|YOUNG CHILDREN | September 2012|
|Differing Faiths in a Faith-Based Program: The Response|
by Stephanie Feeney, Nancy K. Freeman and Rabbi Meir Muller
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In the May 2012 issue of Young Children, Rabbi Meir Muller—Focus on Ethics’s first guest editor—presented a situation set in a faith-based program. This column analyzes the responses provided by early childhood educators in reflecting on how best to use the Code to help a teacher follow the most ethically defensible course of action when responding to children’s different religious beliefs in a Jewish early childhood center. This is the situation:
Leah teaches 4-year-olds in a Jewish early childhood center where 60 percent of the children are being raised in the Jewish faith. When Leah was interviewing for this position, the director of the school explained to her that the holidays, culture, and customs of Judaism are taught daily through hands-on joyful explorations. The director also gave Leah a copy of the school policies, which each family and staff member receives. The policy clearly states that while all religions are respected, Judaism is the only religion taught in the classrooms. Leah, who is Jewish, is careful to respect each child’s culture while remaining true to the school’s stated mission of teaching only the Jewish religion.
During her first December at the center, Leah asked the director how to respond to a child who asked if he could bring an ornament from his Christmas tree for show-and-tell. The director told Leah that the child could bring in the ornament. The director emphasized that Leah should validate the child’s feelings about the beauty and meaning of his home celebration, but that she should curtail further conversation and not display the ornament in the classroom. Leah felt the show-and-tell went well; she allowed the child to discuss his home celebrations and validated his remarks while remaining true to the school’s policy. However, a week later a circle-time conversation proved more difficult.
Leah asked if the children had any final comments or questions. One girl said, “My mommy told me that Jesus was born on Christmas and that Jesus is God.” When Leah began to validate the statement by saying, “I understand that your mommy told you that . . .”, another child interrupted and said, “We do not believe in Jesus.” The first child turned to Leah and said, “Jesus is God. Tell him that it is true.”
Leah knows that her center’s policy is to not continue this conversation, that her own faith of Judaism does not equate Jesus and God, and that most of the parents in the class expect her to state the Jewish view. However, she also reflects that almost half of the children in the class are not Jewish and very well might believe in Jesus. Finally, she feels strongly that it would be a real disservice to the children to just offer a superficial response.
What do you think a good early childhood educator should do in this situation? How could Leah use the NAEYC Code to guide her thinking and decision making?
The process for resolving a dilemma
1. Identify the problem and determine if it involves ethics.
The first step in addressing a workplace problem is to determine if it involves ethics. This involves considering whether the terms right and wrong or fair and unfair can be applied to the situation. Thinking about how to respond to a child’s comments in her class led Leah to wonder if it was right of her not to pursue the child’s comments about Christianity in more depth and whether the school policy of teaching only about Judaism was fair to all the children. Since the terms right and fair could be applied in this situation, Leah knew that it involved ethics.
Next, Leah considered whether the situation involved an ethical responsibility (has only one defensible response) or if it is an ethical dilemma (has at least two possible justifiable resolutions). Some of the respondents to this case felt that the school’s policy could be harmful to children if it meant their questions and comments about religious practices or beliefs were silenced or ignored. If this were the case, Leah would have to determine whether she was violating Principle 1.1 of the NAEYC Code of Ethical Conduct, which states, “Above all, we shall not harm children.” If she believed that the school’s policy could result in harm to children, Leah would be facing an ethical dilemma. She would have to choose between her obligation to honor school policy and her ethical obligation to do nothing harmful to children. Since P-1.1 has precedence over all of the other items in the Code, in this situation she would have a clear moral obligation to challenge the policy.
But Leah does not think that her actions were detrimental to the children, as she responded to, nurtured, and supported their statements. That means that this case is not as clear-cut as some of the others we have explored in this column. Does it in fact pose a true ethical dilemma? Leah decides to refer to the NAEYC Code of Ethical Conduct to help her better understand the situation and decide on an ethical response.
2. Identify applicable Core Values.
Leah begins her exploration of the Code by looking at its Core Values. She identifies the following as pertinent to her situation:
These Core Values remind Leah of what the early childhood field considers important, but they don’t offer guidance about how she should address religion in her classroom.
Above all, we shall not harm children. We shall not participate in practices that are emotionally damaging, physically harmful, disrespectful, degrading, dangerous, exploitative, or intimidating to children. This principle has precedence over all others in this Code.
— NAEYC Code, Principle 1.1, Ethical Responsibilities to Children
3. Identify the stakeholders affected by the situation.
Those who have an interest in an ethical situation are referred to as stakeholders, to suggest that they have a stake in the outcome. As she thinks about stakeholders, Leah realizes that she has obligations to the following people and groups who might be affected by her actions:
|While not asked to identify themselves by faith, some of the respondents to this case indicated that they were Jewish. The Jewish educators took the position that all children should be allowed to describe their faith-based practices, but that the teacher had no ethical obligation to offer explanations or provide curriculum that addressed religions other than Judaism. Their rationale was that because the dominant culture of United States is Christian, and children are routinely exposed to many Christian traditions and beliefs, Jewish children, who are part of a small minority (2 percent of US population [US Census Bureau 2012]), benefit from the experience of an exclusive focus on Judaism. Those who did not identify themselves as Jewish appeared to be more concerned that an exclusive focus on Judaism could be detrimental to the self-esteem of non-Jewish children. They were more likely to hold the view that the teacher should elaborate on each child’s faith and include study of different beliefs in the classroom.|
4. Look for guidance in the NAEYC Code.
Leah decides that she should carefully review the Code in order to better understand the situation and seek insight into how she should act in the future.
Participants in classes and conference sessions who worked on this situation identified 23 Ideals and Principles that have some bearing on Leah’s situation. The following were mentioned most frequently:
Section I: Ethical responsibilities to children
I-1.10—To ensure that each child’s culture, language, ethnicity, and family structure are recognized and valued in the program.
P-1.1—Above all, we shall not harm children. We shall not participate in practices that are emotionally damaging, physically harmful, disrespectful, degrading, dangerous, exploitative, or intimidating to children. This principle has precedence over all others in this Code.
P-1.2—We shall care for and educate children in positive emotional and social environments that are cognitively stimulating and that support each child’s culture, language, ethnicity, and family structure.
Section II: Ethical responsibilities to families
I-2.5—To respect the dignity and preferences of each family and to make an effort to learn about its structure, culture, language, customs, and beliefs to ensure a culturally consistent environment for all children and families.
Section III: Ethical responsibilities to colleagues/employers
P-3B.1—We shall follow all program policies. When we do not agree with program policies, we shall attempt to effect change through constructive action within the organization.
5. Identify the most ethically defensible course of action.
As Leah reflects on her response of allowing the child to share a Christmas tree ornament from home, she realizes her director encouraged her to validate its importance in the child’s life. This demonstrates to her that the school’s policy is flexible and responsive to children’s needs.
Leah also remembers that in addressing the statement that “Jesus is God,” she validated and acknowledged that she understood what the child’s mother had told the child. What she wasn’t sure about was how to respond appropriately to the child’s final assertion, “Jesus is God. Tell him that it is true.” In thinking about how to respond to statements like this in the future, Leah sees that items in Sections I, II, and III of the Code could help her to craft her response.
Section I of the Code, which addresses responsibilities to children, directs Leah to first and foremost make sure she is not causing the child any harm (P-1.1). If Leah feels any of her previous responses harmed the child in any way, she must make immediate changes in future interactions. She would also need to take action if she thought that the school policy directed her to behave in ways that were harmful to children. Items in this section also direct her to ensure that children’s culture, language, ethnicity, and family structure are recognized and valued in the program (I-1.10) and that the program should provide a positive emotional and social environment that supports each child’s culture, language, ethnicity, and family structure (P-1.2).
Section II focuses on responsibilities to families and guides Leah to think deeply about the meaning of creating a “culturally consistent environment.” And Section III, which deals with responsibilities to employers, indicates that Leah should strive to follow the program’s policy.
Based on her review of the Code, Leah realizes that she can maintain cultural consistency and respect different religions by responding to, nurturing, and supporting the children’s statements and allowing them to share their beliefs. She can allow the children to share their home cultures and even bring in artifacts while following the program’s rules by not elaborating on the tenets of another faith. She concludes that since she can honor both the voices of the children and the program’s policy, she is facing a situation that has an ethical component but that it is not a true ethical dilemma. She also sees that the NAEYC Code can provide helpful guidance in addressing future discussions of religion in her classroom.
The policy in Leah’s program allows her to recognize and value diverse cultures and faiths by welcoming children’s descriptions of their family’s religious traditions. In the case of a child who wanted her to confirm that “Jesus is God,” she sees that she could have responded by stating, “Your mommy told you that Jesus is God and that is what your family believes. Each family can choose what they believe. Would you like to share more with the class?”
All of the groups who discussed this situation concluded that the best course of action for Leah would be to follow up on the child’s comments with a class discussion acknowledging that there are diverse religious views and that some families have different beliefs. Doing this would allow her to acknowledge the child’s statement and would uphold the school policy of not teaching about a faith other than Judaism. Leah recognizes that support for this strategy is found in the Code.
As we have mentioned in previous Focus on Ethics columns, one of the first strategies an early childhood educator should consider when faced with a dilemma is whether ethical finesse can be employed. Ethical finesse involves finding a way to resolve the problem that satisfies all the involved parties and avoids having to make a difficult decision. Leah realizes that since she is not addressing a true ethical dilemma, finesse is not called for, and she is glad that in her situation she is able to meet the needs and interests of everyone involved.
We can imagine that Leah’s decision included much reflection on her part and discussions with her program’s director. Knowing that she was not harming children with her words allowed Leah to consider how to continue nurturing children while upholding her program’s policy. Leah realized that she could allow children to say as much as they wished to describe their religious beliefs and rituals; that she could respond to, nurture, and support the children’s words; and that she could do all of this without contradicting the program’s policy, as she did not elaborate on the beliefs of another faith. Leah was proud that she thoughtfully evaluated this policy and concluded that it allowed her to do what she knew was right for children.
Finally, Leah realized that if she were ever in a situation where school policies prevented her from acknowledging the range of family beliefs and honoring children’s home traditions and contributions, she would need to revisit her deliberation and carefully consider additional relevant items from the Code.
The situation presented in this column raised interesting and complex issues and has implications for all programs, particularly those that have a religious focus. Respondents to the situation offered many diverse and insightful suggestions. They affirmed that P-1.1 should always be considered first to ensure that school policy was not resulting in harm to children. They emphasized that it was important that children be allowed to share their home’s traditions and that teachers honor and respect children’s contributions. And the respondents all agreed that the best way to move forward was to seek guidance in the NAEYC Code of Ethical Conduct.
US Census Bureau. 2012. “Table 77: Christian Church Adherents, 2000, and Jewish Population, 2010—States.” www.census.gov/ compendia/statab/2012/tables/12s0077.pdf.
About the Authors
Stephanie Feeney, PhD, is professor emerita of education at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She has served on the governing boards of NAEYC and the National Association for Early Childhood Teacher Educators (NAECTE). Since the 1980s she has been involved in developing and teaching the NAEYC Code of Ethical Conduct. firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nancy K. Freeman, PhD, is an associate professor of early childhood education at the University of South Carolina in Columbia and director of its Yvonne and Schuyler Moore Child Development Research Center. She chairs the Governor’s Committee on the Regulation of Child Care Facilities and is the immediate past-president of NAECTE. email@example.com
Rabbi Meir Muller, PhD, earned rabbinical ordination, and is a clinical assistant professor of early childhood education, at the University of South Carolina. He is principal of Columbia Jewish Day School. Meir was awarded the Scholastic Early Childhood Educator of the Year award in 2006 and has served on the Council for NAEYC Accreditation. He has lectured across the United States and in Israel for the International Research Group on Jewish Education in the Early Years. firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our thanks go to the respondents to this situation, as well as to the students at Portland Community College in Sylvania, Oregon, who worked with Stephanie Feeney in a class on professionalism, and to the participants in Stephanie Feeney and Nancy Freeman’s session at NAEYC’s 2012 National Institute for Early Childhood Professional Development. Additional thanks to the respondents from the Alliance for Jewish Early Education.
Copyright © 2012 by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. See Permissions and Reprints online at www.naeyc.org/yc/permissions