Ethics Ethics - NAEYC

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    Focus on

Resolving the dilemma

Ethics Messy Play

The dilemma Consider the story of 3-year-old Mia and her mother’s request that teachers keep Mia away from messy projects. It will give you an opportunity to apply the Code, with a special emphasis on its 2011 reaffirmation and update. This revision has sharpened our focus on the importance of nurturing two-way communication between teachers/caregivers and families, and it stresses the importance of ensuring cultural consistency between children’s homes and early care and education programs.   This is a recurring issue in programs for young children. You might have faced a similar situation yourself: The parent of one of the children in Alicia’s class of 3-year-olds has asked Alicia to keep her daughter, Mia, clean. She does not want Mia to participate in any art or sensory activities that may be messy or dirty. She tells Alicia:   When Mia’s clothes get dirty, it is very difficult to remove the paint, glue, dirt, and other stains she brings home. We’ve tried every type of detergent, but nothing works. It’s very important to me that she looks neat and clean when she comes to school. That means I have had to replace many of her everyday pants, tops, and dresses. I cannot continue to spend that extra money.   What’s more, she often gets paint under her nails and on her hair, arms, and legs. It is taking me even longer to give her a bath when she comes home dirty, and she cries when I have to wash the stains out of her hair. With our busy schedule, we don’t have the time to do this every night. I have to cook, help my other children with their homework, and get everyone to bed in time to wake up early in the morning.


  You might use this case as the basis for a staff meeting or as an assignment for undergraduate or graduate students, or you might mull it over on your own or with a friend or colleague. We recommend you follow these steps to avoid jumping to an instinctive resolution rather than arriving at one that systematically applies the Code:

1.  Identify the problem and discuss why it involves ethics.

  Alicia wants to honor Mia’s family’s value that she come to school in clean clothes and certainly understands how hectic evenings can be for working mothers. At the same time, she knows how much Mia enjoys participating in all the activities provided during the school day—especially the messy ones. Alicia firmly believes Mia needs these handson, concrete activities to support her development and learning. Alicia also knows how important it is to Mia to have opportunities to play with her classmates. She is a social child who enjoys the give-and-take of the classroom and the choices she can make each day. Alicia believes it would be a real disservice to Mia to limit her choices in the classroom.

4.  Look for guidance in the NAEYC Code. Carefully review its Ideals and Principles, particularly those that apply to responsibilities to children and families. List the relevant items in the Code and indicate how you prioritized their importance.

  What do you think a good early childhood educator should do in this situation? How can Alicia use the NAEYC Code to guide her thinking and decision-making?

5.  Based on your review of the Code and using your best professional judgment, describe what you think is the most ethically defensible course of action for Alicia.

2.  Identify which, if any, of the Code’s Core Values apply to this situation. 3.  Identify the stakeholders affected by the situation. Alicia has conflicting responsibilities. What does she owe to each stakeholder? (In doing an ethical analysis, it can be helpful to summarize the conflicting responsibilities as a choice between alternatives: “Should Alicia _____ or should she _____?”)

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. [email protected] Nancy Freeman, PhD, is an associate professor of early childhood education at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, where she is the director of the Yvonne and Schuyler Moore Child Development Research Center. She chairs the Governor’s Advisory Committee on Child Care Regulation and is currently the president of the National Association for Early Childhood Teacher Educators (NAECTE). nfreeman@   An archive of Focus on Ethics columns is available at   Thank you to Jannie Umeda for allowing us to use this dilemma, which she submitted this past summer as an assignment in a graduate class on ethics and professionalism taught by Stephanie Feeney.

Young Children • November 2011

Respond to this dilemma   When you have completed your analysis and come up with a proposed course of action for Alicia, send an e-mail to the coeditors. Include your recommendation and a brief description of how you combined the Code and your best professional judgment to reach this resolution.

Copyright © 2011 by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. See Permissions and Reprints online at

  Remember, this column is designed to involve the readers of Young Children. E-mail your proposed resolution to Alicia’s situation to the coeditors. Be sure to use the subject line “NAEYC ethics.” Responses should be no more than 500 words and must be received by December 15, 2011. Our analysis will appear in the March 2012 issue.

. . . or send us one from your experience   We hope you will share with us an ethical dilemma you have encountered in your workplace to be considered for presentation in this column. Send a short (400–500 words) description of the situation to the coeditors. Be sure to use the subject line “NAEYC ethics.”   Contact the coeditors by e-mail: Stephanie Feeney at [email protected] and Nancy Freeman at [email protected].


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Young Children • November 2011

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