YOUNG CHILDREN | September 2014
Response: Reporting Classroom Behavior–Balancing Responsibilities to Children and Families
by Stephanie Feeney and Nancy K. Freeman
In the March 2014 Focus on Ethics column, we presented an ethical issue that involved a parent’s request to her child’s preschool teacher. The mother asked the teacher to give regular reports on her child’s classroom behavior so that the child’s father could discipline him if his aggressive behavior continued. We have often heard similar concerns from preschool teachers and administrators. This situation gave readers an opportunity to apply the NAEYC Code of Ethical Conduct to explore how early childhood educators resolve situations that require them to balance their responsibilities to children and their families.
We were pleased with the number of responses we received to this case. We would like to thank Jaqueline Ballantine, a kindergarten teacher at Sun City Elementary School in Bossier, Louisiana; Liz Cuernavaca and the staff and teachers of Tiny Revolution Montessori and Growing Seeds Learning Community in Portland, Oregon; students in The Professional in Early Education and Family Studies course at Portland Community College; a very engaged group of participants at our ethics session at NAEYC’s 2014 National Institute for Early Childhood Professional Development (“the Institute”) in Minneapolis; and Tiffanie Auwae, a student in a graduate seminar in professionalism and ethics whom Stephanie taught at the University of Hawaii in June 2014. The complex ethical questions raised by this case led to rich and productive deliberation.
Four-year-old Joseph’s use of aggressive behavior has been a challenge for the past month. Just yesterday he kicked and injured a classmate on the playground, and unfortunately these types of incidents have become more frequent. His teacher, Arlene, has discussed the problem with his parents and has been developing a plan with her coteacher and director to help him channel his energy and emotions in more positive directions. Arlene was glad when Joseph’s mother, Victoria, stopped by the classroom recently, but Arlene didn’t know how to respond when Victoria reminded Arlene how important it is to her and her husband that Joseph behave in school. Victoria asked Arlene to report to her immediately if Joseph misbehaved so that they could punish him.
Arlene is concerned about this request because she suspects that this family’s approach to discipline is quite harsh, based on her previous conversations with Victoria and her observations of how the family interacted during a recent supper held at the school.
Resolving this dilemma
We will use the same steps for systematically applying the NAEYC Code to an ethical dilemma that we have employed in previous Focus on Ethics columns. The input we received from participants at the Institute and others who worked on this dilemma, as well as our conversations with other concerned educators, informed the discussion that follows.
1 Identify the problem and determine if it involves ethics.
When you encounter a situation that appears to have a moral dimension, the first thing to do is determine if it involves ethics (the terms right and wrong or fair and unfair can be applied) and if it is an ethical dilemma (it has at least two possible justifiable resolutions). This situation involves ethics because Arlene must decide on the right and most fair course of action. It is an ethical dilemma because she knows she must balance her responsibility to protect Joseph from harm with the obligations she has to his parents, who have a right to be informed about his learning, behavior, and development. Arlene realizes that it would be right to honor the mother’s request, but she is also tempted to censor her communication about Joseph’s behavior because she is worried that he may be harshly punished at home. The crux of the issue lies in balancing the child’s need for safety with the family’s wish to be informed about what happens at school so that they can discipline him at home. Arlene needs to decide if she will comply with the mother’s request or if she will refuse to inform her when Joseph misbehaves. She realizes she has multiple competing professional obligations.
2 Identify the stakeholders affected by the situation.
Those with an interest in an ethical situation are referred to as stakeholders, to suggest that they have a stake in the outcome. The stakeholders in this situation include
The child, Joseph. Arlene has a responsibility to keep him from harm and to foster his social and emotional development in a safe and nurturing environment.
The family. Arlene has a responsibility to keep the family informed about Joseph’s experiences at school and to respect their childrearing values, as well as their right to make decisions affecting their child.
Other children in the classroom and their families. Arlene has a responsibility to ensure that all children learn in an environment that is physically and emotionally safe.
Arlene’s coteacher and other teachers at this center. Complying with this request could lead other families to expect frequent and detailed reports about their children’s school day experiences. This practice would be time-consuming and could divert the teachers’ attention from the task of supporting children’s development and learning.
3 Brainstorm possible resolutions.
Those who worked on this case had many suggestions for how it might be resolved. Some concluded that Arlene’s primary responsibility is to respect Joseph’s family’s childrearing values and their right to make decisions concerning their child. Those who subscribed to this view prioritized the importance of maintaining a positive relationship with the family. They said that they would honor the mother’s request by informing her of Joseph’s behavior and letting her and Joseph’s father decide how to handle the situation at home. Respondents who supported this approach indicated they would make an effort talk to Joseph’s parents about appropriate discipline techniques before beginning to inform them about his aggressive behavior.
Other respondents decided that their primary responsibility must be to the child. They said they would not tell Joseph’s mother when he was rough and harmed other children because they wanted to protect him from harsh discipline. They were also concerned that if he knew that his teacher was reporting his behavior, Joseph might become afraid to come to school because it would no longer feel like a safe and nurturing place. Those who supported this approach stressed that it is important to carefully craft conversations with Joseph’s mother and make every effort to maintain a good relationship with her.
Some of those who recommended this approach realized, however, that not telling the family would eliminate the possibility that they would be able to work with them to curtail Joseph’s aggressive behavior. And they realized that if his behavior continued to escalate, other children might be at risk and other parents were likely to become concerned.
A third group of respondents took a middle path. They suggested ways for Arlene to finesse this ethical dilemma—to find a way to meet the needs of everyone involved without having to make a difficult decision.
4 Consider ethical finesse.
As we have pointed out in previous columns, it is important for educators to consider ethical finesse when addressing ethical dilemmas. This is a particularly thorny dilemma because either course of action has potential for negative consequences. If Arlene refuses to report Joseph’s aggressive behavior to his mother, she knows her relationship with his family could be damaged, possibly beyond repair. If she does report his behavior, she is concerned that he might be harmed. Because this is such a sensitive, hot-button issue, those who analyzed this case were very motivated to find ways for Arlene to avoid choosing between those two unattractive alternatives—they sought to find ways to use ethical finesse in this situation. These are some of their suggestions:
Arlene could work on building a strong, respectful relationship with Victoria. In the course of developing this relationship she could assure Victoria that she has heard and understands her request, and that she understands why her husband has asked for regular updates. She could explain that she has the family’s best interests at heart, and that she is doing all she can to meet Joseph’s needs so that he will be successful in school. She hopes that by emphasizing her commitment to working together and doing what is best for Joseph, she can gain the family’s trust that she can handle Joseph’s behavior in the classroom.
Arlene could tell Victoria that she will not agree to give her regular reports about Joseph’s behavior because child development research has demonstrated that delayed punishment is not an effective way to change children’s behavior.
Arlene could tell Victoria that she is a professional, that she is very experienced and well informed about child development and 4-year-olds’ typical behavior. She should assure Victoria that she has encountered these kinds of issues in the past and has helped many children handle their extra energy and strong emotions.
Arlene could ensure that the lines of communication remain open by agreeing to call Victoria every day. She will report, however, only Joseph’s positive behaviors and will manage any problems in the classroom when they happen. In this way she hopes she can honor Victoria’s request to some extent and at the same time strengthen their relationship.
Arlene could arrange a meeting with Victoria and her husband to discuss positive discipline techniques and demonstrate what she says and does when guiding his behavior. She can suggest that together they develop a guidance plan with clear expectations and consequences that will be consistent at home and at school, and that they follow up regularly to compare notes about how this approach is going. She might also share some resources about positive guidance and offer to answer any questions the parents might have about them.
Arlene could work with her director or a specialist in children’s challenging behaviors to determine when Joseph is most likely to become aggressive. For example, is he most likely to have difficulty during transitions, or at the end of the day when he is tired and hungry? She hopes that by identifying circumstances that trigger his aggression, it can be prevented.
Arlene could carefully examine her own practice—routines and transitions, the schedule, room arrangement, guidance strategies, and whether the child is overwhelmed by expectations or needs more novelty and stimulation—to see if any of these elements might be triggering Joseph’s behavior. She can also consider if other children are doing something to provoke him, and if he might be more successful in another classroom.
Arlene could gather more information about the child and family. Is there a health issue (e.g., a hearing problem or allergies) that is connected to the aggressive behavior? Is Joseph sleeping and eating well? Is there unusual stress at home? Is there a family crisis? She can ask Victoria if she thinks any of these factors could be causing Joseph’s challenging behaviors.
5 Look for guidance in the NAEYC Code.
If finesse does not work in this situation, Arlene will be facing a challenging decision that needs to be well supported by the NAEYC Code of Ethical Conduct. This scenario led respondents to focus on a number of Core Values, Ideals, and Principles from the Code, with emphasis on their responsibilities to children and the importance of nurturing positive relationships with all families.
Base our work on knowledge of how children develop and learn.
Appreciate and support the bond between the child and family.
Respect the dignity, worth, and uniqueness of each individual (child, family member, and colleague).
Recognize that children and adults achieve their full potential in the context of relationships that are based on trust and respect.
Ideals and Principals
The following are items in the Code related to ethical responsibilities
I-1.2—To base program practices upon current knowledge and research in the field of early childhood education, child development, and related disciplines, as well as on particular knowledge of each child.
I-1.4—To appreciate the vulnerability of children and their dependence on adults.
I-1.5—To create and maintain safe and healthy settings that foster children’s social, emotional, cognitive, and physical development and that respect their dignity and their contributions.
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.
The following are items in the Code related to ethical responsibilities to families:
I-2.2—To develop relationships of mutual trust and create partnerships with the families we serve.
I-2.3—To welcome all family members and encourage them to participate in the program, including involvement in shared decision making.
I-2.4—To listen to families, acknowledge and build upon their strengths and competencies, and learn from families as we support them in their task of nurturing children.
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.
I-2.6—To acknowledge families’ childrearing values and their right to make decisions for their children.
I-2.7—To share information about each child’s education and development with families and to help them understand and appreciate the current knowledge base of the early childhood profession.
I-2.8—To help family members enhance their understanding of their children, as staff are enhancing their understanding of each child through communications with families, and support family members in the continuing development of their skills as parents.
P-2.4—We shall ensure that the family is involved in significant decisions affecting their child.
P-2.6—As families share information with us about their children and families, we shall ensure that families’ input is an important contribution to the planning and implementation of the program.
The following items do not apply to the situation described here, but might become applicable if (1) Joseph’s behavior becomes harder to control or (2) Arlene has reason to suspect that Joseph’s father’s punishments have become abusive.
P-1.7—We shall strive to build individual relationships with each child. . . . If after such efforts have been exhausted, the current placement does not meet a child’s needs, or the child is seriously jeopardizing the ability of other children to benefit from the program, we shall collaborate with the child’s family and appropriate specialists to determine the additional services needed and/or the placement option(s) most likely to ensure the child’s success.
P-1.8—We shall be familiar with the risk factors for and symptoms of child abuse . . . and follow state laws and community procedures that protect children against abuse and neglect.
P-1.9—When we have reasonable cause to suspect child abuse or neglect, we shall report it to the appropriate community agency and follow up to ensure that appropriate action has been taken. When appropriate, parents or guardians will be informed that the referral will be or has been made.
6 Identify the most ethically defensible course of action.
If Arlene finds that her efforts to finesse this dilemma are not successful, and Victoria continues to insist that she promptly tell her whenever Joseph’s behavior is a problem, Arlene will need to make the difficult decision. The first principle in the NAEYC Code directs early childhood educators to make children’s safety and well-being their very top priority. That means that even though other items in the Code strongly support maintaining close and collaborative relationships with families and honoring their childrearing values, Arlene is justified in deciding not to inform Joseph’s mother every time he is too rough or aggressive at school.
We agree with the consensus reached by those who reviewed this case that Arlene’s primary obligation is to Joseph—this situation’s most vulnerable stakeholder—and to his safety. Most of those who worked on this case thought that if Arlene has reason to believe that complying with the mother’s request would subject Joseph to harsh and possibly inappropriate discipline, she should err on the side of protecting him and refuse to report his misbehavior to his parents.
A number of respondents to this dilemma pointed out the importance of strong parent–teacher relationships. Skilled teachers begin to work on building these from the time a child first enters a program. Arlene’s goal (which will be easier to achieve if she already has a good relationship with the family) will be to build a genuine partnership so that they address this issue together. Hopefully Joseph’s mother, and ideally his father, will be willing to meet with Arlene so that she can explain why she is not able to comply with their request. She may have shared some ideas about effective guidance techniques in her efforts to finesse this dilemma, but by relying on her knowledge of child development, one of the Code’s Core Values, she could again explain that punishing Joseph at home is not likely to be effective because inappropriate behavior needs to be responded to immediately so the child learns the effects of his actions and can be helped in his efforts to control his behavior. She can offer to review the guidance plan if they had developed one previously, and she should make certain they understand the techniques being used to deal with Joseph’s behavior while he is at the center.
During this discussion it will be important for Arlene to assure Joseph’s parents that she is a professional trained to deal with this type of situation, and since it is at present a problem only at school, she will handle it there. She will need to assure the parents that she feels well prepared to address Joseph’s behavior, but will let them know if a serious problem occurs, and if it does, she will be certain to solicit their help and support. Arlene should also agree to be available to meet with them anytime they have a specific question about her approach to guidance, and she can remind them that if at some point the center isn’t working for their family, they are free to choose a setting that better meets their needs.
Reflection on this case
This dilemma might be very similar to an issue you have faced when working with young children and their families. We know that early childhood professionals are sometimes asked by family members to do things that they think are contrary to their professional knowledge. We know, for example, that consequences must follow a child’s inappropriate behavior as soon as possible, and that punishing a child at the end of the day for a mistake he may have made in the morning will do little to change the undesirable behaviors we are trying to address.
We have concluded that in this case it is best to give priority to our ethical responsibilities to the child. However, an early childhood educator who chose, based on a specific situation, to give priority to the needs of the child also needs to be aware of her obligation to the parents and make every effort to maintain a good relationship with them. In this case the teacher realized that what the parent proposed wouldn’t be helpful, and that her best alternative was to work closely with the family and attempt to educate them about effective guidance practices.
This scenario is a good example of how having clear policies in place can help avoid these kinds of issues, and can guide your decision making when situations like this emerge. How could this issue have been avoided? We believe it would be appropriate to include a statement in a parent handbook making it clear that the program provides all families an accurate overview of their child’s day, rather than specific incidents (unless needed). This policy would keep the focus on positive reports and would avoid the risk that the child would be punished at home for something that occurred during the school day while he was being supervised by his teacher.
As our friend and colleague Cynthia Paris, an associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Delaware, wisely pointed out at the Institute session, “Whatever ethical action is taken, it should be done with patience and persistence and ongoing examination and changing to a different ethical path if necessary.” She urges early childhood educators to work to get past looking for the one quick response that will take care of it, and to realize that care and attention are always required of a professional.
About the Authors
Stephanie Feeney, PhD, is professor emerita of education at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa. She has served on the governing boards of NAEYC and the National Association for Early Childhood Teacher Educators (NAECTE). She has written extensively about professionalism and ethics and 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 professor emerita of early childhood education at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. She has served as president of NAECTE and served on its board for many years. Nancy has written extensively on professional ethics since the 1990s, and has been involved in the Code’s revisions and in the development of its supplements for program administrators and adult educators. email@example.com
An archive of Focus on Ethics columns is available at www.naeyc.org/yc/columns/focusonethics.
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