Code of Ethics literature review
Latest early childhood research

The program for Early Childhood Australia's Biennial Conference is available online.
Conference streams include theory into practice and advocacy and leadership.
Register now to stay ahead on the latest sector research and practice.


A code of ethics for the early childhood profession: A literature review

Kerry Dally

In 1990, Early Childhood Australia (then Australian Early Childhood Association) launched the first national code of ethics for the early childhood profession. The code was developed in order to inform and guide the professional behaviour and decision-making processes of all personnel involved in the provision of early childhood services to children aged between birth and eight years of age. The code was designed to be reviewed regularly in order to ensure that it is a 'living' document which accommodates new perspectives about learning and development in the early childhood years and remains relevant to new types of service delivery (Stonehouse, 1991). The following survey of literature regarding ethical issues in relation to professional practice in the early childhood field is the first step in a process of reviewing the current code of ethics and considering alternative perspectives or new directions which may influence the revision and/or expansion of the existing document.

The discussion of the literature is based on a series of questions that have been devised to position the salient issues within a strategic framework in order to inform the review process.
The questions include:

  1. What is a code of ethics and what purpose does it serve?
  2. How has the current code of ethics impacted on the field?
  3. What is not covered in the code that should be?
  4. What form should a revised code take?
  5. How do we ensure the code will be adopted?

The first section, What is a code of ethics and what purpose does it serve?, seeks to determine whether the original rationale for a code of ethics is still relevant. The link between establishing a code of ethics and raising the status of early childhood education as a profession is explored. The second section, How has the current code of ethics impacted on the field?, reports the findings from three Australian studies which have examined awareness and understanding of the code among early childhood personnel. The third section, What is not covered in the code that should be?, canvasses current perspectives about the values and beliefs that are important in the care and education of young children, with particular reference to recent interest in the image of the child and sociocultural approaches to assessment and learning as well as ethical issues involving tertiary early childhood educators. The fourth section, What form should a revised code take?, reviews a range of approaches to formulating an ethical agenda on which to base professional choices and decisions, including rules-based versus situation-based codes, aspirational versus specific ethical guidelines and a critique of postmodern perspectives such as the feminist care-based philosophy espoused by Gilligan (1982) and Noddings (1984). The final section considers the more practical aspect of how to ensure that the revised or reconstructed code is accepted and adhered to by early childhood professionals.

1. What is a code of ethics and what purpose does it serve?
Back to the top

According to Stonehouse (1991, p. 8) a code of ethics is 'a statement about practice, or what we will strive to do. It is based on core values, or what we believe'. A code of ethics helps to clarify and define the values that are important in guiding the behaviour of a specific group, particularly in relation to interactions with clients, consumers or colleagues (Torda, 2004). The documentation of the qualities and moral principles underlying acceptable behaviour within a particular profession ensures that implicit understandings among members about 'what is right and proper' are explicitly stated (Newman, Coombe, Arefi, Davidson & Humphries, 1999). Strike et al. (1988, cited in Newman & Pollnitz, 2002) have suggested that an agreement about an ethical code is especially important in professions where members have power or influence over the life of another. Another distinguishing feature of a code of ethics is that it is typically generated and monitored by the members within a profession, whereas governing requirements such as policy statements, licensing regulations and legal obligations are usually imposed and monitored by outside authorities (Stonehouse, 1991).

In Australia, there is no common professional body or union representing all personnel in the early childhood field. The current Code of Ethics was developed under the auspices of a national association, Early Childhood Australia (ECA), whose members include both qualified and unqualified early childhood personnel from each state and territory. The ECA Code was developed after extensive consultation with 'grassroots' practitioners and has been described as 'aspirational and inspirational in its focus' (Stonehouse, 1991, p. 14). In contrast to a professional Code of Conduct, which prescribes what professionals should and should not do in relation to particular daily dilemmas, an aspirational code provides principles to guide behaviour. The focus is on desirable or optimal conduct, that is, the code provides a standard to aim for, rather than setting a minimal 'bottom line'. An aspirational code seeks to transcend service type and be general enough so that it is relevant to all early childhood personnel. But, as noted by Stonehouse (1991), devising a code that is universally applicable runs the risk of creating a code that is so general it loses meaning. However, the advantage of a code that guides rather than prescribes is that it allows individuals to exercise their knowledge and discretion to generate appropriate responses to individual situations involving ethical decisions. According to Dahlberg, Moss and Pence (1999, p. 38):

we need to become our own moral agents, recognising that we bear responsibility for making moral choices for which there are no foolproof guidelines offering unambiguously good solutions.

A code of ethics may serve several purposes. A professional code of ethics attempts to ensure high standards of competence in a given field, strengthen the relationships among its members and promote the welfare of the community which it serves. Codes are generally regarded as an altruistic means of protecting the rights of clients by ensuring that professionals act morally. However, critics assert that codes of ethics may be used by some professions as a means of protecting their own status, for example, by excluding practitioners without adequate qualifications (Sockett, 1993, cited in Kennedy, 2001). Kennedy (2001, p. 19) suggests that an essential question underlying any review or revision of an adopted code of ethics is: 'For what purpose is this code required?'

Stonehouse (1991, pp. 9-11) identified the purposes underlying the original Early Childhood Australia Code of Ethics as:

  1. Clarifying what is important among conflicting workplace demands.
  2. Specifying the core values, beliefs and practices that are fundamental to early childhood professionals.
  3. Explaining the complexity of the early childhood professional's role and the specific skills and knowledge needed to carry out the role.
  4. Ensuring quality of service by identifying what cannot be compromised.
  5. Educating the community about what constitutes good practice.
  6. Raising the status of early childhood workers.
  7. Assisting in decision-making concerning new policies or regulations.
  8. Unifying the profession by identifying common beliefs among different sectors.
  9. Equipping early childhood professionals to assume new roles and responsibilities in relation to families, colleagues and the profession.
  10. Expanding professional development opportunities for more experienced and qualified early childhood professionals.

A review of the existing code needs to determine whether these original aims are still relevant in today's climate and whether there are additional goals that should be considered (Woodrow, 2001). One area attracting interest among current researchers is promoting the status of the early childhood profession.

The question of whether a generic code of ethics may be appropriate for all educators, regardless of the age of their students, rests on the predication that there are common values underlying the teaching profession. In New South Wales, core values of teachers in public schools have been identified as: trust and trustworthiness; a commitment to truth and honesty; tolerance and respect for the rights of others; integrity; courage; equity and fairness; excellence; diligence; care and support of colleagues; and respect for the environment (DSE, 1991, pp. 2-3; cited in Newman & Pollnitz, 2002). The values underlying the ECA Code (see Appendix 1) encompass these core values but also include more specifically articulated beliefs about issues concerning families and the development and potential of children as well as their uniqueness and differences. Although the teaching profession may be unified by sharing similar values and beliefs, it has been argued that there is a need for specific professional standards for different groups of teachers because of the diversity in contextual factors (Chadbourne, 2000, cited in Makin & Spedding, 2003). Unlike schools, which offer a relatively homogenous type of service delivery within each state, the early childhood sector is characterized by a diversity of providers with a range of philosophies, goals and approaches (Raban et al., 2003). Early childhood environments can differ dramatically, not just in terms of the type of service offered, but also in regard to staffing numbers and staff qualifications. Furthermore, early childhood educators serve a variety of client groups including children, families, employing agencies, and the community. There may be occasions when these groups present educators with dilemmas arising from conflicting interests or priorities. Apart from differences in clientele, staffing and service delivery, the needs and capabilities of children in the birth to eight years age range engender unique responsibilities for their carer/educators and, as argued by Makin and Spedding (2003), if improving the quality and status of early childhood education is an issue, then it is crucial to make explicit the knowledge, skills and understandings that distinguish early childhood educators from others.

While secondary teachers appear to have gained recognition as 'professionals' in recent decades, the question of whether workers in the early childhood sphere are also regarded as professionals by the community appears to be as relevant today as it was before the introduction of the code (see Newman & Pollnitz, 2005, pp. 84-89, for a brief review). The characteristics that define a profession have been described as including: prolonged training; a specialised body of knowledge and expertise; internal control over the quality of the service offered; a commitment to serving a significant social value; and a code of ethics that describes the profession's obligations to society (Kipnis, 1986; Bayles, 1988; Katz, 1995; all cited in Feeney & Freeman, 1999). As is evident in the goals outlined above, it was anticipated that the explication of a code of ethics would not only unify workers from diverse backgrounds and with varying levels of qualifications, but would also raise the status of the role of early childhood personnel in the eyes of the community, since it is generally agreed that the articulation of specialised knowledge characteristic of a particular field in the framework of an explicit code of ethical conduct is one of the key criteria that elevates an 'occupation' to the status of a 'profession' (Katz, 1993, cited in Newman et al., 1999). According to the Australian Council of Professions (ACP, 1993; cited in Torda, 2004) another defining element of a profession is that its members have a social responsibility for the 'welfare, health and safety of the community'. Although the early childhood sector appears to meet both of these criteria, recognition of all early childhood staff as 'professionals' is complicated by two main issues. These are, the fact that employment in the early childhood field does not depend on a standard or even minimum level of qualification and the wide-spread perception within the community, that early childhood workers are 'child minders' rather than educators (Newman & Pollnitz, 2005, p.90). Newman and Pollnitz suggest that these two influences, along with the perception that work in an early childhood environment is a substitute for mothering in the home, contribute to the low regard held by the community for this occupation.

In order to address misinformed community perceptions about the role of early childhood workers and the value of early childhood services, it has been suggested that early childhood personnel need to enlist a 'feminist' perspective (Dresden & Kymes Myer, 1989; Fleet, 1989; Scutt, 1992; all cited in Newman and Pollnitz, 2005). Such an approach would seek to promote approaches that are more characteristic of a 'female' view of the world including co-operative and consultative problem solving and an emphasis on working relationships rather than authoritative, hierarchical staff structures. Complementing this approach, it has also been suggested that early childhood practitioners adopt some of the attributes that characterise high status, traditional, male-dominated professions (Rodd, 1997; cited in Newman and Pollnitz, 2005). This process would involve early childhood personnel becoming more qualified and having greater control over the qualifications of those entering the profession, developing new skills, becoming more politically aware and acting as agents of change. Although the problem of community perceptions about the role and status of early childhood personnel remains relevant, 'professionalisation', that is, the quest to attain status and identity, should not eclipse attempts to enhance 'professionalism', that is, improving the capacity of members of a profession to act as moral agents (Sockett, 1993, cited in Kennedy, 2001).

2. How has the current code of ethics impacted on the field?
Back to the top

If the Code of Ethics is to have maximum impact in the field, it must continue to have a high profile and be actively promoted and discussed. Those working in the field must see the links between the set of lofty statements about ideals, and the application of this to their everyday work experiences
(Fasoli & Woodrow, 1991, p. 2).

As noted by Newman and Pollnitz (2005), in Australia we have a code that was developed for early childhood professionals by early childhood professionals, but it is unclear how or even whether the code is applied. Efforts to disseminate the code included its launching at the Australian Early Childhood Association (AECA) National Conference in 1991 as well as the publication of an AECA journal and two resource books the same year. One of these resource booklets contained suggestions and activities for conducting workshops to assist in introducing the code to the field. Woodrow, Ryan and Harley (1991) reported that workshops conducted with early childhood practitioners during the development of the code resulted in positive outcomes for the participants, such as empowerment, increased knowledge (particularly about ethical issues) and reaffirmation of their belief in and commitment to their profession. However, there appears to have been no follow up research after the release of the code investigating how many workshops were actually conducted or how participants responded to these sessions. While there has been relatively little research investigating the impact of the code on the early childhood field, a review of the available findings is pertinent to understanding the strengths and any shortcomings of the current code and therefore devising ways to improve either the development, structure or dissemination of a new or revised code.

Newman and Pollnitz (2005) presented the results from two studies investigating early childhood practitioners' knowledge of the ECA code of ethics and its impact in the field shortly after the code was released in 1991. Two of these studies reported consistent findings indicating that only about half of the early childhood personnel surveyed were aware of the existence of the code. It is difficult to determine whether awareness of the code may have increased or decreased over the ensuing years. Vanaglia (1992) surveyed paid staff in seven long day care centres and found that 52 per cent of the 29 respondents were aware of the code, while one year later, Pollnitz (1993) found that only 43 per cent of 225 staff in NSW early childhood services reported knowledge of the code's existence. Most of these respondents reported learning about the code from only one source, although collectively, a variety of sources were mentioned (Pollnitz, 1993). These included: Early Childhood Australia publications (33%); the workplace (25%); professional reading (15%); tertiary institutions (11%); in-service courses (8%) and the NSW Department of Community Services Children's Service Advisors (8%). While lack of time, interest or opportunity may have contributed to poor attendance at in-service courses, Pollnitz questions the effectiveness of this medium for disseminating information about the code. The workplace itself may be a more promising site to raise awareness and clarify thinking about ethical issues, since 79 per cent of respondents indicated that they discussed the code with colleagues.

Vanaglia (1992) and Pollnitz (1993) also investigated respondents' attitudes towards the code's contribution to the field. Ninety-three per cent of the respondents in Vanaglia's study indicated that they believed that a code of ethics would assist in ensuring high quality early childhood programs. While this is a positive finding, it must be kept in mind that the code had only recently been released and respondents would have been reacting to this question in a hypothetical sense, in other words, indicating that they perceived a code has the potential to ensure quality practice.

Pollnitz (1993) reported that 84 per cent of respondents used the code to help others understand the standards of practice and that the majority (85%) of early childhood personnel in her sample who were aware of the code were also familiar with its contents and believed that the code had a number of beneficial impacts, including:

  • helping the community to recognise early childhood education as a profession;
  • boosting staff confidence; and
  • helping staff to recognise and resolve ethical dilemmas.

From these responses, Pollnitz (1993) concluded that the code was a user-friendly document and that practitioners employed it in order to confirm and guide their practice. However, Pollnitz also noted that there was a preponderance of contradictions and inconsistencies in practitioners' responses with respondents often mistaking legal and social problems for ethical dilemmas. While many practitioners claimed to have used the code to resolve issues, very few were able to relate specific examples. These 'mixed messages' were interpreted as an indication that 'practitioners were still in the process of clarifying their knowledge and understanding about what the code meant to themselves, and to their relationships with their clients and colleagues' (Newman & Pollnitz, 2002, p. 82). Furthermore, this study revealed that the responses of more qualified and experienced staff were not significantly different from the responses of staff with less qualifications and experience. In light of these findings, Pollnitz suggested that understanding of ethics and its contribution to the field was still evolving regardless of practitioners' expertise or status. Pollnitz recommended that strategies should be implemented to support early childhood workers at all levels in advancing their knowledge of the code and facilitating its implementation.

A third Australian study investigating attitudes towards ethical issues was conducted by Coombe and Newman (1997) and involved first- to third-year early childhood students who were undergoing field experience. This group of student teachers were obviously not in a position to give first hand feedback about the impact of the ECA Code in the field. However, it is important to gauge the knowledge and attitudes of emerging practitioners and their preparedness to deal with ethical issues, since ongoing adherence to the code depends on awareness, understanding and acceptance of its principles. Of the 179 students surveyed, 95 per cent were able to provide a satisfactory response to the question 'What is a code of ethics?' and only two students were unaware of the existence of the ECA Code. This is a promising finding, in comparison to the proportion of 'aware' practising professionals (approximately 50%) reported by Vanaglia (1992) and Pollnitz (1993). It must be kept in mind, however, that Coombe and Newman's sample involved only one sector of early childhood professionals, that is emerging teachers, while the two studies involving paid staff included assistants, nurses and clerical assistants as well as qualified teachers.

Like Pollnitz (1993), Coombe and Newman (1997) found that there was confusion among their respondents in differentiating between ethical dilemmas and poor practice. In addition, although the student teachers were aware of the existence of the code they did not have a sense of ownership over its contents and held a general understanding that codes of ethics are imposed by others and lie beyond the practicalities of everyday situations. The students appeared to regard the code as a set of prescribed guidelines and did not seem to have any insight into their own ethical stance or understanding that effective ethical practice requires autonomous action and critical reflection. The researchers concluded that potential teachers need direction in firstly identifying an ethical problem and then knowing how to address it. Coombe and Newman endorse the inclusion of the study of ethics in professional education subjects and recommend as a useful resource (along with the ECA Code), the Guidelines for Ethical Practice in Early Childhood Field Experience, which was developed by the Early Childhood Professional Experience Council of New South Wales in 1996. Woodrow (2001) notes the development of these guidelines as one of the 'substantial impacts' of the ECA Code. The guidelines facilitate students' and other stakeholders' understanding and practices of ethical decision-making and behaviours during early childhood fieldwork experiences (Newman et al., 1999).

In summary, although there has been scant research investigating the impact of a code of ethics in the Australian early childhood context, the findings suggest that the ECA Code is generally perceived as having a beneficial impact on the quality of practice, on boosting staff confidence and competence, and on raising awareness about the nature and value of early childhood education. However, the finding that only half of all early childhood practitioners were aware of the code, at least in the years shortly after its release, implies that the impact of the code may not be as widespread as it could be. The finding that a much higher proportion of student teachers are aware of the code is promising and suggests that broader dissemination of ethical principles and greater understanding about ethical issues may be achieved if significant and specific ethics education is included for all early childhood personnel (not just teachers) in all early childhood courses in all tertiary institutions. Furthermore, the workplace also appears to be a promising site for promoting awareness and discussion of ethical issues. Cox (2004) advocates that inculcating ethical and organisational values during induction programs assists new workers to incorporate such values into their daily practice.

3. What is not covered in the code that should be?
Back to the top

In the USA, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) is in the process of conducting the third revision of its Code of Ethical Conduct. After soliciting submissions and comments from the field, the working group overseeing the project have identified a number of current issues which will be reflected in the revised code (Freeman & Feeney, 2004). These issues include assessment, the cultural context of children's development and learning, diversity and inclusion and ethical issues surrounding student teachers and their tertiary educators. In the Australian context, similar 'silences' in the current code have been identified (Kennedy, 2003). As discussed in the preceding section, efforts to address ethical issues surrounding student teachers during their professional experience began in NSW in 1996 with the publication of guidelines to assist in professional preparation courses (Coombe and Newman, 1997). More recently, Kennedy (2003) conducted a conceptual analysis of the values underlying the current code and compared these 'publicly articulated' values with key themes emerging from student teachers' individual philosophies. Kennedy's analysis revealed a number of core commitments held by beginning teachers which are not apparent in the current code. These pertain to the values underlying pedagogical practice, and include: the notion of the child's agency in learning; the role of peers as a social context to support learning; the role of the environment as a site for teaching and learning; and the intent, conduct and impact of evaluation and assessment.

In the intervening years since the code was first formulated, there has been a shift in the way that early childhood professionals view children, and the teacher's role as well as the child's role in promoting social and learning capabilities. Previously, children were viewed as passive participants therefore needing adult direction (Fasoli, 2001). Children were seen as innocent and vulnerable, therefore needing adult care and protection. And children were seen as incapable of representing their own views, therefore requiring adult advocacy. The reconceptualised image depicts children as strong and powerful, and as active and competent agents in the their own learning, 'social actors in their own right in contexts where, traditionally they have been denied those rights of participation and their voices have remained unheard' (Christensen & James, 2000, cited in Fasoli, 2001, p. 8). This alternative image of the child has largely stemmed from the work of Loris Malaguzzi, founder of the Reggio Emilia centres and schools in Italy.

Reggio Emilia centres value the child developing as an individual but they also value the child relating within a group, which is viewed as a microcosm of society (Duffie, 2001). Because of the emphasis on children and teachers learning with and from each other the approach is aligned with the socio-cultural perspective of Vygotsky. The sociocultural approach recognises the value of social interactions and highlights the significance of teacher mediation and scaffolding in children's learning (Fleer & Richardson, 2004). The influence of these approaches have prompted a shift away from the 'constructivist-developmental' framework where the focus was on individual performance and which placed an emphasis on the child exploring and discovering the world through self-directed play. Programs adhering to developmentally appropriate practice were often adult-directed and constructed according to an adult's expectation of children's capabilities based on the child's age or stage of development (Bredekamp, 1987). Such programs have been criticised for limiting children's experiences and failing to take into account children's potential (Fleer & Richardson, 2003).

Assessment practices based on stages and artificially isolated developmental domains (physical, cognitive etc.) have also attracted criticism because of their tendency to focus on children's deficits and to provide a 'fragmented' picture of a child's development. Proponents of sociocultural approaches, on the other hand, suggest that children should be assessed in a supported environment, that is, in their zone of proximal development (Fleer & Richardson, 2003). Such an approach provides information to the teacher about what children are capable of doing, rather than what they are incapable of doing. Rogoff (1998) emphasises that assessment practices should capture the process of understanding, not some static end-point. MacNaughton and Smith (2001) question whether 'objective observations' and 'developmental norms' may discriminate and marginalise some groups of children while Patterson and Fleet (2001) recommend balancing individual observations of children with explorations of their interactions as members of a group. Socio-cultural theories and their associated pedagogical and assessment practices have been influential in shaping the NSW Curriculum Framework for Children's Services (Stonehouse, 2001) which is based on fostering relationships with and among children, families and colleagues.

While a code of ethics may not specifically articulate prevailing theories about child development and learning processes, it is important to ensure that a code is dynamic and responsive to changing circumstances and beliefs (Woodrow, 2001). In the current code, the preamble stresses the powerlessness and vulnerability of children and there is little recognition in the actual code of the importance of fostering skills or structuring the environment to enhance collaborative learning (Kennedy, 2003). This wording and these sentiments may need to be reviewed in light of changing attitudes towards children's capabilities and new understandings about the influence of cultural contexts on children's development and learning. The 'silences' relating to pedagogical practices, identified in Kennedy's (2003) analysis of the current code, may be explained by the fact that the national association which devised the code (Early Childhood Australia) was primarily constituted to advocate for children and families, not professionals (Newman & Pollnitz, 2005, p. 89). Thus, the code's focus was likely to have been influenced by values which emphasised the uniqueness and autonomy of the child and relationships with families, rather than a concern with the 'tools' of professional practice. Kennedy argues that 'professional dimensions' such as pedagogy should be based on 'moral principles' and thus such aspects need to be considered in any review of the ethical agenda.

4. What form should a revised code take?
Back to the top

Researchers have identified two vital aspects of promoting ethical behaviour in early childhood education. The first is knowing and acting upon the core values and ideals that are contained within a code of ethics in all professional relationships and activities, including programming and pedagogical practices, organisation and management of the learning environment and assessment and record-keeping strategies (Raban et al., 2003). The second aspect is knowing and using a code of ethics to assist in resolving the ethical dilemmas (conflicts between values) that confront early childhood educators in their daily work with children, their families and colleagues (Feeney & Freeman, 1999, p. xiii). Thus, an effective approach will need to incorporate strategies to ensure that an ethical perspective permeates early educators' beliefs and actions as well as informing their decision-making in situations involving competing or conflicting ethical principles.

A number of researchers have reviewed the different philosophical approaches to formulating guides to ethical behaviour (e.g. Freakley & Burgh, 2000; Newman & Pollnitz, 2005). In the following section, the approaches that have been identified as having the most salience for the early childhood field will be discussed briefly before examining possible alternative structures for a revised or reconstructed code.

Ethical dilemmas typically arise when professionals are faced with a conflict between two or more of the values or principles underlying their ethical code (Newman & Pollnitz, 2005). Unlike the medical profession where there is a one-on-one doctor-patient relationship, the relationship between an early childhood educator and any individual child is characterised by an additional complexity because of the involvement of numerous stakeholders, including the child's family, the other children in the group, as well as other colleagues who also contribute to the care and education of the children. Because of the multiplicity of stakeholders in the early childhood context, there is an increased potential for educators to be faced, on a daily basis, with difficult choices involving conflicting or competing priorities. Kidder (1995; cited in Newman & Pollnitz, 2005) described three ways of thinking about resolving ethical issues. These include rules-based, ends-based and care-based approaches.

Rules-based approaches employ a set of principles and all decisions must be based on duty or adherence to these rules or principles, regardless of the consequences of that decision. This approach is defined as 'deontological' because the decision is prescribed by a sense of duty (deon-duty) to higher ideals. Rules-based approaches are also described as non-consequentialist because decisions are dictated by the principles involved rather than considering the end result of the decision. Such approaches have been criticised for being too rigid in their definitions of 'right' and 'wrong' and failing to allow individuals to exercise discretion according to individual circumstances (Newman & Pollnitz, 2002, p. 137). Ends-based approaches, on the other hand, value the consequences of a decision over any universal principles. Because they focus on the results of a decision, ends-based approaches are described as 'consequentialist' or 'teleological' (telos-end or purpose). This approach relies on the concept of utilitarianism which seeks to maximise utility or happiness. Decisions are made based on what outcome the professional predicts will be best for the greatest number of people (Hostetler, 1997; cited in Newman & Pollnitz, 2005). Critics of this approach argue that it is difficult to accurately assess consequences and that the utilitarian principle may be used to discriminate against minorities because it condones the sacrifice of the few for the advantage of the majority (Newman & Pollnitz, 2002, p. 136). The third approach, care-based thinking, values relationships between professionals and clients. It emphasises responsible behaviour which is empathetic to others and responsive to the situation at hand (Gilligan, 1982; Noddings, 1984).

It has been argued that care-based approaches reflect the practice that occurs in early childhood environments (Cherrington, 2001) and is more attuned than other approaches to feminist beliefs about the importance of nurturing and protecting relationships (Newman & Pollnitz, 2002, p. 37). According to Gilligan (1982; cited in Freakley & Burgh, 2000, p. 128), males and females deliberate about ethics in very different ways. Women tend to see ethical issues in terms of inclusiveness and maintaining relationships, emphasising trust, compassion and understanding. Men on the other hand favour an 'ethics of justice' which is characterised by logical reasoning and the balancing of claims according to rules or principles of rights or justice. The application of this type of ethical approach should result in an impartial judgement with which all members of a profession would agree. The justice perspective has been criticised by feminists and others because it gives priority to the formulation and application of 'abstract' rules and principles and fails to take into account the individual circumstances and complexities of each situation (Lebacqz, 1985, cited in Newman & Pollnitz, 2002, p. 37). A care-based approach to resolving ethical problems is 'context' or 'situation' dependent because it gives consideration to the particular circumstances surrounding an issue. An ethic of care is also 'partial' (as opposed to impartial) because it incorporates the particular needs of the person or people making the choice and values the preservation of relationships among the people involved. Because the development of relationships with families is an integral part of an early childhood educator's role, it is important to be sensitive and 'partial' to the needs of families. This approach emphasises the autonomy of the professional in making judgements in complex situations. Moss (2001, p. 6) argues that 'making ethical judgements is not a matter of learning to apply rules' but of becoming 'our own moral agents'.

Proponents of the ethic of care nominate three features that commend this approach as an appropriate framework for early childhood education (Newman & Pollnitz, 2005). Firstly, in a field dominated by female workers, this approach incorporates a feminist perspective and embodies values traditionally associated with women including those of compassion, care, emotions and communication (Tronto, 1991, cited in Moss, 2001). Secondly, the ethic of care reflects postmodern ways of engaging with others, including a capacity to consider specific contexts as well as multiple perspectives and a willingness to value diversity and subjectivity. Another relevant postmodern theme is the need for individuals to be prepared to accept responsibility for the choices they make. Since many of the decisions facing early childhood professionals involve multiple stakeholders in unique situations, the postmodern framework appears to be well-suited to ethical issues arising in early childhood contexts. The third and final endorsement comes from the early childhood field itself, with evidence from New Zealand of professionals demonstrating a commitment to the principles of caring for and caring about children, by incorporating these views in their current philosophies and practices (Cherrington, 2001).

Although the ethic of care is allied to a feminist perspective, advocates of this approach assert that it is inclusive and that it complements the more analytical and objective approaches to deciding what is right and what is wrong in professional conduct (Newman & Pollnitz, 2002, p. 39). Newman and Pollnitz (2001) have developed an 'Ethical Response Cycle' to assist early childhood professionals in dealing with ethical dilemmas. This eight-phase cycle incorporates ethical codes and principles but also provides strategies for analysing situation-specific relationships and complexities. The model requires that individuals use reflection, negotiation and 'Informed Inclination' to prioritise legal and ethical principles and theories according to the specific features of a situation. Newman and Pollnitz (2001, p. 45) suggest that the model will allow early childhood professionals to 'feel confident that the judgement they have made would be the judgement all good members of their profession would make in similar circumstances'. However, these authors also concede that there may be feelings of uncertainty after a decision is made and that reflection and documentation of the decision process will assist in 'rethinking' the problem and may result in the hypothesis of alternative solutions.

It is beyond the scope of this brief review to comprehensively evaluate all of the possible approaches to addressing ethical practice within the early childhood profession. The literature surveyed consistently indicates that there is a need within the early childhood field for an approach that ensures that ethical principles permeate all aspects of early childhood work - 'its purposes, its organisation, its practices, its relationships' (Moss, 2001) but which also can be readily applied in everyday situations involving choices with an ethical dimension. More recent ethical approaches have broadened our perspective on ways to resolve ethical problems, giving legitimacy to contextual features and relational aspects. As advocated by Kennedy (2001), it is necessary to firstly articulate the purpose of a code and the common beliefs that are valued by a profession before we can conceptualise the form that a code should take. There are obvious benefits in retaining an aspirational code with core values and guiding principles, but it is also essential that the framework in which these are presented assists professionals to apply such principles, competently and confidently, in everyday practices.

5. How do we ensure the code will be adopted?
Back to the top

If codes of ethics cannot guarantee ethical practice, then why would a profession want to adopt one?
(Kennedy, 2001, p. 19).

The question of whether a code should be voluntary or enforced by the professional organisation that endorses it, has attracted much debate in regard to the ECA Code in Australia and in regard to the NAEYC Code of Ethical Conduct in the USA. In both countries, implementation of the code is voluntary. Enforcement of the NAEYC code is not possible because the professional organization has no authority to enforce adherence. Shortly after the release of the code, the NAEYC Ethics Panel decided that rather than struggling with the issue of enforcement, the profession would concentrate its efforts on disseminating the code as widely as possible and encouraging its use by members (Feeney & Freeman, 1999, p. 19). However, apart from the difficulties of legislating for compulsory adherence, it has been argued that it is preferable that the ethics of a profession are 'internalised' and that individuals act from altruistic motives rather than through fear of penalties or sanctions (Coady, 1991). The strategy inherent in the NAEYC Code is to inform but not prescribe, to guide but not dictate, and to encourage but not enforce compliance.

This strategy is based on the belief that the early childhood educator is a dynamic, thinking individual and not a mechanistic robot whose actions are best controlled by penalties or rewards for producing specific behaviours prescribed by her or his professional organization or employer
(Feeney and Freeman, 1999, p. x).

The situation in Australia is somewhat similar, in that the national organisation responsible for developing the code of ethics, Early Childhood Australia (ECA), has no licensing power and its decisions are not supported by law (Pollnitz, 1997). Pollnitz discusses ways in which the code may be enforced, such as establishing ECA as a professional association with powers of enforcement, or divesting this power to employers or other professional organisations. However, the debate over how a code may be enforced needs to be preceded by a debate about whether enforcement is acceptable to early childhood professionals and indeed, whether enforcement is desirable or likely to improve the code's application and impact in a qualitative sense.

Two years after the release of the Code, Pollnitz (1997) conducted a survey of 225 early childhood practitioners in NSW to investigate their views about formal enforcement of a code of ethics. This author found that 64 per cent of practitioners either agreed or strongly agreed that adherence to a code should be voluntary, while 48 per cent either agreed or strongly agreed that a code should be compulsory. Although there was some overlap between the responses, with 12 per cent of practitioners agreeing to both statements, the field appears to be relatively evenly divided over this issue. The question of whether or not sanctions should be applied for breaches of the code and what type of actions should be taken elicited a general agreement from respondents that sanctions were appropriate. However, the majority of respondents indicated that counselling or reprimand were the preferred actions for code violation and there was considerably less support for more punitive measures such as suspension, dismissal or licence withdrawal. Since the questions in this survey related to the general concept of a code of ethics, rather than the newly released code itself, it is difficult to determine whether practitioners would be more or less likely to endorse enforcement of a specific code. If practitioners are in full agreement with all aspects of a specific code then they may willingly support it as a compulsory requirement. However, if there are some aspects of the code with which practitioners disagree, they may be less willing to be held accountable for failing to implement practices or beliefs to which they are not fully committed. While it is essential to gauge practitioners views on how a code may best be implemented, it may also be argued that once a code is made enforceable, the willingness of practitioners to accept a compulsory code becomes a moot point, since future practitioners will no longer have a voice in this regard.

Research about whether and how a code should be enforced as well as practitioners' perspectives, assist in informing the debate about voluntary versus compulsory codes. However, the issue of whether or not a code should be enforceable comes back to Kennedy's (2001, p. 19) question 'For what purpose is this code required?' As discussed previously, the current code is an aspirational one. According to Stonehouse (1991, p. 14) the ECA code of ethics 'is positive and focuses on desirable or optimal conduct, and is something to aim for'. The original purpose of the code was not to set minimum standards which all services must meet but to provide 'ideals' which individuals strive to achieve. If this aim is still relevant and the revised code remains an aspirational one then it is difficult to justify the imposition of sanctions and penalties if a service or an individual fails to live up to an 'ideal'. It is timely to discuss these issues prior to the revision of the existing code, since a code which is destined to be enforceable may require a different structure and maybe even different standards to a voluntary one.

The issue of ensuring the wide-spread implementation of ethical practice goes beyond questions of voluntary versus compulsory codes. As discussed previously, optimum ethical practice involves an internalised disposition to think and act ethically in all aspects of planning, pedagogy and management as well as in interactions with children, families and colleagues. One of the best ways to ensure that the values and principles that underlie a code are compatible with the values and beliefs of practitioners is to include practitioners in the development and revision processes. In both the USA, New Zealand and Australia, there was extensive consultation with early childhood professionals during all stages of the development processes. These grassroots consultations allowed early childhood practitioners to give voice to the ethical issues which confront them on a daily basis and thus the resulting code became a document which both reflected and informed their practice. Cherrington (2001) describes the bottom-up process which characterized the development of a national code of ethics in New Zealand. Here, practitioners provided ongoing input and feedback throughout an extensive consultation period which invited comment from both Maori and non-Maori participants. Such an approach helped to strengthen practitioner ownership of the final code as well as providing professional development opportunities. In Australia, Woodrow et a. (1991) noted that the experienced early childhood practitioners involved in their series of development workshops felt empowered by their participation and valued the opportunity to take a proactive role in the development of the code. These reflections suggest that a code that is valued by the field needs to be one that is generated by those working in the field and that is responsive to the issues that are deemed to be relevant. Rodd and Clyde (1991) advise that a code of ethics needs to be developed from an ethical analysis which includes the identification of core professional values and an analysis of prevailing ethical dilemmas.

Finally, it is useful to identify barriers that may hamper the study of ethics in early childhood courses, or the application of ethical principles in daily practice. Although it may be beyond the scope of the code itself to remove these barriers, it is important when devising strategies for disseminating the code and raising ethical awareness that these issues are addressed. Feeney and Freeman (1999, p. ix) have identified potential barriers as:

  1. a tendency to view ethics as something inherent within us and thus not a quality that requires study or improvement;
  2. a belief that right and wrong are clearly defined and yield prescriptive rules and practices, thus contemplation is not required, just discipline to do the right thing; and
  3. a disposition to settle for currently popular or comfortable solutions rather than face the daunting task of taking into account the multiple dynamics in the early childhood environment to individualize decisions for each child and situation.


The current review of the literature surrounding a code of ethics for the early childhood profession reveals that many of the issues which prompted the development of the code 15 years ago remain relevant. There is a renewed need to define and clarify the values and beliefs of early childhood practitioners, both for the sake of unifying the disparate group of practitioners who comprise the early childhood profession and to inform and educate the broader community. While the effort to raise the status of early childhood educators is complicated by the contextual complexities of the early childhood environment, including different levels of staff qualifications, a diversity of clients and a multiplicity of settings, articulation of the profession's expectations and standards will support this ongoing endeavour. A review of the goals and purposes of the current code of ethics will assist in determining what elements need to be retained and which may need to be revised or reconsidered.

It is difficult to identify accurately what impact the current code has had on the field, since there have been very few empirical studies investigating whether or to what extent, the anticipated outcomes of the code have been realised. Studies conducted shortly after the release of the code suggest that dissemination strategies may need to be improved. Similarly, it is unclear whether the initial enthusiasm for adopting the code has increased over the years, or waned. The research evidence indicates that three important sites for disseminating information about the code are Early Childhood Australia publications, preparation courses for early childhood professionals and the workplace itself. The Guidelines for Ethical Practice in Early Childhood Field Experience developed in NSW may serve as a valuable resource for assisting tertiary educators to introduce the study of ethical issues to early childhood students in a wider array of courses. Since workplaces also featured as one of the more prominent sources for becoming aware of the code, it may be useful to consider tailoring workshops for early childhood directors, supervisors or managers who could subsequently engage in collaborative learning activities with their colleagues.

In regard to the content and form of a revised code, there have been new perspectives in both underlying philosophies about early childhood pedagogy and practice and also in ways of addressing ethical problems, that need to be considered. In regard to content, a shift from a constructivist-developmental approach with its emphasis on individual performance and assessment to a sociocultural view of children being active learners in the context of their peers, has raised questions about the way children are viewed and the role that educators should play in facilitating and evaluating children's learning. It is important to discuss whether the current code can accommodate these shifts in perception or how these views may be incorporated or reflected in a revised code. In regard to form, the current code is based on core values and contains principles that guide professional behaviour. The application of ethical principles is problematic in the early childhood field because the professional has obligations to, and relationships with, a multiplicity of clients whose needs and priorities may sometimes conflict. The emergence of feminist philosophies which value the preservation of relationships and acknowledge the uniqueness of both individuals and their circumstances provides an alternate means of approaching these ethical dilemmas. Once again, it needs to be considered whether these perspectives are representative of the views of practitioners and whether the current code needs to be revised or reconstructed to incorporate them.

Finally, whatever form the revised code takes, its effectiveness depends on how well it is accepted and implemented by those in the field. Engaging early childhood professionals in consultations about the revision of the code appears to be an essential step in ensuring that practitioners feel they have ownership of the code and that it reflects their values, beliefs and practices. It is to be hoped that the broad dissemination of an appropriate and relevant code accompanied by adequate in-service or educational support structures will ensure its widespread and successful adoption. It is not clear whether an enforceable code with penalties or sanctions for code violations will result in improved ethical practices and better outcomes for clients. However, the issue of whether the code should be voluntary or compulsory is not a decision that can be made after the code is established. The form and content of a revised code is best determined in an iterative process of collaboration and review with early childhood professionals. Such a process will assist in clarifying the values and principles which early childhood educators identify as important, and contribute to an articulation of the purposes and anticipated outcomes of the code. The ultimate aim of the review process will be to develop a code with the greatest potential to ensure that professional decisions and practices are informed and guided by ethical principles.


Bredekamp, S. (1987). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood education programs serving children from birth through age 8. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Cherrington, S. (2001). From a code of practice to an 'ethic of caring': Perspectives from Aoteroa/New Zealand. Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 26(4), 12-17.

Coady, M. (19991). Ethics, laws and codes. Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 16(1), 17-21.

Cox, E. (2004). Is there a demand for ethics in training packages? Training Agenda, 12(3), 4-10.

Coombe, K., & Newman, L. (1997). Ethics in early childhood field experiences. Journal for Australian Research in Early Childhood Education, 1, 1-9.

Dahlberg, G., Moss, P., & Pence, A. (1999). Beyond quality in early childhood education and care: Postmodern perspectives. London: Falmer.

Duffie, J. (2001). A framework for constructing meaning. Sydney: NSW Department of Community Services.

Early Childhood Australia (1990). ECA code of ethics. Available at

Fasoli, L. (2001). Research with children: Ethical mind-fields. Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 26(4), 7-11.

Fasoli, L., & Woodrow, C. (1991). Getting ethical. Australian Early Childhood Resource Booklets. No.3, July.

Feeney, S., & Freeman, N. K. (1999). Ethics and the early childhood educator: Using the NAEYC code. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Fleer, M., & Richardson, C. (2004). Moving from a constructivist-developmental framework for planning to a sociocultural approach: Foregrounding the tension between individual and community. Journal of Australian Research in Early Childhood Education, 11(2), 70-87.

Fleer, M., & Richardson, C. (2003). Collective mediated assessment: Moving towards a sociocultural approach to assessing children's learning. Journal of Australian Research in Early Childhood Education, 10(1), 41-54.

Freakley, M., & Burgh, G. (2000). Engaging with ethics: Ethical inquiry for teachers. Riverwood, NSW: Social Science Press.

Freeman, N. K., &Feeney, S. (2004). The NAEYC code is a living document. Beyond the Journal: Young Children on the Web, November.

Kennedy, A. (2003).Early childhood education: A moral concern. New Zealand Research in Early Childhood Education, 6, 23-34.

Kennedy, A. (2001). The nature of values in early childhood education: An analysis of the AECA Code of Ethics. Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 26(4), 18-25.

Makin, L., & Spedding, S. (2003). What should early childhood teachers know and be able to do? Who decides? Journal of Australian Research in Early Childhood Education, 10(2), 50-57.

MacNaugthon, G., & Smith, K. (2001). Action research, ethics and the risks of practicing freedom for early childhood professionals. Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 26(4), 32-38.

Moss, P. (2001). Making spaces for ethics. Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 26(4), 1-6.

NAEYC (2004). Code of Ethical Conduct: Supplement for Early Childhood Adult Educators. National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Newman, L., Coombe, K., Arefi, M., Davidson, F., & Humphries, J. (1999). Facing the hard questions: Ethics for early childhood fieldwork programs. Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 24(2), 35-42.

Newman, L. and Pollnitz, L. (2005). Working with children and families: Professional, legal and ethical issues. Frenchs Forest, NSW: Pearson Education Australia.

Newman, L. & Pollnitz, L. (2002). Professional, ethical and legal issues in early childhood. Frenchs Forest, NSW: Pearson Education Australia.

Newman, L. and Pollnitz, L. (2001). Helping students make tough decisions wisely: The challenge of ethical inquiry. Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 26(4), 39-46.

Noddings, N. (1984). Caring: A feminine approach to ethics and moral education. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.

Pollnitz, L. (1997). An enforceable code of ethics: What do practitioners think? Journal for Australian Research in Early Childhood Education, 1, 81-90.

Pollnitz, L. (1993). Early childhood practitioners' perceptions of the Australian Early Childhood Association Code of Ethics. Unpublished Masters Thesis, University of South Australia.

Raban, B., Waniganayake, M., Deans, J., Brown, R., Ure, C., & Reynolds, B. (2003). Quality assurance in practice: Developing a framework. Journal of Australian Research in Early Childhood Education, 10(1), 56-62.

Rodd, J. & Clyde, M. (1991). A code of ethics: Who needs it? Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 16(1), 24-34.

Rogoff, B. (1998). Cognition as a collaborative process. In D. Kuhn & R. S. Siegler (Eds.), Cognition, perception and language [Vol. 2, Handbook of Child Psychology (5th edn), W. Damon (Ed.)] (pp. 679-744). New York: Wiley.

Sheehan, M. (2004). Turning ethics into competencies. Training Agenda, 12(3), 17-18.

Stonehouse, A. (1991). Our Code of ethics at work. Australian Early Childhood Resource Booklets. No.2, May.

Stonehouse, A. (2001). NSW Curriculum Framework for children's services: The practice of relationships. NSW Department of Community Services: Sydney.

Torda, A. (2004). Acceptable behaviour. Training Agenda, 12(3), 15-16.

Vanaglia. T. (1992). Code of ethics... Results of action research. Viewpoint, 5, April, 8-15.

Woodrow, C. (2001). Ethics in early childhood: Continuing the conversations. Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 26(4), 26-31.

Woodrow, C., Ryan, S., & Harley, E. (1991). A code of ethics - a process model for inservice. Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 16(1), 35-39.

Appendix 1. Values underlying the Early Childhood Australia Code of Ethics
Back to the top

The Early Childhood Australia Code of Ethics was based on the values identified by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) in the USA (Stonehouse, 1991, pp. 8-9).
The list of NAEYC values includes:

  • Recognition of each individual as a unique human being
  • Realisation of the full potential of children and adults
  • Environments that foster well-being and positive self-esteem in children, staff and families
  • Autonomy and self-reliance in children, staff and families
  • Appreciation of the special vulnerability of children and their need for safe and healthy environments
  • Recognition that each child is an individual with unique needs and abilities
  • Respect for confidentiality and the right of the child and family to privacy
  • Development of children: socially, emotionally, intellectually and physically
  • Use of developmentally appropriate instruction techniques for children
  • Appreciation of childhood as a unique and valuable stage in the life cycle
  • Professional practice based on the best current knowledge of child growth and development
  • Recognition and support for the interconnectedness of the child and family
  • Support for families in their task of nurturing children
  • Effective protection and advocacy for the rights of children
  • Support for the right of all children, regardless of income or other circumstances to have access to quality early childhood programs
  • Unity among people who work in child care settings and co-operation with other professional groups concerned with the welfare of young children
  • Continuing growth as professionals in early childhood education

The Early Childhood Australia working party added to this list the following:

  • Appreciation of the diversity of cultures within our society and protection of the cultural identity of children in each minority group
  • Acknowledgement and use of the power of the media in the promotion of early childhood issues
  • Rights of parents to pertinent information about their child

Last updated: (June 19, 2010 at 2:25 pm)


Feature publication

Mailing List

Join Early Childhood Australia's mailing list

Advertise with ECA

Kids Matter


Subscribe to the NQS newsletter

Child and Family Web Guide

Child Development, Family, Health, and Education Research.


Many people know how to buy viagra online.
Server processing time: 1.52477216721 seconds