How to Become a Certified Nursing Assistant

Becoming a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)

A certified nursing assistant (CNA) is a vital part of a medical care team. Also known as nurse's aides, direct care workers, or patient care assistants, these workers provide care for sick and injured patients under the supervision of medical and nursing staff. Their daily duties vary depeding on the health care setting in which they work. Read on the learn more about how to become a nursing assistant.

What Does a Nursing Assistant Do?

A nursing assistant provides basic health care to patients under the supervision of a registered nurse (RN) or licensed practical nurse (LPN). Nurse assistant training teaches you the clinical skills, knowledge, and bedside manner to function effectively as a certified nursing assistant. Some of the basic tasks a nursing assistant may face on the job include:

  • Observing patients' vital signs and monitoring food and liquid intake
  • Helping patients walk, exercise, and adjust their position in bed
  • Applying wound dressings
  • Supervising and directing patient exercise routines
  • Cleaning rooms and changing linens
  • Transporting patients using a wheelchair or stretcher
  • Preparing patients for surgery or examination
  • Understanding and following emergency procedures

Nursing Assistant Specializations

As a nursing assistant you could choose to specialize in:

  • Psychiatric nursing assistant - Psychiatric nursing assistants care for emotionally disturbed or mentally ill patients. Psychiatric nursing assistants socialize with patients by watching TV, playing cards, going on field trips, and participating in group activities. These assistants typically work with a team of psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses, social workers and other medical staff.
  • Home health aide - Home health aides perform their duties in private residences. Additional duties may include getting patients to and from doctor appointments, meal planning and grocery shopping and laundry. These aides usually work under the direction of a nurse and document changes to the patient's condition.

The type of facility further defines your job duties. In addition to private homes, psychiatric hospitals and nursing homes, you could work in other long-term care facilities, such as hospitals, hospice centers, and prisons.

What Are the Steps to Becoming a Nursing Assistant?

You can become a nursing assistant with a high school diploma and some on-the-job training, though you may be able to negotiate a higher wage or take a better position if you have some formal education. Generally, you can get started on your nursing assistant career by:

  1. Get a high school diploma. This is typically a base requirement for most health care jobs, and it's recommended to take high school courses in health, biology, anatomy, math and communications. These should provide the prerequisite knowledge necessary for formal training as a nursing assistant.
  2. Do community service. We recommend developing personal relationships with elderly in your community; consider volunteering at a nursing home or extended care unit in a hospital. Positive experiences with the elderly can help develop the patience and bedside manner required for this career.
  3. Enroll in a diploma or certificate program for nursing assistants. These are most commonly offered by community colleges, vocational schools, or even through organizations such as The American Red Cross.
  4. Get clinical experience. Especially if your certificate program does not offer it, shadow a nursing assistant or pursue a short-term internship at a care facility.
  5. Pass the state certification exam. This is typically required to become a certified nursing assistant. The prerequisites vary by state, but candidates are typically required to complete 75 hours of state-approved training prior to taking the exam. Check with your state board for detailed requirements.

How to Become a GREAT Nursing Assistant

Nursing assistants play an important role in the health outcomes of patients. You can learn to provide even greater care for your patients by honing your skills and staying up-to date on the latest certifications and best practices. To become a great nursing assistant, consider the following:

  • Updated Certification. Though the requirements vary by state, any nursing assistant who works in a nursing home is required to become certified according to federal law. Staying up-to-date on state certification and education requirements is critical for long-term success.
  • Continuing Education. With the continued changes to health care system and legislation, you need to protect yourself and your patients by staying aware of the latest technological advances in the field.
  • Professional Associations. Collaborating with other nursing assistants in organizations such as the National Association of Health Care Assistants or the National Network of Career Nursing Assistants may help you find job and training opportunities and allow you to become engaged in advocacy efforts.
  • Teaching. If you have a knack as a nursing assistant and for helping others to distinguish themselves as nursing assistants, you may be able to use your experience and authority in the field as an instructor.

Nursing Assistant Resources


  1. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Certified Nursing Assistants,http://www.bls.gov/OOH/healthcare/nursing-assistants.htm
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