Focus on Ethics: Developing a Code of Ethics for Early Childhood Educators: Lessons Learned
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This article is dedicated to the memory of Kenneth Kipnis, philosopher, ethicist, and Professor Emeritus at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, who died on August 26, 2021. Ken was involved in NAEYC’s work on ethics from the beginning, and we benefitted immeasurably from his wisdom, guidance, humor, and knowledge of professional ethics. We are grateful for his contributions to the development of our “Code of Ethical Conduct.”
The NAEYC “Code of Ethical Conduct and Statement of Commitment” is one of NAEYC’s foundational documents. It helps define who we are as members of the early childhood profession. We are proud to have participated in the creation of the code and in NAEYC’s work on professional ethics over the past four decades. As we worked on the code and its revisions (1989, 2005, 2011), developed resources for using the code (e.g., Ethics and the Early Childhood Educator 2000, 2005, 2012, 2018; Teaching the NAEYC Code of Ethical Conduct: Resource Guide 2000, 2008, 2016), and participated in the development of code supplements for program administrators (2006, 2011) and early childhood adult educators (2004), our appreciation has deepened for the need for and power of a code of ethics for early childhood educators. Yet despite our decades of work, we have never written about the process of developing the code. The death of Kenneth Kipnis has made us reflect on the important lessons we have learned.
The time has now come for us to pass the torch to you, the next generation. In our final regular column of Focus on Ethics, we offer a brief history of the NAEYC code and share the lessons we learned about developing it. We hope this article will help the leaders of today and tomorrow ensure that NAEYC’s “Code of Ethical Conduct” continues to meet the needs of early childhood educators at present and well into the future.
What Is a Code of Ethics, and Why Is It Needed?
A code of ethics is a statement of standards of behavior agreed upon by the members of a profession, which is a group with special obligations to their society. It establishes the moral obligations that they are expected to honor. It rests on the foundation of the members’ shared values, and it expresses what they believe to be right, good, and fair.
A code of ethics provides a vision of what a profession should be and how members of that profession should behave. It builds members’ ethical awareness and judgment, provides them with guidance in decision making, gives them moral courage, and gives them a shared identity. It sends a message to society at large describing how it can expect members of that professional group to behave.
What Is NAEYC’s “Code of Ethical Conduct,” and Why Do We Need It?
Beginning in the 1970s, motivated by the publication of Lilian Katz and Evangeline Ward’s book Ethical Behavior in Early Childhood Education (1978; 1991), members of NAEYC expressed the need for a code of ethics to help them respond consistently to the ethical issues encountered in their work. At that time,Stephanie (first author) was on NAEYC’s board and was tasked with exploring the development of a code of ethics. She enlisted ethicist Kenneth Kipnis, and together they began the process of creating a code. Eva (third author) has been involved in NAEYC’s work on ethics from the beginning, and Nancy (second author) became involved in 1993.
When we began developing the “Code of Ethical Conduct,” our goal was to help early childhood educators deal with some of the pressing ethical issues they encountered in their daily work. There were, and continue to be, many such thorny issues; some of them have been addressed in the Focus on Ethics column. Frequently recurring issues involve responding to a family member who asks a teacher or administrator to do something that is not in the best interests of children; dealing with a family member who may be abusing a child; responding to a colleague who is behaving unprofessionally; and addressing state, local, or program directives to do things that are not developmentally appropriate or are potentially harmful to children.
But our initial conception of the code’s purpose was too narrow. Over the years, we have come to realize that it does much more than address specific ethical issues. Because early childhood educators work with children at a uniquely vulnerable time in their lives, they have the opportunity to do great good and the potential to do great harm. Early childhood educators perform a significant service to society, so their actions must be dedicated to the best interests of young children. Our moral commitments to children and their families and our awareness of the ethical responsibilities spelled out in the “Code of Ethical Conduct” are a cornerstone of the field’s identity and the foundation for all that we do with and for young children.
What We Learned as We Developed a Code
Our experiences developing the original NAEYC code, writing about it, teaching others about it, and participating in its revisions and supplements taught us a great deal. Some of what we learned applies to all codes of ethics—for any field, at any time, in any place. However, some are particular to our field. In this section, we begin with lessons that apply to all codes of ethics, then look at lessons that are particularly applicable to early childhood education.
An Ethical Code Must Be Grounded in Philosophy
Professor Kipnis taught us that every ethical code rests on the thinking of philosophers. We must be willing to read and think about the work of philosophers such as John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, Carol Gilligan, and Nel Noddings. This may take us out of our comfort zone; nonetheless, philosophy is essential grounding for a code of ethics. Philosophy helps us understand that an ethical code must address ethical principles including respect, fairness, autonomy, justice, and beneficence (mercy, kindness, generosity, and charity). It helps us understand that ethical deliberation is not merely a matter of instinct, but instead involves using the knowledge of ethical principles to weigh and balance our obligations to our profession’s stakeholders. A brief summary of traditions of moral philosophy that pertain to early childhood education can be found in Ethics and the Early Childhood Educator, Third Edition (2018, 26).
An Ethical Code Should Address Moral Behavior
The purpose of an ethical code is to guide professional moral behavior. It does not prescribe specifics of professional practice. Instead, items in a code must address ethical issues. These are issues of right and wrong; of duties and obligations. We have met early childhood educators who wanted the NAEYC code to include effective practices in our field. But the purpose of the code is to focus on moral behavior, not teaching or program practices. Fortunately, NAEYC has other key foundational documents (including position statements on developmentally appropriate practice and advancing equity) that address these specific topics of critical concern to early childhood educators and the field.
An Ethical Code Should Be Written for the Long Term
A code of ethics should not be written to reflect issues of the moment but should be useful in the decades to come. Because the NAEYC code was written for all early childhood educators and with the long term in mind, it has guided the field effectively for over 30 years. It has been revised twice, but those revisions have not been extensive. Since its initial adoption, one core value, items addressing assessment (which was not an issue when the code was written in the 1980s), and items strengthening our commitment to partnerships with families have been added. These were and will continue to be significant issues for the field.
An Ethical Code Should Be Carefully Constructed
Items included in a code must be clear enough to give guidance and flexible enough to apply to a wide range of individuals and programs. Principles must be written with great clarity and specificity because they are the basis for distinguishing acceptable from unacceptable professional behavior. The NAEYC “Code of Ethical Conduct” describes the ethical obligations of early childhood educators. It is organized to highlight the four primary professional relationships of teachers of young children. These are relationships with
- the community and the larger society they serve
The code defines educators’ obligations to each of these groups based on what society expects, what established early childhood educators care about and do, and what new members of the profession are learning to care about and do.
An Ethical Code Should Reflect the Circumstances and Culture of Its Particular Country
A code of ethics must be responsive to the country and culture from which it comes. In the 1980s, interest in ethics in early childhood education blossomed in many parts of the world. Colleagues in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, and Singapore were in dialogue about ethics and were involved in creating codes specific to their countries. Each was different. In countries with a strong centralized administration and state funding for early childhood programs, codes are likely to focus on what early childhood educators aspire to do and be like, not what they should and should not do. We were shocked when we learned that someone from a country with an aspirational code had publicly criticized the NAEYC code for being too prescriptive. We then realized that the critic did not understand the nature of early childhood education in the United States or that an aspirational code would not have been effective in a country like ours, where the field is fragmented and there is little centralized direction.
The NAEYC Code Should Be Responsive to the Needs of Practitioners
One of the first things we did when developing the NAEYC code was to write an article asking association members if they thought they needed a code of ethics and to share the ethical issues they faced in their work (Feeney & Kipnis 1985). Members responded to our survey and shared some of the ethical issues they were confronting. These included a case of suspected child abuse, a mother who did not want her child to nap in school, an aggressive child who was harming other children, confidentiality in a divorce case, a preschool with an inappropriately academic curriculum, and a director who lied about adult:child ratios to a licensing worker (Feeney 1987). We have heard variations on these cases many times over the years. As he read the letters that came in, Professor Kipnis commented, “These people are in ethical pain.” It is out of that pain that the code of ethics was born. Members were unanimous in their opinion that the field needed ethical guidance.
The NAEYC Code Should Be Collaboratively Developed and Informed by Real Experiences
It is a characteristic of early childhood education in the United States to deeply believe that every voice deserves to be heard. From the beginning, we believed this concept was critically important to how the NAEYC “Code of Ethical Conduct” was developed. If it was to be known and embraced by NAEYC’s members, they had to know that it was based on practitioners’ real experiences and that it involved deliberation by many members of the organization. We believed the code would not be accepted or used if it was not based on group consensus concerning moral standards of conduct.
After determining the need for a code, we conducted a series of workshops (funded by the Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation) to identify the values that members believed undergirded the work of early childhood educators. From lists generated in those workshops, we identified the core values that form the code’s foundation. In subsequent workshops, additional surveys, and conversations in college classes and conference sessions, we also collected a selection of frequently occurring ethical issues faced by early childhood professionals.
We began every discussion about ethics with real situations that were identified in the initial survey, that we had experienced, or that other educators had shared with us. These situations were written as cases that could be presented in college classes, workshops, and in Young Children (Feeney 1987). We asked participants in these discussions to answer two questions: “What should the ‘good’ (ethical) early childhood educator do in this situation?” and “What is the most ethically justifiable course of action?” The responses informed the construction of the code and served as the foundation for the analysis and guidance we provided in subsequent ethical advice. All of our subsequent work on ethics has been based on real situations from the field.
Basing ethical guidance on practitioners’ deliberations enabled us to move from individual morality to the collective wisdom of the field. It also gave members of the organization a sense of ownership in the process.
The NAEYC Code Should Reflect Consensus in the Field
A code of ethics for early childhood educators should, to the greatest extent possible, reflect the consensus of the field rather than a viewpoint that is held by some individuals or groups or that is not widely accepted. We need to be sure that our code is useful for all early childhood educators, not just today but for generations to come. It must transcend current trends, which may change over time.
At the time the code was developed, we made a decision not to use the widely accepted term “developmentally appropriate practice” (DAP) within the NAEYC code, as advised by Professor Kipnis and debated by the group working on the document. The reasoning was that the term DAP might change or fall out of favor. Professor Kipnis recommended more generic wording that would express the idea of basing our practice on the knowledge of children’s development. Given the contexts then, that seemed like wise counsel when political pressure prompted some policy makers to object to the specific term DAP.
Core Values Must Be at the Heart of the NAEYC Code
The core values of our field lie at the heart of NAEYC’s “Code of Ethical Conduct.” These are not the same as personal values. They are not a matter of preference; rather, they express what a group of professionals holds to be essential and non-negotiable. The core values of early childhood education grow from central beliefs rooted in the history of the field, and they summarize our deepest commitments. Core values are an essential foundation for the NAEYC code because they make it possible to reach agreement about ethical behavior by moving from personal values to professional values that apply to all members of the field. For example, an educator’s personal value of neatness and order could be in conflict with the core professional value of basing early childhood practice on knowledge of how children develop and learn, which suggests that educators need to support messy play. All members of the profession need to respect their field’s core values, and they should urge each other to embrace them.
The NAEYC Code Should Include Both Aspirations and Rules
Because of the lack of central organization in our field, we realized that the NAEYC code needed to address two items that have very different purposes. The first is ideals (or aspirations) that describe desirable and exemplary professional behavior. Ideals point to traits that professionals want to emulate and to a vision of what the field should be like. The second is principles (or rules of professional conduct) that clearly spell out what early childhood educators should and should not do. These are rules that members of the profession are expected to follow. They are not optional.
The NAEYC Code Must Prioritize the Welfare of Children
Each section of the NAEYC code contains both ideals and principles that are applicable to a specific area of professional responsibility (children, families, colleagues, and community and society). Based on strong consensus from the field, the code was structured to place the highest priority on the welfare of children. It was soon clear that “Above all we shall not harm children” is our field’s first and guiding principle.
If the code was to be known and embraced by NAEYC’s members, they had to know that it was based on practitioners’ real experiences and that it involved deliberation by many members of the organization.
Our code directs early childhood educators to consider the best course of action in situations involving ethics by first focusing on Principle 1.1 and asking if the action being considered could harm children. If the answer is yes, it is educators’ moral obligation always to act in the way that protects the child’s well-being.
NAEYC Code of Ethics Timeline
1977: NAEYC Governing Board develops a “Statement of Commitment” for members to embrace in their efforts to improve the quality of life for all children.
1984: Stephanie Feeney and Kenneth Kipnis, working with NAEYC’s Ethics Commission, prepare a “Draft Code of Ethics and Statement of Commitment.”
1989: Following a five-year review by NAEYC members, the Governing Board approves the “NAEYC Code of Ethical Conduct and Statement of Commitment.” The code is to be reviewed at intervals deemed appropriate by the Governing Board for possible revisions.
1992: NAEYC Governing Board adopts revisions to the code.
1997: NAEYC Governing Board adopts revisions to the code.
2004: The board approves the “Supplement for Adult Educators.” This addition to the “Code of Ethical Conduct” is developed in collaboration with the National Association of Early Childhood Teacher Educators, the Associate Degree Early Childhood Teacher Educators, and the Division of Early Childhood of the Council for Exceptional Children.
2005: Significant revisions are made to the code and adopted by the NAEYC Governing Board. These include the addition of a new core value, nine new ideals, and 14 new principles. Revisions focus primarily on respect for diversity and concerns regarding accountability and child assessments.
2006: NAEYC Governing Board approves the “Supplement for Early Childhood Program Administrators.” This addition is developed with input from practitioners and the assistance of a board-appointed advisory workgroup.
2011: The “NAEYC Code of Ethical Conduct and Statement of Commitment” is reaffirmed and updated to strengthen early childhood educators’ ethical responsibilities to families. This version is the one used today.
What Is Next?
Our code has served us well for over 32 years, and we hope that it will continue to guide moral decision making in our field for a long time to come. If we have done our work well; if our code is well-grounded in philosophy and reflects respect, fairness, autonomy, justice, and beneficence; if we have written not for concerns of the moment but for the enduring issues that early childhood educators face; if we have captured the core values that lie at the heart of who we are—then the NAEYC “Code of Ethical Conduct” will continue to withstand the test of time.
Our field will encounter—you will encounter—new issues and challenges. We pass this “Code of Ethical Conduct” on to the next generation of early childhood educators. We hope you will view it not as a sacred text but instead as a living document that strengthens our commitment to the diverse children we all serve. We pass the torch to you with hope and trust.
10-Plus Years of Focus on Ethics (2011-2022)
|Developing a Code of Ethics for Early Childhood Educators: Lessons Learned||Stephanie Feeney, Nancy K. Freeman, and Eva Moravcik||Vol. 77, No. 1, Spring 2022, pp. 84-88|
|Professional Boundaries in Early Childhood Education: Working with Families||Stephanie Feeney, Nancy K. Freeman, and Eva Moravcik||Vol. 75, No. 5, December 2020, pp. 72-78|
|The Code and COVID-19||Meier Muller and Angela C. Baum||Vol.75, No.4, pp. 72-77|
|Gender Expression and Identity—The Case and Response||Stephanie Feeney, Nancy K. Freeman, with Katie Schaffer||Vol. 74, No. 5, November 2019, pp. 84-93|
|Don’t Let My Son Dress Up as a Girl!—The Response||Stephanie Feeney and Nancy K. Freeman||Vol. 72, No. 4, September 2017, pp. 90-93|
Ethical Finesse: A Strategy to Resolve Ethical Issues
Don’t Let My Son Dress Up as a Girl!—The Dilemma
|Stephanie Feeney and Nancy K. Freeman||
Vol. 72, No. 1, March 2017, pp. 87-89
Vol. 72, No. 1, March 2017, p. 87
|Make Sure My Child Drinks Her Milk—The Response||Eva Moravcik, Stephanie Feeney, and Nancy K. Freeman||Vol. 71, No. 4, September 2016, pp. 88-92|
Ethical Issues: Responsibilities and Dilemmas
Make Sure My Child Drinks Her Milk—The Dilemma
|Eva Moravcik, Stephanie Feeney, and Nancy K. Freeman||
Vol. 71, No. 1, March 2016, pp. 86-89
Vol. 71, No. 1, March 2016, p. 88
|A Difficult Working Relationship—The Response||Stephanie Feeney, Nancy K. Freeman, and Ingrid Anderson||Vol. 70, No. 4, September 2015, pp. 96-99|
Smartphones and Social Media: Ethical Implications for Educators
A Difficult Working Relationship—The Dilemma
|Stephanie Feeney and Nancy K. Freeman||
Vol. 70, No. 1, March 2015, pp. 98-101
Vol. 70, No. 1, March 2015, p. 100
|Reporting Classroom Behavior: Balancing Responsibilities to Children and Families—The Response||Stephanie Feeney and Nancy K. Freeman||Vol. 69, No. 4, September 2014, pp. 100-104|
Standardized Testing in Kindergarten—The Response
Reporting Classroom Behavior—The Dilemma
|Stephanie Feeney and Nancy K. Freeman||
Vol. 69, No. 1, March 2014, pp. 84-89
Vol. 69, No. 1, March 2014, p. 88
The Birthday Cake: Balancing Responsibilities to Children and Families—The Response
Testing in Preschools—The Dilemma
|Stephanie Feeney and Nancy K. Freeman||
Vol. 68, No. 1, March 2013, pp. 96-98
Vol. 68, No. 1, March 2013, pp. 98-99
|The Birthday Cake: Balancing Responsibilities to Children and Families—The Dilemma||Stephanie Feeney and Nancy K. Freeman||Vol. 67, No. 5, November 2012, pp. 56-57|
|Differing Faiths in a Faith-Based Program—The Response||Stephanie Feeney, Nancy K. Freeman,and Rabbi Meir Muller||Vol. 67, No. 4, September 2012, pp. 82-85|
|Differing Faiths in a Faith-Based Program—The Dilemma||Stephanie Feeney, Nancy K. Freeman,and Rabbi Meir Muller||Vol. 67, No. 3, May 2012, pp. 70-71|
|Messy Play—The Response||Stephanie Feeney and Nancy Freeman||Vol. 67, No. 2, March 2012, 60-62, 64|
|Messy Play—The Dilemma||Stephanie Feeney and Nancy Freeman||Vol. 66, No. 6, November 2011, pp. 66-67|
|Misleading the State Inspector—The Response||Stephanie Feeney and Nancy Freeman||
Vol. 66, No. 5, September 2011, pp. 68-70
|Misleading the State Inspector—The Dilemma||Stephanie Feeney and Nancy Freeman||Vol. 66, No. 3, May 2011, pp. 82-83|
A Message from NAEYC: Next Steps for the Code
In the next year, it is expected that NAEYC, led by the Governing Board, will turn to revising the “Code of Ethical Conduct and Statement of Commitment” (last reaffirmed and updated in 2011). In keeping with the revision process for NAEYC position statements, the Governing Board will appoint a workgroup that consists of a wide range of stakeholders including practitioners, faculty, researchers, and others. There will be multiple opportunities for the entire field to weigh in on drafts throughout the revision process. The revisions to the position statement will be in keeping with the tenets of NAEYC’s other foundational position statements, including “Advancing Equity in Early Childhood Education,” “Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP),” “Early Childhood Program Standards,” and the “Professional Standards and Competencies for Early Childhood Educators.”
In addition, NAEYC hopes to continue publishing content related to the code of ethics, such as “The Code and COVID-19,” by Meir Muller and Angela C. Baum, in the Fall 2020 issue of Young Children, and welcomes submissions on this topic for future issues of the journal.
Copyright © 2022 by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. See Permissions and Reprints online at NAEYC.org/resources/permissions.
Feeney, S. 1987. “Ethical Case Studies for NAEYC Reader Response.” Young Children 42 (4): 24-30.
Feeney, S., & N.K. Freeman. 1999. Ethics and the Early Childhood Educator: Using the NAEYC Code of Ethics. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Feeney, S., & N.K. Freeman. 2005. Ethics and the Early Childhood Educator: Using the NAEYC Code of Ethics. 2005 Code Edition. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Feeney, S., & N.K. Freeman. With P.J. Pizzolongo. 2012. Ethics and the Early Childhood Educator: Using the NAEYC Code of Ethics. 2nd ed. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Feeney, S., & N.K. Freeman. 2018. Ethics and the Early Childhood Educator: Using the NAEYC Code of Ethics. 3rd ed. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Feeney, S., N.K. Freeman, & E. Moravcik. 2000. Teaching the NAEYC Code of Ethical Conduct: Activity Sourcebook. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Feeney, S., N.K. Freeman, & E. Moravcik. 2008. Teaching the NAEYC Code of Ethical Conduct: Activity Sourcebook. 2005 Code Edition. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Feeney, S., N.K. Freeman, & E. Moravcik. 2016. Teaching the NAEYC Code of Ethical Conduct: A Resource Guide (2005/2011 Code). Revised ed. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Feeney, S., & K. Kipnis. 1985. “Professional Ethics in Early Childhood Education.” Young Children 40 (3): 54–58.
Katz, L.G., & E.H. Ward.  1991. Ethical Behavior in Early Childhood Education. Expanded edition. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children). 1989. “Code of Ethical Conduct and Statement of Commitment.” Position statement. Washington, DC: NAEYC.
NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children). 2005. “Code of Ethical Conduct and Statement of Commitment.” Position statement. Washington, DC: NAEYC.
NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children). 2011. “Code of Ethical Conduct and Statement of Commitment.” Position statement. Washington, DC: NAEYC. https://www.naeyc.org/sites/default/files/globally-shared/downloads/PDFs/resources/position-statements/Ethics%20Position%20Statement2011_09202013update.pdf
NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children). 2004. “Code of Ethical Conduct and Statement of Commitment: Supplement for Adult Educators.” Position statement supplement. Washington, DC: NAEYC. https://www.naeyc.org/sites/default/files/globally-shared/downloads/PDFs/resources/position-statements/ethics04_09202013update.pdf
National Association for the Education of Young Children. 2006. “Code of Ethical Conduct and Statement of Commitment: Supplement for Early Childhood Program Administrators.” Position statement supplement. Washington, DC: NAEYC.
National Association for the Education of Young Children. 2011. “Code of Ethical Conduct and Statement of Commitment: Supplement for Early Childhood Program Administrators.” Position statement. Washington, DC: NAEYC. https://www.naeyc.org/sites/default/files/globally-shared/downloads/PDFs/resources/position-statements/Supplement%20PS2011.pdf
Stephanie Feeney, PhD, is professor emerita of education at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She is coauthor of NAEYC’s “Code of Ethical Conduct” and NAEYC’s books about professional ethics. She participated in the development of supplements to the code for adult educators and program administrators and has written extensively about ethics in early care and education. She is the author of numerous articles and books, including Professionalism in Early Childhood Education: Doing Our best for Young Children and coauthor of Who Am I in the Lives of Children? [email protected]
Nancy K. Freeman, PhD, is professor emerita of education at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, where she was a member of the early childhood faculty. She has served as president of NAECTE and was a member of 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 protected]
Eva Moravcik is professor of early childhood education at Honolulu Community College and the site coordinator of the Leeward Community College Children’s Center in Pearl City, Hawaii. She is coauthor of Who Am I in the Lives of Children? (with Stephanie Feeney and Sherry Nolte) and Meaningful Curriculum for Young Children (with Sherry Nolte). [email protected]