How To Get a CDA Certification (Types, Benefits and Tips)

Updated July 31, 2023

Working a career in early childhood development can be extremely rewarding. If you’re entering the field or trying to advance your career in child care, you might consider becoming a certified Childhood Development Associate (CDA). The CDA certification can be a great way for preschool teachers and child care professionals to grow their skills, learn more about early childhood development and gain experience in their field.

In this article, we outline what this certification is, why you might earn one and how to get a CDA certification, with tips to help you in the process.

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What is a CDA certification?

A CDA certification is a credential from the Council for Professional Recognition that recognizes early childhood educators for their skills, knowledge and abilities in caring for children under the age of 5. The certification stipulates several formal education requirements, work experience and a passing grade on a requisite exam. This computer-based exam contains 65 multiple-choice questions and lasts one hour and 45 minutes. The Council for Professional Recognition requires candidates to complete the education, work experience and exam requirements along with a formal observation, portfolio and competency statement in order to receive their credential.

You might consider earning this certification to experience these rewards:

  • Knowledge: This certification helps you learn more about developmentally appropriate practices for children and how to encourage them.

  • Career advancement: Earning a CDA certification can qualify you for promotions within your early childhood education career.

  • Confidence: Having this certification may help you feel more comfortable working with children.

Related: 9 Rewarding Careers in Early Childhood Education (ECE)

Types of CDA credentials

There are four work settings candidates can choose to receive their CDA credential in:

  1. Center-based preschool: Preschool settings are typically center-based with at least eight children enrolled. Children's ages range from 3 to 5 years old.

  2. Center-based Infant and toddler: Infant and toddler settings are also center-based, but the children are often younger than 3. It can help to work in state-approved development centers where professional development (PD) specialists can observe candidates working with infants and toddlers.

  3. Family child care: Family child care settings provide candidates with the ability to interact with at least two children under the age of 5 in a home setting. In states where there are child care facility requirements, these settings need to meet the minimum state laws and regulations.

  4. Home visitor: Candidates applying for a home visitor credential may need to follow a slightly different application process. Home visitors work in established child care programs with children under 5, where they visit homes to support parents and caretakers in meeting children's needs.

Related: What Is Early Childhood Education?

How to get a CDA certification

If you're interested in pursuing your CDA certification, here are steps you can take to get started:

1. Get your high school diploma

To qualify to receive a CDA certification, you should first earn your high school diploma, GED or enroll in an early childhood education career or technical program as a high school junior or senior. High school technical programs can be a good place to work on the hourly requirements for the CDA certification. High school candidates enrolled in an early childhood development program can use their training hours to count toward the formal education requirement.

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2. Complete 120 hours of training in the CDA subject areas

Early childhood education training focuses on the growth and development of children under the age of 5. Formal education hours do not have to be for credit. Consider going through an agency or organization specializing in early childhood teacher preparation to complete the training.

To have the training count toward the formal education requirement, the Council for Professional Recognition may ask for an official transcript, letter or certificate as proof of the completed requisite number of training hours. The Council for Professional Recognition requires candidates to complete 120 hours of training in the eight CDA subject areas with at least 10 hours spent in each area. The CDA subject areas are:

  • Learning environment: This portion of study focuses on how to create safe learning environments for young children.

  • Intellectual development: The CDA certification emphasizes nurturing children's development both intellectually and physically.

  • Emotional development: Emotional development focuses on the support and cultivation of young children's social and emotional development.

  • Family relationships: A child's home environment can be crucial to their social, physical and emotional development. CDA-certified professionals work to nurture productive family relationships.

  • Program operation: This area of training focuses on the successful management and operation of effective child care programs.

  • Professionalism: A commitment to professional conduct can be an important aspect of getting a CDA certification.

  • Children's behavior: Training teaches candidates to observe, record and analyze children's behavior so they can better understand their development.

  • Principles of development and education: This portion of the training emphasizes the basic principles of children's education and development.

Related: 26 College Majors for Working With Children

3. Choose your experience type

To earn your certification, you can choose the type of experience you want to pursue, including settings such as preschool, infant-toddler, family child care and home visitor. Choosing your desired setting can help you gain work experience in the area you want to work in, which is a requirement for this certification.

4. Gain 480 hours of experience working with children

To complete this step of the certification process, your work experience can be unpaid, but you should try to gain experience within the area you plan to apply for. Whether that's working with infants and toddlers, preschoolers, home visits or family child care, it's recommended that you complete your work experience in a center-based program. These programs often have at least two caregivers and 10 or more children enrolled in the program. To have your hours count toward the certification, complete the on-the-job experience requirement within three years of taking the exam.

Related: How To Write a Child Care Provider Resume

5. Complete a CDA application and professional portfolio

You can apply online for a CDA application or complete a physical application provided in the “CDA Competency Standards” text. You can pay the non-refundable fee to receive a notification when you’re ready to schedule your exam and verification visit.

Within six months of applying, follow the outline provided in the “CDA Competency Standards” book to complete a professional portfolio. Portfolios comprise necessary documentation, family questionnaires, competency statements, resources and a philosophy statement. During the certification process, you receive a verification visit where a specialist reviews this professional portfolio.

6. Take the CDA certification exam

Multiple testing centers offer the CDA certification exam. You can use the online location tool to find the nearest testing facility. The proctored exams contain 65 multiple-choice questions, including some situational assessments. Testing centers automatically submit your scores to the council. The council scores this exam on a scale of zero to 100, with a passing score of 70 or higher. Often, candidates learn what score they earn within one to three days of completing the exam.

Related: Employment Tests: What They Are and How To Prepare

7. Find a PD specialist to complete your verification visit

Once you’ve completed your required training hours, gained relevant work experience and compiled your professional portfolio, the Council for Professional Development sends a notice telling you that you’re ready to schedule a visit with a CDA professional development specialist (PD). The verification visit includes:

  • An audit of the professional portfolio

  • Observation of work with children (at your workplace or volunteer setting)

  • A final review of the portfolio and the supervised session to discuss areas of strength and room for growth

To schedule an appointment, visit the council’s database. The site generates a list of PD specialists close by so you can send a request for a nearby specialist to conduct your visit. PD specialists send you an identification number that’s necessary to complete and submit your application. The sessions typically take place at the child care center or home where you work or volunteer.

8. Submit exam and verification scores to the Council of Professional Recognition

To receive a CDA certification, submit all the scores from your exam and information from your visitation to the Council of Professional Recognition. Usually, if you file your application correctly, you can expect a decision within one to three business days. Once you receive this verification, your certification status is valid.

Related: FAQ: What Is the CDA Certification?

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Tips for earning a CDA certification

Consider these tips to help you in this certification process:

Consider purchasing a copy of "CDA Competency Standards"

While the Council for Professional Recognition doesn't offer any training programs, there are several books available to purchase on their website. They strongly recommend buying a copy of the "CDA Competency Standards" to help prepare for the exam and understand the certification process and components. There are different versions available to purchase for each of the specific certification settings.

Keep the certification current

The CDA certification expires after three years, so be sure to apply for a certification renewal within 90 days of its expiration to maintain your credential. You can apply for renewal up to six months prior to its expiration, so it’s helpful to plan for this process. To renew your certification, you can visit the Council’s website to gather the documents you use for your application.

Create a studying schedule

Studying for the CDA exam can help ensure you pass it the first time, which saves time and money. To help you do this, consider scheduling time each week specifically for studying. This can help you stay accountable for your study habits. You might also consider finding other certification applicants online or within your professional network to create a study group.

Frequently asked questions

What roles use the CDA certification?

Roles in early childhood education typically use the CDA certification. These roles include:

  • Daycare director

  • Preschool teacher

  • Kindergarten teacher

  • Early childhood tutor

Is a CDA the same as an associate's degree?

No. A CDA isn't the equivalent of an associate's degree or other accredited degrees from a college or university.

Is a CDA certification worth college credit hours?

This depends on the college or university you want to attend. Some institutions offer three credit hours for CDA certifications that students earned previously.

Please note that none of the companies mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

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