start’s most effective professional development strategies – especially in the area of enhancing skills in understanding and working with ELL children and their families. Mentoring can take many forms and be seen as both formal and informal. A mentor is a person who acts as a teacher or supporter to someone less experienced or new to a job. Formal mentoring programs like Big Brother/Big Sister or informal mentoring experiences with a trusted colleague can be very effective in reducing stress and offering insight. Mentoring for Head Start, as described in “Putting the PRO in Protégé: A Guide to Mentoring guide to planning and implementing an effective mentoring program. Key features of effective mentoring are that it is ongoing, individualized, developmental, reciprocal, and non-evaluative.

  • Ongoing: The mentoring relationship occurs over a period of time, and it changes as the protégé emerges as a more competent, self-confident, and self-reflective practitioner. The ongoing nature of the relationship reinforces good practices.
  • Individualized: The content areas and strategies on which mentoring is based are tailored to the needs of the individual protégé and program.
  • Developmental: Mentoring builds on the strengths of individual teachers and home visitors and enhances areas that need improvement. The focus of the mentoring evolves as new skills and knowledge are gained.
  • Reciprocal: The mentor-protégé relationship is reciprocal, since mentors also learn as they gain insight from their protégés and reflect on their own and their protégé’s practices.
  • Non-evaluative: Mentoring provides constructive feedback and support for learning and growth. Mentors assess and evaluate protégés, but the feedback is not used to influence employment decisions.
(Quoted from Putting the PRO in Protégé: A Guide to Mentoring in Head Start and Early Head Start . U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services/ACF 2001). In the bulletin, a section titled “Mentoring for Head Start and Early Head Start” offers the following points in support of mentoring structures in programs:
  • Mentoring fits in with Head Start Program Performance Standards that require grantee and delegate agencies to implement a formalized approach to staff training and development. Mentoring offers an approach to teacher training within the context of the teaching environment and emphasizes excellence in daily practice. It increases the internal capacity of grantee and delegate agencies to meet the Program Performance Standards.
  • Mentoring supports Head Start’s concept of career ladders. Mentoring is one way to recognize experienced staff for their expertise. Being a mentor teacher requires an additional set of responsibilities for staff who take on the role. Mentoring offers the possibility of new rewards, such as salary increases and promotions, additional training opportunities, the ability to attend conferences, and the opportunity to meet with other master teachers. Mentoring also helps protégés advance on the career ladder as their knowledge and skills are enhanced.
  • Mentoring reflects the principles of adult learning that guide Head Start training and staff development. Training in Head Start builds on teachers’ experiences, provides opportunities for peer interaction and problem solving, is relevant to the work in which staff are engaged, and uses a variety of learning strategies. The mentoring process incorporates these principles of adult learning.
  • Mentoring is a strategy to ensure the implementation of curricula and best practices in teaching and home visiting. It is a field-based approach to professional development that encourages staff to build their skills in these areas within a supportive environment. By enhancing staff skills, mentoring fosters positive child outcomes and school readiness.
  • Mentoring fits in well with Head Start’s philosophy of individualizing programs to meet the needs of children and their families. Head Start promotes individuality and flexibility in many ways. For example, Head Start offers a variety of options for delivering services – center-based, home-based, and family child care – to meet the needs of a diverse population. Mentoring also is individualized to meet the needs of both the program and the protégé. There is no one mentoring model but rather many different approaches depending on the goals of the mentoring relationship, the resources available, the grantee and delegate agencies’ structure, and the like.
  • Mentoring encourages reflective practice for both mentors and protégés and supports effective practices for Head Start teachers. Good teachers think about their own practices and use the experience to reshape their behaviors. Mentors ask questions that help protégés think about what is working or not working in their learning environment. At the same time, mentors reflect on their own practices and how they can improve them.
  • Mentoring reflects the philosophy of partnership building that is characteristic of Head Start programs. Head Start encourages building partnerships within and outside the program. Mentoring is about building relationships among individuals to foster learning while on the job. Mentors model best practices in their own classrooms or work alongside protégés in protégés’ classrooms, family child care homes, or on home visits, demonstrating how skills and practices may be applied.
(Quoted from Putting the PRO in Protégé: A Guide to Mentoring in Head Start and Early Head Start. U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services/ACF 2001).

Mentoring is most successful when tailored to individual, group, and program needs rather than structured as one size fits all. The primary concerns for mentoring with ELLs is to support the development or maintenance of skills and strategies for effective second language acquisition both within the classroom and the home.

“Mentoring is ideally suited to the Head Start philosophy and approach to staff development.”
(U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services/ACF 2001)

Teacher Attributes and Competencies
The Competency Framework for Teachers (2004), designed by the Department of Education and Training in Australia, includes a set of attributes outlining the baseline qualities that are most important for teachers dedicated to providing a healthy learning environment for children, focusing on the powerful influence teachers have on children and families. These attributes, though intended for all teachers, are particularly relevant for those working with diverse populations in their classrooms and communities.

The purpose of the teacher attributes is to provide a framework for teachers committed to ongoing professional development and the service of children and families from diverse populations. The attributes enable teachers to identify their strengths, as well as skill areas in which they can further their professional development. The teacher attributes create a common vocabulary for early childhood professionals working with children and families learning the English language. They promote healthy dialogue and discussions among staff members, administrative teams, families and communities, all critical to ensuring whole system development and growth.

The attributes in this section are not an exhaustive list of what early childhood teachers can do to promote a healthy, productive classroom experience for young English language learners. They are a platform for organizations – committed to high quality programming and culturally responsive services – to meet the needs of all children and families.

Teacher Competency Areas and Standards
The training and professional development of staff working with ELL children require a different set of skills, tools, and abilities. The Teacher Competency Area is a preparation assessment that can be used on an individual level and through a mentor partnership. Staff members are encouraged to develop a self assessment plan to evaluate their own skills and strengths in the classroom with the intention of delivering better services to English language learners in their program.

Developing a professional development plan provides an opportunity for staff and mentors to communicate and develop a concrete approach to increasing skills necessary to fully support and integrate English language learners into the classroom and program.

Attribute Descriptors

Collaborative Teachers demonstrate good interpersonal skills by creating opportunities to communicate and share knowledge, ideas, and experience with others. They seek assistance from colleagues and are keen to consider and act upon advice offered. Teachers acknowledge and encourage students, parents, and caregivers as partners in learning.
Committed Teachers are dedicated to educating young people and acting in the best interests of students. They enjoy meeting the challenges encountered in educating others and are inspired to make a difference. Teachers are devoted to the educational, personal, social, moral, and cultural development of their students and aim to teach them how to be life-long learners and active members of society.
Effective Communicator Teachers have a presence that creates a positive influence on students’ behavior. They can articulate their thoughts and ideas while modifying their language according to the context and audience.
Ethical Teachers respect the rights of others by acting with consistency and impartiality. They have an understanding of the principles of social justice and demonstrate them by making just and fair decisions.
Innovative Teachers are creative problem solvers who are willing to take risks in order to find new and enterprising solutions to educational issues and are inventive when developing educational programs. They provide learning experiences that engage student interest and enhance student learning.
Inclusive Teachers treat students with care and sensitivity by identifying and addressing their educational, physical, emotional, social, and cultural needs. They are astute in recognizing and responding to barriers that inhibit student outcomes.


Teachers are supportive and constructive in their interaction with others. They show flexibility in an ever-changing work environment and are willing to consider critically and implement change. Teachers are advocates of their profession.
Reflective Teachers are insightful in analyzing their professional practice and can demonstrate evidence based decision-making. Teachers draw upon their professional knowledge to plan a course of action and determine goals that improve their practice and student learning. They are informed professionals who avail themselves of professional learning opportunities in order to examine critically new and emerging educational trends.

Teacher Competency 1: Professional Knowledge And Growth

Standard 1: Engage in opportunities for professional growth: self-reflective analysis of practices, observation of other teachers, reading of professional journals and magazines, participation in workshops and in-service courses, advanced training, etc.
Standard 2: Establish opportunities to promote ongoing dialogue with peers, colleagues, and other professionals to enhance classroom experiences for English language learners.

Teacher Competency 2: Linguistic, Social And Cultural Characteristics
Standard 1: Recognize the major differences and similarities between the local culture and various cultural groups represented in the early childhood classroom setting.
Standard 2: Use knowledge of the cultural characteristics of ELL population to enhance instruction.
Standard 3: Identify, expose, and re-examine cultural stereotypes relating to English language learners and English-speaking children.
Standard 4: Understand the importance of family on children’s success at school.
Standard 5: Interact effectively with parents and other caregivers.
Standard 6: Work co-operatively with colleagues and other early childhood professionals to reduce cross-cultural barriers among children, parents, and the school setting.
Standard 7: Build and maintain learning partnerships with parents, other caregivers, schools, and neighborhood and community resources in order to enhance children’s learning.

Teacher Competency 3: Second Language Acquisition
Standard 1: Identify and integrate relevant resources focused on second language acquisition methodologies.
Standard 2: Support the variance rate of individual language development and communication strategies used by children as they acquire the English language.
Standard 3: Determine and use appropriate instructional methods and strategies for individuals and groups, using knowledge of first and second language acquisition processes.
Standard 4: Select and develop appropriate content according to student levels of proficiency in listening, speaking, reading, and writing, taking into account: 1) basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS) and 2) cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP) as they apply to the curriculum.
Standard 5: Design instructional methods and techniques appropriate to learners’ socialization and communication needs to meet program outcomes.
Standard 6: Incorporate both teacher-directed and student-directed activities into the classroom routine to provide opportunities for social, emotional, and linguistic development through small group work and peer- to-peer interaction, allowing for English language learners to express and explore their personal creativity and curiosity in the classroom setting.

Teacher Competency 4: Organizing The Environment For The English Language Learners
Standard 1: Provide visuals in the classroom by posting pictures, rebus charts and other signs to support classroom themes. Label objects in the classroom using different colors for each language.
Standard 2: Evaluate, select, and adapt appropriate instructional materials, media, and technology for English language learners.
Standard 3: Create a positive classroom environment to accommodate the various learning styles and cultural backgrounds of children.

Teacher Competency 5: Language Development And Literacy
Standard 1: Provide a language rich environment using “natural” language and communication patterns to enrich and develop the vocabulary and knowledge base of children learning English.
Standard 2: Apply essential strategies for developing and integrating the four language skills of listening comprehension, oral communication, reading, and writing for English language learners.
Standard 3: Incorporate strategies into the classroom to support English language learner’s literacy development in the following areas: oral language development, phonological awareness, written expression, motivation to read aloud, and letter knowledge.

Teacher Competency 6: Measurement And Assessment
Standard 1: Be aware of the linguistic and cultural background of the children being assessed.
Standard 2: Be aware of current trends and issues related to the testing of linguistic and culturally diverse children.
Standard 3: Record observations for children in a variety of settings using formal and alternative methods of assessment.
Standard 4: Measure children’s progress based on ongoing observations.
Standard 5: Gather observations from multiple, distinct sources that promote whole child development.
Standard 6: Develop individualized learning outcomes related to observational measurements to meet the linguistically developmental needs of the child, demonstrated through both verbal and nonverbal behaviors.
Standard 7: Assess academic skills in both home language and in English, if possible.*

*Important note: Assess English language skills only in English.

(Quoted from Putting the Competency Framework for Teachers. Australian Dept. of Education & Training 2004).

The Teacher Competency Area is a preparation assessment that can be used on an individual level and through a mentor partnership. Staff members are encouraged to develop a self assessment plan to evaluate their own skills and strengths in the classroom with the intention to deliver better services to English language learners in their program.

Summary Points
  • Professional development is a key component in working with English language learners.
  • Building family and community partnerships is critical to enhancing professional development experiences.
  • Mentoring is an important strategy for enhancing skills in working with English language learners.
  • Teacher attributes support teachers in identifying areas of focus related to their professional development.

Activity: Planning a Mentoring Approach
Look at approaches for implementing an English Language Learning mentoring system in your program. What can you do to support mentoring in your program?

Instructional Strategy: Your mentoring team can include management, education, family service, and other program staff.

Next Steps

  1. SEARCH through the Internet Resources for the Professional Development ... offered by the Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center.
  2. TALK with your program administrators about what you want your next professional development step to be. Take your learning and capabilities to the next level.
  3. CULTIVATE a mentor/protégé relationship in support of your professional development goals for your work with ELL children and families.

Activity: Planning a Mentoring Approach
Look at approaches for implementing an English Language Learning mentoring system in your program. What can you do to support mentoring in your program?

Instructional Strategy: Your mentoring team can include management, education, family service, and other program staff. Instructional Strategy: Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center - A resource website that provides information about Head Start programs, policies, the Head Start Act, and related resources.

Strengthening Professional Development was developed by the Head Start English Language Learners Project at Community Development Institute under the Innovation and Improvement Project grant from the Office of Head Start, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"Strengthening Professional Development." The Head Start English Language Learners Project (HELLP) Guide and Resources. Head Start English Language Learners Project at Community Development Institute. HHS/ACF/OHS. 2008. English.

Last Reviewed: July 2009

Last Updated: November 13, 2014