Professional Ethics - Early Childhood Education - Pedagogy

Early Childhood Education

Professional Ethics


A commitment to ethical behavior is an essential component of every profession. Each profession (occupation with a commitment to a significant social value) has a unique conception of its ethical obligations based on the nature of its contribution to society, its history, and its values. Codes of ethics are part of the identity of the profession and provide guidelines for the ethical conduct of its practitioners. As an occupation that makes the significant contribution of educating and caring for the young in our society, the early care and education field is striving to become recognized as a profession. Part of this process is attention to professional ethics. Ethics is a particularly significant endeavor for the early care and education field because the children who are served are young and therefore vulnerable. The development of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) Code of Ethical Conduct was an important step in raising awareness of the moral and ethical dimensions of the early childhood educator’s work and has provided a common framework for thinking about ethics and addressing ethical issues that arise in the work of early childhood educators.


Morality and Ethics

Morality refers to beliefs about right and wrong that guide an individual’s behavior. Ethics addresses a range of values relating to morality and what is considered to be right and proper. Ethics can be defined as the explicit and critical reflection on moral beliefs. It is the study of right and wrong, duty and obligation. “Doing ethics” means making choices between values and examining the moral dimensions of relationships. Ethics builds on an individual’s personal values and morality.

Professional ethics involves reflection on moral beliefs and practices, carried on collectively and systematically by the members of a profession. The goal of a profession is to meet the needs of clients and to use knowledge for the good of society. The responsibilities of a profession are set forth in a code of ethics— one of the hallmarks of a profession. A code assures the society that practitioners who perform a particular role will provide their services in accordance with high standards and acceptable moral conduct.


Codes of Ethics

A code of ethics reflects the shared understandings and combined wisdom of a group of professionals. A code acknowledges the obligations that individual practitioners share in meeting the profession’s responsibility. A code, which lays out the profession’s firmly held beliefs, can be a unifying force in a profession, providing a vision of what good professionals should be like and how they should behave. It also gives a framework for ethical decision making, offering guidance to practitioners in making choices that serve the best interests of their clients. It can also support a person who takes a risky but courageous stand and can provide the justification for a difficult decision.

A code of ethics helps people who work in a field to address issues that cannot be settled by research or by law and it supports them in doing what is right, not what is easiest, most comfortable, or will make them most popular. A code of ethics is not a legal or regulatory document. It differs from laws, policies, and regulations in that the code’s focus is on individuals, not agencies, programs, or organizations. It guides but does not mandate professionals’ efforts to address the most difficult situations of the workplace. Codes of professional ethics vary. Some are general and inspirational, while others are designed to provide specific guidance to practitioners in addressing ethical dilemmas that they encounter in their work.


The Naeyc Code of Ethical Conduct

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has been involved in work on professional ethics since the 1970s. The first publication that focused on professional ethics, Ethical Behavior in Early Childhood Education, was authored by Lilian Katz and Evangeline Ward (1978/1991). In this work the authors describe several aspects of working with young children with significant ethical implications. The first and most compelling reason for early childhood educators to be concerned with ethics is the vulnerability of young children and the resulting power and status of the adults who work with them. Another reason is that early childhood educators serve many client groups (children, families, employing agencies, and the community) and therefore must be able to prioritize the interests, needs, and demands of one group over another. A third reason has to do with the ambiguity of the role of the early childhood educator who, in the course of the day, may assume many different roles, including caregiving functions that are much like those of a parent. It is to be expected that tensions sometimes develop between teachers/caregivers and children’s parents when they have different views about how these children should be raised.

The Katz and Ward book, first released in 1978, served to document the field’s need for a code of ethics to assist early childhood educators in fulfilling their many responsibilities and creating and maintaining multiple complex relationships while working effectively with young children and their families.

In 1984, NAEYC Governing Board created an Ethics Commission, chaired by Stephanie Feeney, which embarked on the task of exploring and clarifying the profession’s understanding of its ethical responsibilities. The first edition of the code now in use was developed through a process led by Feeney and Kenneth Kipnis, a philosopher who served as a consultant during the development of the code. They began by publishing a survey in NAEYC’s journal, Young Children. Results from that survey demonstrated that members agreed that the development of a code was an important priority. This began a two-year-long process during which workshops were held to reach consensus on the field’s core values; vignettes were published in the journal, asking readers to send responses describing that they believed “the good early childhood educator” should do when faced with a variety of ethical dilemmas.

Working with the information gleaned from the membership through these efforts, Feeney and Kipnis presented the first draft of the code to the NAEYC Board in November 1988. After making the revisions recommended by the Board, the NAEYC Code of Ethical Conduct was approved in July 1989 and published in Young Children that November. The Code has been revised three times since its original adoption, in 1992, 1997, and 2005.

The NAEYC Code includes a Preamble; a list of core values; and sections exploring ethical responsibilities to children, families, community, and society. It also includes a statement of commitment—a personal expression of agreement with the values and responsibilities shared by all early childhood educators.

The core values articulated in the Code are firmly grounded in the history and literature of the field. They reflect members’ central beliefs, their commitment to society, and a common purpose embraced by early childhood field. These core values are the foundation that makes it possible for early childhood educators to move from personal values and beliefs to a shared understanding of the professional values held by everyone in the field.

Each of the Code’s four sections includes a brief introduction, a list of Ideals and a list of Principles. Ideals point the individual in the direction of desirable and exemplary professional behavior. The Principles identify practices that are required, those that are permitted, and those that are prohibited. Principles are the basis for distinguishing acceptable from unacceptable behavior. Typically the violation of such a rule involves betrayal of some core value of the profession.

In 2004, a Supplement for Early Childhood Adult Educators was released jointly by NAEYC, the National Association of Early Childhood Teacher Educators (NAECTE), and the American Associate Degree Early Childhood Educators (ACCESS). It addresses the unique needs of those who work with adult learners who are either working in, or preparing to work in, early childhood education.


The NAEYC Code Is a Living Document

Because NAEYC is a membership organization open to all who are interested in young children and early care and education, its code is not enforced as are those of professional groups like doctors and lawyers who have strong organizations charged with regulating the profession. But the NAEYC ethical guidelines have had a strong impact on practice in early childhood education. This influence can be attributed to NAEYC’s commitment to making the Code widely available, building it into the association’s activities and making it visible to members through regular publications and conference presentations.

The NAEYC Code of Ethics is available in the form of inexpensive brochures published by NAEYC in English and Spanish. And it is included in most basic texts in early childhood education. It can also be found on the NAEYC Web site ( by following links to Resources ^ Position Statements  Improving early childhood education and professionalism. NAEYC has invested in educating its members about the Code and in helping members learn how to apply it. They have published two books devoted to ethics: a basic text Ethics and the Early Childhood Educator (Feeney and Freeman, 1999) and Teaching the NAEYC Code of Ethical Conduct: Activity Sourcebook (Feeney, Freeman, and Moravcik, 2000), a book of activities and resources helpful to those teaching about the code and its application. These resources have been widely distributed and have played an influential role enhancing practitioners’ professionalism.

The Code does not provide answers for all the thorny dilemmas of practice. The supporting and interpretive literature mentioned earlier does not play that role either—they offer neither cookbook formulas for finding one best solution, nor an exhaustive list of dilemmas and their “best” solutions. What these resources do offer, however, are tools to help early childhood educators approach difficult situations methodically and systematically, and to reach resolutions that are fair and defensible. It assures early childhood professionals that they are not alone when they take the moral high ground described by their Code of Ethics.

Further Readings: Feeney, Stephanie, and Nancy K. Freeman (1999). Ethics and the early childhood educator. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education for Young Children; Feeney, Stephanie, Nancy K. Freeman, and Eva Moravcik (2000). Resources for teaching the NAEYC Code. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education for Young Children; Katz, Lilian G., and Evangeline H. Ward (1978). Ethical Behavior in Early Childhood Education. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education for Young Children; Katz, Lilian G. (1995). Ethical issues in working with young children. In Lilian G. Katz, ed., Talks with teachers of young children: A collection. (pp. 237-252). Norwood, NJ: Ablex; Kidder, R. M. (1995). How good people make tough decisions: Resolving the dilemmas of ethical living. New York: Simon & Schuster; National Association for the Education of Young Children. (1989/1997). Code of Ethical Conduct. Available online at National Association for the Education of Young Children, Code of Ethical Conduct: Supplement for Early Childhood Adult Educators 2004; Available online at Nash, Robert J. (1996). “Real world” ethics: Frameworks for educators and human service professionals. New York: Teachers College Press. Strike, Kenneth A., and J. J. Soltis, eds. (1992). The ethics of teaching. 2nd ed. New York: Teachers College Press.

Stephanie Feeney and Nancy K. Freeman