Early childhood educators often face challenging situations in the workplace, and it can sometimes be difficult to know how to proceed. When you encounter a tough situation, the first question you should ask yourself is, “Does this issue concern right and wrong, rights and responsibilities, human welfare, or individuals’ best interests?” If you answer yes to this question, you are facing an ethical issue.
How you respond to an ethical issue depends on whether the issue is an ethical responsibility or an ethical dilemma. Ethical responsibilities are mandates that are clearly spelled out in the NAEYC Code of Ethical Conduct: they describe what early childhood educators must and must not do. It is important to remember that when you encounter a situation that involves an ethical responsibility, you must follow the Code’s clear directions. Then you can be confident that when you have done the right thing, the Code is there to back you up. You can rely on it to help you explain why you made a difficult or unpopular decision.
When you determine that a situation involves ethics and that it is not a clear-cut responsibility, it is likely to be an ethical dilemma. A dilemma is a situation in which the legitimate needs and interests of two or more individuals or groups are in conflict with one another. Resolving a dilemma forces you to choose between two or more morally justifiable courses of action, each of which has some benefits but also some costs.
Below are two situations. For this discussion, select one of the situations. Address the five questions below, using the NAEYC Code of Ethical Conduct (Links to an external site.)
- Identify the problem and discuss why it involves ethics.
- Identify which, if any, of the Code’s Core Values (from page 1) apply to this situation.
- The teacher often has conflicting responsibilities. What does she owe to the child, the family, or the center where she works? (In doing an ethical analysis, it can be helpful to summarize the conflicting responsibilities as a choice between alternatives: “Should the teacher do _________ or should she do _________?”)
- Look for guidance in the NAEYC Code of Ethical Conduct. Carefully review its Ideals and Principles, particularly those that apply to responsibilities to children and families. List three relevant items in the Code and indicate how you prioritized their importance.
- Based on your review of the Code and using your best professional judgment, describe what you think is the most ethically defensible course of action for the teacher.
Situation 1 – Victor and the princess dress
Victor enjoys playing dress-up in the dramatic play area. He is a quiet and reserved child who usually follows other children’s lead. But when engaging in dramatic play, Victor’s leadership shines as he collaboratively creates scenarios with his classmates. He is particularly adept at playing characters such as firemen, princesses, bumblebees, and moms. One day Mr. Jackson, Victor’s father, who rarely comes to the center, arrives to pick up Victor and sees that he is in a pink princess costume. He curtly tells Marge, Victor’s teacher, that he does not want her to allow Victor to play in the dress-up area in the future. He then orders Victor to change, and they quickly leave. Marge is taken aback by Mr. Jackson’s behavior.
The center is devoted to fostering relationships with all of its families, and Marge has recently made great strides in attracting Victor’s family to potlucks and school workdays. The staff collectively believe that, in addition to building children’s imaginations, dramatic play enhances their social and communication skills and is an integral part of the learning process that gives children opportunities to develop abstract thinking, literacy, math, and social studies skills.
What should Marge, an ethical teacher, do? How could Marge use the NAEYC Code to guide her thinking and decision making in this situation? (Use the 5-step framework above to formulate your answer.)
Situation 2 – Jane and her milk
Jane, a petite just-turned-3-year-old is new in Kristen’s class. Her father brings her to school each day at breakfast time. As part of the USDA food program, the school serves milk each day at breakfast and lunch. Like a number of children in her class, Jane refuses milk and drinks water instead. Kristen allows children to make this choice. One day Jane’s father tells Kristen that he and his wife do not want her to allow Jane to drink water until she has drunk her milk. Kristen assures them that she will encourage Jane to drink her milk.
At the next meal, Kristen tells Jane that her family wants her to drink milk so she’ll be healthy and grow strong. Jane sobs uncontrollably. Kristen comforts her and allows her to drink water. She tells Jane she will talk to Jane’s father about letting her drink water. Jane’s eyes grow wide and she sobs even harder, saying, “Don’t tell Daddy! Don’t tell Daddy!”
What do you think a good early childhood educator should do? Should Kristen honor the wishes of the family or allow Jane to continue to drink water instead of milk? How could Kristen use the NAEYC Code to guide her thinking and decision making in this situation? (Use the 5-step framework above to formulate your answer.)