An Introduction to Ethics
Early childhood educators work with children at a critical stage in their development. Because we can do so much good and also do harm, our actions must be dedicated to the best interests of the young children we serve. We (the authors of this book and our colleagues at the National Association for the Education of Young Children—NAEYC) believe that a moral commitment to children is an important foundation for our work.
In this book, the term teacher generally refers to the adult responsible for the direct care and education of a group of children in any early childhood setting (including infant and toddler caregivers and family child care providers). The term practitioner also includes administrators. The inclusive term early childhood educator refers to individuals in these roles as well as college and university faculty and other adult educators.
This chapter addresses the following introductory topics:
• The early childhood educator as a person
• Personal morality and ethics
• The nature of professions
• Professional values and professional ethics
Your role as an early childhood educator is complex, intense, intimate, and essential to children’s well-being. You work closely with children, families, and colleagues. You are expected to meet children’s basic needs and nurture their physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development and at the same time support their families as children’s first and most important teachers. In your complex role, you are likely to face challenging ethical issues like these:
• A child in your classroom often acts aggressively and sometimes hurts other children. The other children are afraid of this child, and parents are beginning to complain.
• A parent asks you to not let her 4-year-old son nap at school. She goes to work early in the morning and needs her son to be able to fall asleep at night so they can both be on time in the morning.
• A parent asks you to not let her daughter engage in messy play at school. She says that it is too hard to get paint and clay out of her child’s hair and clothing.
In the staff lounge, you hear a coworker make an insulting joke about children and families of a particular ethnic group. Everyone but you laughs.
• Your program requires you to spend most of the school day teaching academic skills to 4-year-olds using whole group, direct instruction and worksheets rather than developmentally appropriate activities.
• A child comes to school with bruises that she says she got from falling down the stairs. She looks fearful when you ask for more information about what happened.
• A boy in your class likes to wear a princess dress in the dramatic play area. His father arrives one day to see his child wearing the dress and playing princess. Upset, he asks you to never again allow his child to dress as a girl.
• You learn that three children, all boys, have recently been suspended from your program because of its policy stating that aggressive behavior will not be tolerated.
• When school starts in the fall, you learn that over the summer a child in your class of 5-year-olds transitioned from identifying as a girl by the name of Margo to identifying as a boy and wanting to be called Max. The parents, however, insist that you continue to treat and refer to their child as a girl.
See the glossary
for definitions of words that appear in boldface throughout the book.
If you have faced ethical issues like these that require you to determine what is right and wrong, that concern rights and responsibilities, and that affect individuals’ personal welfare, it would be natural to use your common sense and best judgment to decide what to do. You might consider what would be good for a particular child, fair to the other children, or what you had done in the past. You might also refer to your program’s policies or guidelines to guide your decision-making process.
Although personal decision-making skills and program policies are valuable, they are not always enough to guide professional practice. You are likely to encounter situations in which you must make a difficult decision or work with a family or colleague who challenges decisions you have made based on your best judgment. When that happens, you may find that your previous experience has not prepared you for the situation and your program does not address it in its policies. These situations call for agreed-upon standards of behavior based on the history and collective wisdom of members of your profession. The NAEYC Code of Ethical Conduct was written to provide guidance for understanding and navigating difficult ethical issues in early childhood education.
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Have you encountered challenges similar to those described in this chapter? Where did you turn for help? What would you say to a friend or colleague who is facing one of these situations and asks for your advice?
The Early Childhood Educator as a Person
Your personal attributes, values, and morality and ethics reflect who you are. You bring these features to the workplace, and they form the foundation for who you will be as a professional.
Personal attributes are an inherent part of you. They include your temperament (inborn ways of responding to situations, such as activity level and attention span) and disposition (tendencies to respond to experiences in certain ways, such as with cooperation and creativity). Reflect on the personal attributes that you bring to the workplace; they have a powerful influence on your relationships with children, families, and colleagues. Some of the most desirable attributes for early childhood educators are kindness, warmth, sensitivity, the ability to nurture others, self-awareness, respect for others, fairness, passion, perseverance, patience, flexibility, creativity, love of learning, energy, positive outlook, and emotional stability (Colker 2008).
Values are qualities or principles that individuals believe to be desirable or worthwhile and that they prize for themselves, others, and the world in which they live (e.g., truth, beauty, honesty, justice, respect for people and the environment). The priorities and goals you set for yourself and for the children in your care reflect your values.
Your family’s values have greatly influenced the personal values you hold today, as have your religious background, community and culture, and life experiences. There are countless ways these personal values guide your personal and professional decisions, including what you choose to do with your time, what you read and watch, what you eat, where you live, the kind of work you do, and what you do for fun and relaxation. If you spend some time reflecting, you will be able to identify your personal values and see what a profound influence they have on your life.
How do your personal values influence what you want to accomplish in your work with children and families? Do you emphasize collaboration or individual achievement? Do you think nurturing creativity is worthwhile? Do you think children’s social and emotional development is as important as their cognitive development? Do you think that it is more important for children to learn to respect authority or to question authority? Although you may be passionately attached to your values, you might discover that some of your colleagues and the families you serve have different views.
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Identify some personal values that led you to choose to work with young children. How might these be reflected in your work with children and families?
Personal Morality and Ethics
Morality is what people view as good, right, or proper; their beliefs about their obligations; and ideas about how they should behave. Personal morality begins to develop in the early years. You can probably identify the standards of behavior that the adults you looked up to established in your home, place of worship, and neighborhood. Telling the truth, being fair, putting family first, respecting elders, and treating others with respect are some of the earliest lessons that most of us learned. When you immediately know the right way to respond to a situation that involves an issue like truth, fairness, or respecting others, it is because your personal morality is showing you the way. These early lessons about right and wrong have helped to shape the way you address moral issues during adulthood, including those you encounter in the workplace.
Ethics is the study of right and wrong, duty, and obligation. It involves critical reflection on morality and the ability to examine the moral dimensions of relationships. And it involves choosing between competing values. You are facing an ethical issue when you must decide whether it is more important to always be totally honest with others, even if doing so would likely hurt their feelings, or to be somewhat dishonest in order to avoid hurting their feelings. Choosing either total honesty or telling a “white lie” to avoid hurting someone’s feelings is not easy; it requires you to reflect on various factors of the particular situation and to make an ethical decision as to how to balance truthfulness with respect for another’s feelings.
You can see that both ethics and morality involve the ability to make choices among values and to make decisions about right and wrong. Although these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, in this book we will use the term morality to refer to your personal beliefs about right and wrong and the term ethics to refer to conscious deliberation about moral choices.
The Teacher as a Moral Person
You play an important role in teaching children about morality. And while it is not the subject of this book, it is important to remember that you are a role model of ethical conduct and moral values in your day-to-day interactions with children, families, your colleagues, and the community. Certainly, if you want children to be caring and compassionate human beings, you need to be an example of these behaviors. You demonstrate moral behavior by being honest, keeping your promises, being fair, respecting each child as an individual, and treating every child and adult with kindness and respect.
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What are some of your strongly held moral beliefs? Reflect on the experiences in your life that led you to develop these views of morality.
To understand professional ethics and how it contributes to your work as an early childhood educator, you need to understand how professions differ from other occupations. Think about the different roles people play in modern society. Some occupations require practitioners to have specialized knowledge to provide a service to society. These occupations are considered to be professions. A professional is an individual who carries out the work of a profession. A professional must have specialized educational training, competence, and a commitment to the public good. All professionals are responsible for promoting a social value that is essential to people’s well-being; for example, those with med...