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Navigating the "Gray Areas" of Ethics

By Tracy Galuski

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A family asks you to put their baby to sleep on her stomach during naptime. Someone requests that you award her preschool child a sticker every time he finishes everything on his lunch plate. Someone has criticized the traditional holiday celebration. It is going to be another challenging day. How do you navigate these situations?

As administrators and leaders, our professional skills are challenged on a daily basis. Some of these challenges are guided by regulations or administrative policies and procedures. Other challenges can be guided by clear and consistent application of program policies and procedures. Some situations require professionals to balance their responsibilities to children and their families in the form of ethical dilemmas. The National Association for the Education of Young Children’s Code of Ethical Conduct, available on the NAEYC website, provides a framework for resolving many of the ethical dilemmas encountered in early care and education. This article will define ethical dilemmas, offer some examples of ethical dilemmas in practice, and provide additional resources for educators.

Not all challenging situations present ethical dilemmas. Families may have a special naptime request for a young infant, request a special diet for their child, or perhaps someone is frequently late for pick-up. Many of these situations can be addressed through administrative policies and procedures. Careful review of state licensing regulations, program policies, or a conversation with the family may be enough to resolve the problem. For example, the state licensing regulations will most likely provide strict guidelines for infant sleeping procedures. Special diets (required by allergies or cultural restrictions) can be accommodated, pick-up procedures can be adjusted, and policies about late fees can be reinforced accordingly. These are not ethical dilemmas, they are challenges. A problem becomes an ethical dilemma when it requires professionals to balance their responsibilities to children and their families.

Jacob has always been a picky eater. His mother met with the classroom teacher a number of times to discuss options, but after six months in the program, he still barely picks at the food that is offered and she is deeply concerned. As a solution, she develops a sticker chart and requests the teacher award him a sticker every time he cleans his plate, culminating with a prize at the end of the week. 

As we consider the parent that would like her son to receive a sticker for a clean plate, it is clear that this dilemma goes beyond program policies and procedures. The NAEYC code indicates that it is important to meet the needs of the child and honor the wishes of the family. Therefore, more than one right solution may be available. We need to evaluate and set aside our personal values related to food and nutrition as we review related aspects of the code and brainstorm some possible solutions. From there, review the code and consider which core values, ideals and principles may apply to the specific situation. Professionals who believe that rewarding a child for finishing everything on their plate is unhealthy might highlight I-1.5 in their response to the request:

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 (NAEYC, p. 2). 

In this case, the teacher must balance the needs of the child to eat independently despite his picky tendencies with his mother’s desire to see him clean his plate. While the program may decide it is their ethical responsibility to refuse the request outright, it would serve the child and family better if an alternative plan was developed. Perhaps the program could allow the mother to send in a lunch with his favorites every day, or additional choices could be made available to all children, such as two choices of fruit, or bread and nut butter. The solution(s) may vary from program to program, but the code requires us to create and maintain a safe and healthy setting for the child. Depending on the individual situation, other aspects of the code could apply in different ways. 

Let’s consider a program that has enjoyed a full month of traditional Christmas activities and celebrations each December for over a decade.In the last few years however, the community has diversified and now the program represents many different countries and cultures. The staff want to maintain the holiday traditions, but some parents have hinted that perhaps it is no longer appropriate.

In this situation, the entire staff will need to work with families to find a solution for the upcoming holiday season. This is a complicated ethical dilemma, as holidays and traditions are deeply rooted in personal morals and values. To begin, consider which core values, ideals and principles may apply. This will allow everyone to come together to develop a plan for change. In this case, the following ideal might be considered; 

I-1.10—To ensure that each child’s culture, language, ethnicity and family structure are recognized and valued in the program (NAEYC, p. 2).

If the program focuses solely on one holiday or cultural tradition, how can each child’s culture be recognized and valued fairly? Some programs might adapt to the changing population by adjusting the curriculum to include more holidays from other cultures in the classroom activities, or invite families to share their different celebrations in a special event. Another program might decide to stop focusing on holidays altogether and offer a neutral platform. The code does not offer a specific solution, as long as the culture, language and ethnicity of every child and family is recognized and valued. 

The code also requires us to include the preferences of each family as we develop a plan; 

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 (NAEYC, p. 4).

Clearly, teachers and administrators should make an effort to learn about the families in their care and ensure their culture and beliefs are integrated to offer a culturally consistent environment. In terms of holidays, the staff should begin a conversation that respects the preferences of the families in their care. Additional resources such as “Leading Anti-Bias Early Childhood Programs: A Guide for Change” (2015) by Derman-Sparks, LeeKeenan, and Nimmo may be helpful when navigating the dilemma posed in this program. 

With careful consideration of the NAEYC Code of Ethical Conduct, staff will be able to resolve ethical dilemmas appropriately and improve program practices as a result. Perhaps the parent handbook is not sufficiently clear, or consistently enforced, or the policies do not adequately address an issue. For additional support, NAEYC has collected a variety of materials for practitioners. At their site you will find a copy of the Code of Ethical Conduct and Statement of Commitment, as well as a collection of articles that explore ethical dilemmas and solutions that you can review with your staff. Let the Code of Ethical Conduct be your guide.


Derman-Sparks, L., Keenan, D. & Nimmo, J. (2014) Leading Anti-Bias Early Childhood Programs: A Guide for Change. Teachers’ College Press.

Feeney, S. & Freeman, N. (2005). Teaching the NAEYC Code of Ethical Conduct. 

Feeney, S. & Freeman, N (1999). Ethics and the early childhood educator: Using the NAEYC Code. Washington D.C.: NAEYC.

National Association for the Education of Young Children (2011). Code of Ethical Conduct. Washington, D.C.

Additional Resources

Ethics and the Early Childhood Educator: Using the NAEYC Code by Stephanie Feeney and Nancy K. Freeman

Teaching the NAEYC Code of Ethical Conduct: Activity Sourcebook by Eva Moravcik and Stephanie Feeney


Author Bio

Dr. Tracy Galuski is a college professor at SUNY Empire State College where she develops and teaches online courses and serves as the department chair for educational studies. She offers training on a wide variety of topics such as early childhood curriculum, child development and school-age care in the local community. Her first book, “Open-Ended Art for Young Children” was published by Redleaf Press in 2018.