Career Guide for Child Care Workers

Child care workers care for children up to school age during the day and older children after school. They provide care and instruction to help socialize kids and teach them fundamentals required before they enter kindergarten. A third of those in the profession take care of children in their homes.

In this career guide, you will learn how to become a successful child care worker.

Child Care Worker Summary

  • About 33 percent of child care workers are self-employed, most of whom provided child care in their homes.
  • Training requirements range from a high school diploma to a college degree, although some jobs require less than a high school diploma.
  • Many workers leave these jobs every year, creating good job opportunities.

Working as a Child Care Worker

Child care workers nurture, teach, and care for children who have not yet entered kindergarten. They also supervise older children before and after school. These workers play an important role in children’s development by caring for them when their parents are at work or are away for other reasons or when the parents place their children in care to help them socialize with children their age. In addition to attending to children’s health, safety, and nutrition, child care workers organize activities and implement curricula that stimulate children’s physical, emotional, intellectual, and social growth. They help children explore individual interests, develop talents and independence, build self-esteem, learn how to get along with others, and prepare for more formal schooling.

Child care workers generally are classified into three different groups based on where they work: private household workers, who care for children at the children’s homes; family child care providers, who care for children in the providers’ homes; and child care workers who work at child care centers, which include Head Start, Early Head Start, full-day and part-day preschool, and other early childhood programs.

Private household workers who are employed on an hourly basis usually are called babysitters. These child care workers bathe, dress, and feed children; supervise their play; wash their clothes; and clean their rooms. Babysitters also may put children to bed and wake them, read to them, involve them in educational games, take them for doctors’ visits, and discipline them. Those who are in charge of infants prepare bottles and change diapers. Babysitters may work for many different families. Workers who are employed by one family are often called nannies. They generally take care of children from birth to age 12, tending to the child’s early education, nutrition, health, and other needs. They also may perform the duties of a housekeeper, including cleaning and doing the laundry.

Family child care providers often work alone with a small group of children, although some work in larger settings they work in groups or teams. Child care centers generally have more than one adult per group of children; in groups of children aged 3 to 5 years, a child care worker may assist a more experienced preschool teacher.

Most child care workers perform a combination of basic care and teaching duties, but the majority of their time is spent on caregiving activities. However, there is an increasing focus on preparing children aged 3 to 5 years for school. Workers whose primary responsibility is teaching are classified as preschool teachers.  However, many basic care activities also are opportunities for children to learn. For example, a worker who shows a child how to tie a shoelace teaches the child while providing for that child’s basic needs.

Child care workers spend most of their day working with children. However, they do maintain contact with parents or guardians through informal meetings or scheduled conferences to discuss each child’s progress and needs. Many child care workers keep records of each child’s progress and suggest ways in which parents can stimulate their child’s learning and development at home. Some child care centers and before- and afterschool programs actively recruit parent volunteers to work with the children and participate in administrative decisions and program planning.

Young children learn mainly through playing, solving problems, questioning, and experimenting. Child care workers recognize that fact and capitalize on children’s play and other experiences to further their language development (through storytelling and acting games), improve their social skills (by having them work together to build a neighborhood in a sandbox), and introduce scientific and mathematical concepts (by balancing and counting blocks when building a bridge or mixing colors when painting). Often, a less structured approach, including small-group lessons; one-on-one instruction; and creative activities such as art, dance, and music, is used to teach young children. Child care workers play a vital role in preparing children to build the skills they will need in school.

Child care workers in child care centers, schools, or family child care homes greet young children as they arrive, help them with their jackets, and select an activity of interest. When caring for infants, they feed and change them. To ensure a well-balanced program, child care workers prepare daily and long-term schedules of activities. Each day’s activities balance individual and group play, as well as quiet time and time for physical activity. Children are given some freedom to participate in activities they are interested in. As children age, child care workers may provide more guided learning opportunities, particularly in the areas of math and reading.

Concern over school-aged children being home alone before and after school has spurred many parents to seek alternative ways for their children to spend their time constructively. The purpose of before- and after-school programs is to watch over school-aged children during the gap between school hours and the end of their parents’ daily work hours. These programs also may operate during the summer and on weekends. Workers in before- and after-school programs may help students with their homework or engage them in extracurricular activities, including field trips, sports, learning about computers, painting, photography, and other subjects. Some child care workers are responsible for taking children to school in the morning and picking them up from school in the afternoon. Before- and after-school programs may be operated by public school systems, local community centers, or other private organizations.

Helping to keep children healthy is another important part of the job. Child care workers serve nutritious meals and snacks and teach good eating habits and personal hygiene. They ensure that children have proper rest periods. They identify children who may not feel well, and they may help parents locate programs that will provide basic health services. Child care workers also watch for children who show signs of emotional or developmental problems. Upon identifying such a child, they discuss the child’s situation with their supervisor and the child’s parents. Early identification of children with special needs—such as those with behavioral, emotional, physical, or learning disabilities—is important in improving their future learning ability. Special education teachers often work with preschool children to provide the individual attention they need.

Work environment. Helping children grow, learn, and gain new skills can be very rewarding. The work is sometimes routine, but new activities and challenges mark each day. Child care can be physically and emotionally taxing as workers constantly stand, walk, bend, stoop, and lift to attend to each child’s interests and problems. These workers experienced a larger than average number of work-related injuries or illnesses.

States regulate child care facilities, the number of children per child care worker, the qualifications of the staff, and the health and safety of the children. To ensure that children in child care centers receive proper supervision, State or local regulations may require a certain ratio of workers to children. The ratio varies with the age of the children. For infants (children under 1 year old), child care workers may be responsible for 3 or 4 children. For toddler’s (children 1 to 2 years old), workers may be responsible for 4 to 10 children, and for preschool-aged children (those between 3 and 5 years old), workers may be responsible for 8 to 25 children. However, these regulations vary greatly from State to State. In before- and after-school programs, workers may be responsible for many school-aged children at a time.

Family child care providers work out of their own homes, an arrangement that provides convenience, but also requires that their homes be accommodating to young children. Private household workers usually work in the homes or apartments of their employers. Most live in their own homes and travel to work, although some live in the home of their employer and generally are provided with their own room and bath. They often come to feel like part of their employer’s family.

The work hours of child care workers vary widely. Child care centers usually are open year round, with long hours so that parents can drop off and pick up their children before and after work. Some centers employ full-time and part-time staff with staggered shifts to cover the entire day. Some workers are unable to take regular breaks during the day due to limited staffing. Public and many private preschool programs operate during the typical 9- or 10-month school year, employing both full-time and part-time workers. Family child care providers have flexible hours and daily routines, but they may work long or unusual hours to fit parents’ work schedules. Live-in nannies usually work longer hours than do child care workers who live in their own homes. However, although nannies may work evenings or weekends, they usually get other time off. About 36 percent worked part time.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Licensure and training requirements vary greatly by State, but some jobs require less than a high school diploma.

Education and training. The training and qualifications required of child care workers vary widely. Each State has its own licensing requirements that regulate caregiver training. These requirements range from less than a high school diploma, to a national Child Development Associate (CDA) credential, to community college courses or a college degree in child development or early childhood education. State requirements are generally higher for workers at child care centers than for family child care providers.

Child care workers in private settings who care for only a few children often are not regulated by States at all. Child care workers generally can obtain some form of employment with less than a high school diploma and little or no experience, but certain private firms and publicly funded programs have more demanding training and education requirements. Different public funding streams may set other education and professional development requirements. For example, many States have separate funding for prekindergarten programs for 4-year-old children. In accordance with the regulations that accompany the funding, these States typically set higher education degree requirements for those workers than do ordinary State child care licensing requirements.

Some employers prefer workers who have taken secondary or postsecondary courses in child development and early childhood education or who have work experience in a child care setting. Other employers require their own specialized training. An increasing number of employers are requiring an associate’s degree in early childhood education

Licensure. Many States require child care centers, including those in private homes, to be licensed if they care for more than a few children. In order to obtain their license, child care centers may require child care workers to pass a background check, get immunizations, and meet a minimum training requirement.

Other qualifications. Child care workers must anticipate and prevent problems, deal with disruptive children, provide fair but firm discipline, and be enthusiastic and constantly alert. They must communicate effectively with the children and their parents, as well as with teachers and other child care workers. Workers should be mature, patient, understanding, and articulate and have energy and physical stamina. Skills in music, art, drama, and storytelling also are important. Self-employed child care workers must have business sense and management abilities.

Certification and advancement. Some employers prefer to hire child care workers who have earned a nationally recognized Child Development Associate (CDA) credential or the Child Care Professional (CCP) designation from the Council for Professional Recognition and the National Child Care Association, respectively. Requirements include child care experience and coursework, such as college courses or employer-provided seminars.

Opportunities for advancement are limited. However, as child care workers gain experience, some may advance to supervisory or administrative positions in large child care centers or preschools. Often, these positions require additional training, such as a bachelor’s or master’s degree. Other workers move on to work in resource and referral agencies, consulting with parents on available child care services. A few workers become involved in policy or advocacy work related to child care and early childhood education. With a bachelor’s degree, workers may become preschool teachers or become certified to teach in public or private schools. Some workers set up their own child care businesses.

Employment as a Child Care Worker

Child care workers held about 1.3 million jobs in 2008. About 33 percent of child care workers were self-employed; most of these were family child care providers.

Child day care services employed about 19 percent of all child care workers, and about 19 percent worked for private households. The remainder worked primarily in educational services; nursing and residential care facilities; amusement and recreation industries; civic and social organizations; and individual and family services. Some child care programs are for-profit centers, which may be affiliated with a local or national company. A very small percentage of private-industry establishments operate onsite child care centers for the children of their employees.

Job Outlook

Child care workers are expected to experience job growth that is about as fast as the average for all occupations. Job prospects will be good because of the many workers who leave the occupation and need to be replaced.

Employment change. Employment of child care workers is projected to increase by 11 percent between 2008 and 2018, which is about as fast as the average for all occupations. An increasing emphasis on early childhood education programs will increase demand for these workers. Child care workers often work alongside preschool teachers as assistants. Therefore, increased demand for formal preschool programs will create growth for child care workers. Although only a few States currently provide targeted or universal preschool programs, many more are considering or starting such programs. A rise in enrollment in private preschools is likely as the value of formal education before kindergarten becomes more widely accepted. More States moving toward universal preschool education could increase employment growth for child care workers. However, growth will be moderated by relatively slow growth in the population of children under the age of five, who are generally cared for by these workers.

Job prospects. High replacement needs should create good job opportunities for child care workers. Qualified persons who are interested in this work should have little trouble finding and keeping a job. Many child care workers must be replaced each year as they leave the occupation to fulfill family responsibilities, to study, or for other reasons. Others leave because they are interested in pursuing other occupations or because of low wages.

Projections Data

Projections data from the National Employment Matrix
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2008 Projected
Employment, 2018
Number Percent
Child care workers 39-9011 1,301,900 1,443,900 142,100 11
NOTE: Data in this table are rounded.

Earnings for Child Care Workers

Pay depends on the educational attainment of the worker and the type of establishment. Although the pay generally is very low, more education usually means higher earnings. Median hourly wages of child care workers were $9.12 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $7.75 and $11.30. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $7.04, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $13.98. Median hourly wages in the industries employing the largest numbers of child care workers in May 2008 were:

Other residential care facilities $10.56
Elementary and secondary schools 10.53
Civic and social organizations 8.53
Other amusement and recreation industries 8.41
Child day care services 8.39

Earnings of self-employed child care workers vary with the number of hours worked, the number and ages of the children, and the geographic location.

Benefits vary, but are minimal for most child care workers. Many employers offer free or discounted child care to employees. Some offer a full benefits package, including health insurance and paid vacations, but others offer no benefits at all. Some employers offer seminars and workshops to help workers learn new skills. A few are willing to cover the cost of courses taken at community colleges or technical schools. Live-in nannies receive free room and board.

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