Interactions with children and families lie at the heart of ECEC practices. Early educators as a result may find themselves frequently facing ethical issues which are all too common in professions revolving around human relationships with their spectrum of rights, responsibilities, needs and desires. The following article provides information on Identifying Ethical Issues, Ethical Responsibilities, Case Study and more.
Identify an Ethical issue
When faced with a challenging situation at work, first of all, examine whether it qualifies as an ethical issue. A good way to get clarity would be to ask yourself if the matter concerns right and wrong, rights and responsibilities, human welfare, or individuals’ best interests. If you find yourself disagreeing with the above, then chances are it is not an ethical issue and can be resolved by applying workplace rules and procedures. On the other hand, if you have identified an ethical issue, the next logical step would be to check whether it is an ethical dilemma or ethical responsibility
An ethical issue can broadly either be an ethical responsibility or an ethical dilemma. Ethical responsibilities are mandates that are clearly defined in the ECA Code of Ethics or American NAEYC Code of Ethical Conduct—these describe how early childhood educators are required to act, and what they must and must not do. Indeed the first of the Commitments to Action for educators in the ECA Code of Ethics states that “In relation to children I will always act in the best interests of all children”.
“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”.
So no matter how tempting it is for educators to adopt a popular measure or take the line of minimum resistance, they must always follow the Code’s clear direction when encountering a situation that involves ethical responsibility.
Yet another way one can identify ethical responsibilities is to bear in mind that they are often very similar to legal responsibilities in that they require or forbid a particular action. In fact in some cases, like mandating the reporting of child abuse, the legal and ethical responsibilities are indeed the same.
If you encounter an ethical issue but after checking the relevant ethical code, you are convinced it is not an ethical responsibility, then chances are you are facing an ethical dilemma. A dilemma is a situation that may be resolved in two different but equally morally justifiable ways.
In the context of the services, ethical dilemmas usually involve the educator having to choose between two different courses of action, each of which would mean the legitimate needs and interests of one individual or group giving way to those of another individual or group. A common ethical dilemma is when a parent requests an educator not to let the child take a late afternoon nap in the service so that the family’s nighttime sleep schedule is not disturbed by a waking child. On the other hand, if not allowed to sleep, the child may remain cranky, exhausted or even feel unwell at the service. Both choices have their moral claim but the educator has to choose one to resolve the dilemma.
Another useful way to identify an ethical dilemma is that generally it cannot be resolved by facts or ‘going by the book’. Instead, it usually requires educators to deliberate upon the diverging options, both of which appear to be morally right. For example, in the above situation, the educator may take the decision of allowing a sleepy child to nap, though such a decision does not take away the mother’s right to keep the child to a night sleep schedule.
Recent research on ethical dilemmas identified by an Australian sample of child care workers, coordinators, and preschool teachers showed that the Australian sample did not perceive the establishment of a Code of Ethics as helpful for dealing with ethical concerns which may arise in the job. However, due to the high degree of consistency between the Australian and American data, the adoption of a code of ethics similar to that developed by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) was suggested as appropriate for the Australian early childhood context.
An additional resource for working through dilemmas might be Ethics and the Early Childhood Educator, second edition which not only elaborates on the differences between ethical responsibility and an ethical dilemma in Chapter 3 (pages 27-36) but also provides examples of how the Code can be applied to a number of dilemmas that recur frequently in early childhood services.
However keep in mind that when you encounter an ethical issue, it can be either responsibility or a dilemma and not, both.
Case Study: Drinking milk
In everyday practice, another situation commonly faced by educators is when families want their children to drink up their milk, even forbidding water till the milk has not been finished. The little ones in turn only want to drink water, protesting to the point of visible distress. How is the educator to this resolve this issue – by letting the child make the choice which is in keeping with respecting a child’s sense of autonomy or acceding to the parents’ request which is after all guided by nutrition concerns?
The first step in resolving the issue would be to decide whether it is an ethical issue. Since it involves the child’s well-being as well as the rights and responsibilities of both families and educators, it can be reasonably identified as an ethical issue.
The next step would be to determine whether it is an ethical responsibility or dilemma. Since a code of ethics, is unlikely to mandate any particular action on the educator with regard to drinking milk, it is most likely an ethical dilemma.
In order to analyse the ethical dilemma, the educator can start by identifying the conflicting responsibilities. According to the ECA Code of Ethics, the educator is expected to ‘create and maintain safe, healthy, inclusive environments that support children’s agency and enhance their learning. At the same time, in relation to families, the educator is expected to, “support families as children’s first and most important teacher and respect their right to make decisions about their children”.
The next logical step would be for the educator to brainstorm possible resolutions that meet everyone’s needs without having to prioritise one side’s needs and interests over the other’s. The educator can find support with this process from the core principles in this Code of Ethics are based on the fundamental and prized values of the profession. Though they act to guide decision-making in relation to ethical responsibilities, sometimes the underlying principles can also help educators to clarify their thoughts and possible outcomes on a certain course of action.
When analysing the ethical dilemma, the educator can also look for support from colleagues and other professionals like doctors and nutritionists. More experienced colleagues may offer unusual solutions or creative ways of resolving the dilemma that they may have encountered in their own practice. A paediatrician or nutritionist on the other hand may come up with facts and figures about drinking milk that will support your stance when putting forward your proposal to the parent.
Finally, based on your review of the Code and using your best professional judgment, describe to the parents what you think is the most ethically appropriate course of action in this situation. You can start the discussion by acknowledging the parents’ concerns. Quite often, just the act of reflecting on the parents’ worries – “I agree that children should grow up healthy” – or admitting that you understand – “I realise that it is important for you to know that your child is having nutritious food” – can make them more open to hearing you out. At the same time bear in mind that acknowledging the parent’s concern does not mean that you have to agree with them; instead, it is a way of showing empathy which is often enough to get them to understand that you both are on the same team – one whose goal is to help the child.
ECA - Code Of Ethics - The following article lists the ECA Code Of Ethics. These are designed especially for early childhood services and are based on the principles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1991).
Jillian Rodd, Margaret Clyde, Ethical dilemmas of the early childhood professional: A comparative study, Early Childhood Research Quarterly, Volume 5, Issue 4, 1990, Pages 461-474, ISSN 0885-2006