Facing Challenges and Change: 45 Years of the CDA

July 24, 2020

Published by ChildCare Exchange Magazine on July 24, 2020

Written by Calvin E. Moore, Jr., Ph.D.

Like children themselves, the CDA has evolved over time,” Edward Zigler wrote in 1981 when he looked back on the early years of the Child Development Associate® credential. As director of the U.S. Office of Child Development, Zigler led a task force of 40 early childhood leaders who came together in 1971 to raise the quality of early childhood care and education. The new credential was a response to the advancement of Head Start, the comprehensive system set up by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 to meet the needs of low-income children and their families. The ensuing growth of child care programs led the task force to pose a pressing question: who is going to staff all these centers?

As Zigler reflected on the issue, he stressed the need for qualified teachers who could help children learn and be ready for school.

“We must develop a middle-level profession to care for our country’s children,” he told the National Association for the Education of Young Children at its annual meeting in 1971. “The need for the Child Development Associate, an individual who has not had as much scholastic training as those with college degrees, but nevertheless has the competencies to care independently for children, is really central to a major issue in child care. Are we going to provide the children of this nation with developmental child care or are we going to provide them merely with babysitting?”

The question struck a chord in his listeners at the meeting and led NAEYC to convene the task force that worked with Zigler to develop a credentialing and assessment system for the early childhood field. In 1972, the CDA Consortium set out six competencies and divided them into 13 functional areas. It also came up with a definition of the new credential, and those who earned it clearly had to do more than babysit and burp infants. Among them was Margaret E. Wright, who was awarded the first CDA on July 24, 1975, in Washington, D.C.

Wright and those who followed her had a wide range of skills, as University Research Corporation acknowledged when it evaluated the first CDA pilot projects in 1978.

“A CDA is an early childhood professional,” URC explained, “who assumes primary responsibility for meeting the specific needs of a group of children in a child development setting by nurturing the child’s physical, social, emotional and intellectual needs; sets up and maintains the child care environment; and establishes a liaison relationship between parents and the child development center.”

By the late 1970s, the families and children that CDAs served had changed with the influx of Latin American immigrants to the U.S. In response, the CDA Consortium added bilingual competency standards and assessment requirements to the system, so that candidates working in Spanish/English programs could demonstrate their special skills. The first bilingual candidate earned the credential in 1979, and growing numbers of educators from Spanish-speaking regions, such as Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, came to join the ranks of those who earned a CDA.

This responsiveness to the increasing diversity of our nation would become a hallmark of the credential and a measure of its value.

“A profession that remains alert to the services it renders and is willing to meet the challenges represented by new developments, knowledge and circumstances is indeed a profession,” said Evangeline Ward, executive director of the CDA Consortium. “The CDA represents a development in a profession which has begun to take charge of its own professionalism.”

The status of the CDA gained additional traction in the 1980s, as states began to recognize CDAs as qualified staff in their licensing regulations and Head Start required many of its teachers to earn the credential. By 1982, 10,000 candidates had earned the CDA, and this development led Zigler to think it was time for a systematic effort to strengthen the CDA network.

“When the group of CDAs becomes large enough,” he predicted, “the CDAs themselves will have to decide whether they wish to form their own organization.” The development of an organization like this appeared “inevitable,” he explained, as CDAs looked for ways to grow in their profession and meet the most pressing needs of the nation’s children. “The organization could enhance the professional status of the CDA certificate and could be an independent voice speaking out on behalf of the interests of individual CDAs. This CDA organization could sponsor continuing education series, conferences, professional exchanges, and it could provide a base for advocacy efforts. This organization could also assist CDAs by providing comments from the field on issues of special concern to the total CDA enterprise.”

Looking back, these were prescient remarks, because the CDA did go on to grow beyond its original bounds. At the start, the Consortium administered the credential with funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration of Children, Youth and Families. In 1980, the Consortium handed over the reins to Bank Street College in New York, which expanded the credential to meet the needs of new groups. In 1983, Bank Street began developing requirements and competencies for candidates working in home visitor, family child care and infant/toddler center-based programs. It also made assessments available in these settings as demand for their services rose.

By 1985, the CDA program had the market and financial means to merit its own permanent home. So, ACYF worked with NAEYC to set up a separate nonprofit to administer the CDA. On September 1, 1985, the Council for Professional Recognition took charge of the program and made a number of changes to improve it. The Council adopted educational prerequisites, so candidates had to have at least a high school diploma or G.E.D. It also required them to have 120 hours of formal coursework in the early childhood field, an innovation that linked the CDA with community colleges, so that CDA students could earn credits toward an associate degree. In addition, the Council developed the CDA Professional Preparation Program and a curriculum, now called “Essentials for Working with Young Children.” This curriculum has been through several revisions, in order to keep up with changing needs in the ECE field.

And the times were, indeed, changing, as early education faced new challenges in both society and the profession. Chief among these developments was a marked increase in the number of women who worked. By the mid-1980s, when the Council came into being, 67 percent of women were in the labor force, many of them married moms, and there was also a rise in the number of single-mother households. By 1989, dramatic changes in family lifestyle led Zigler to highlight how much families needed skilled educators, like those with CDAs.

“We are finding that if the mother is harried and hassled about working all day and not getting good child care, those effects show up in her husband and the children,” Zigler noted. “It permeates the whole family system.”

The CDA was an answer to the need for quality child care and education, according to several important markers. In 1989, the Military Child Care Act set out staff training requirements based on the credential, with higher levels of qualification linked to increased compensation. In 1990, Head Start amendments required classrooms to have at least one teacher with a minimum of a CDA. And in 1999, a survey of 1,000 CDA holders by University of Maryland researchers showed a pattern of continued professional development, career advancement and salary increases after they were credentialed.

These CDAs deserved it as they came to serve an increasingly diverse population of children. Over the history of the credential, the CDA has been sensitive to the cultures of children and families from around the world. In 1979, as we have seen, the Consortium addressed the needs of Spanish-speaking educators and the children they taught. In 2008, the Council published the first edition of the competency books in Spanish, and it ramped up its efforts to reach more diverse groups of young learners as new waves of immigration from Africa, Asia and the Arab world changed the demography of our nation.

In 2013, the Council’s commitment to ensure equity in education for all children led it to establish a department of multilingual and special programs that offered CDA assessments in the languages that candidates speak with the children they serve. The Council understood the need to recruit a more diverse early childhood workforce, because children respond better to educators who resemble them, know their culture and speak their language. So, it has worked with educators in 24 languages—including world languages such as Spanish, Arabic and Mandarin and those for more specific populations, such as Haitian Creole, Navajo and Yup’ik, which is spoken among Alaska’s Eskimos and Aleuts.

No matter what language they speak, what culture they grow up in, or where they live, young children need skilled educators who can help them reach their potential. Advances in brain science show that the interactions young children have with adults in the first 1,000 days of life make a lasting impact on the children’s development and growth. These findings have led groups like the World Health Organization, World Bank and UNICEF to make quality education for all young children one of their key goals.

“A solid body of evidence shows that the foundations for learning are largely built in the early years of life, before a child ever crosses the threshold of a primary school,” UNICEF noted in a recent report. “Children who fall behind in these early years often never catch up with their peers, perpetuating a cycle of underachievement. Every child deserves access to quality early education. Yet, “only 50 percent of educators in developing countries are trained.” Global advocates for children have issued a clarion call to enhance curriculums and teacher training. And the Council has responded by partnering with international early education organizations and government agencies to extend its training and standards to early childhood programs in other nations.

The Council began this global outreach in 2012, by partnering with Arabian Child, a Dubai-based educational group, to expand the CDA in the Middle East. The credential met a vital need, according to Samia Kazi, COO of Arabian Child.

“The CDA ensures that people who are working with young children meet quality standards,” she said. “Though you have qualifications, even a master’s degree in early childhood, it doesn’t mean you belong in the classroom. But when you obtain your CDA credential through the assessment process, you have proven that you meet those international standards.”

Educators around the world have reached those yardsticks in recent years. Since 2013, the Council has issued the CDA to educators in Dubai, Panama, Egypt and China. These programs are still growing, and Ghana is now gearing up to train its first class of CDAs.

As it brings the CDA to different countries, the Council takes care to respect local customs and cultures. This requires some tweaks, but the curriculum remains faithful to the credo that early educators are professionals with a duty to give young children the best possible start in life. Educators who are competent and caring interact with children in ways that build their confidence, boost their cognitive skills and help them become productive adults.

“Early education helps communities thrive,” said Margaret Chan, director-general of WHO, because “it has a direct impact on the stability and prosperity of nations in the future.”

The Council is doing its part to mold the citizens of tomorrow. It knows the promise of early education, it’s prepared to face the obstacles and it’s paving the way ahead with more ways to give educators cutting-edge skills. In recent years, the Council has added new information on brain science to its curriculum, opened up the credential to high school learners, and inspired excellence in CDA instruction by giving Gold Standard awards to training organizations that provide stellar service to their students.

Committed trainers — from the United Arab Emirates to Alabama—have contributed to the success of the credential. The Child Development Associate has come a long way since Margaret Wright earned the first CDA 45 years ago. Over the history of the CDA, more than 800,000 credentials have been issued. That number is still growing, with greater awareness that the early years are learning years when quality teaching counts. Yet “the challenge of the CDA is not complete,” as Zigler knew in 1981. Instead, “it is constantly changing to keep pace with its own accomplishments.”


United Nations Childrens Fund. (April 2019). A World Ready to Learn: Prioritizing Quality Early Childhood Educationhttps://www.unicef.org/media/57926/file/A-world-ready-to-learn-advocacy-brief-2019.pdf.

Bredecamp, S. (2000). CDA at 25: Reflections on the Past and Projections for the Future. Young Children, 55(5), 15-19.

Hutchinson, B.L. (1991). The Child Development Associate: Prototype for Early Childhood Educators. Educational Horizons, 70(1), 41-48.

Klein, J. and Williams, C.R. (1973). The Development of the Child Development Associate (CDA) Program. Young Children, 28(3), 139-145.

Phillips, C.B. (1990). The Child Development Associate Program: Entering a New Era. Young Children 45(3), 24-27.

Rierden, A. (August 27, 1989). Dr. Edward Zigler; We Need a Good Child Care Program. New York Timeshttps://www.nytimes.com/1989/08/27/nyregion/connecticut-q-a-dr-edward-f-zigler-we-need-a-good-child-care-program.html.

Rodriguez, D. (October 5, 2016). Investing in Early Childhood Education Helps Communities Thrive. UN Newshttps://news.un.org/en/story/2016/10/541922-investing-early-childhood-development-helps-communities-thrive-un-backed-report.

Vinayek, A. (December 13, 2015). Council for Professional Recognition & Arabian Child Announce Integration Partnership to Expand the CDA in the Middle East Region. Council for Professional Recognition. https://www.cdacouncil.org/storage/documents/Arabian_Child_Press_Release.pdf.

Ward, E.H. (1976). The Child Development Consortium’s Assessment System. Young Children, 31(4), 244-254.

Washington, V. (2017). Ed. Essentials for Working with Young Children. (2nd ed.) Washington DC: Council for Professional Recognition. Washington, V. and Yarkony, L. (November 2018). The Future is Here: Meeting the Needs of Multilingual Learners. Council for Professional Recognition. https://www.cdacouncil.org/storage/documents/Media_Room/The_Future_is_Here_Nov-2018.pdf.

Zigler, E. (1972). A New Child Care Profession: Child Development Associate. Child Care Quarterly, 1(3), 183-186.

Zigler, E. and Kagan, S.L. (1981). The Child Development Associate: A Challenge for the 1980s. Young Children, 36(5), 10-15.

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