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Professionalism: Ethical Practices

In this lesson you will learn about the importance of acting responsibly and ethically in your daily work with children, families, and coworkers.

  • Reflect on what it means to be an ethical staff member.
  • Identify ethical practices when it comes to interacting with children and families.
  • Identify examples of what it means to act responsibly and ethically as a staff member.



“Your beliefs become your thoughts. Your thoughts become your words. Your words become your actions. Your actions become your habits. Your habits become your values. Your values become your destiny.” — Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948), Indian political and spiritual leader

As a staff member working in child care you may be faced with ethical situations.  You can prepare yourself for these difficult situations by familiarizing yourself with ethical conduct through professional organizations such as The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and The National After School Association (NAA), as well as your programs policies and standards.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), the largest professional organization in the field of early care and education, has developed The Code of Ethical Conduct to guide professional behavior. To better understand what we mean by ethics and codes of professional conduct we turn to Stephanie Feeney, one of the authors of the National Association for the Education of Young Children Code of Ethical Conduct. Feeney, in Ethics Today in Early Care and Education (2010), describes terms that are often used in discussions of personal and professional ethics (p. 73):

Ethics is the study of right and wrong, duties, and obligations. It involves critical reflection on morality, and the ability to make choices between values and to examine the moral dimensions of relationships.

Professional ethics involves reflection on professional responsibility that is carried out collectively and systematically by the membership of a profession... They are a guide to what we ought to do and not do as professionals.

A code of ethics is a document that maps the profession's responsibility to society. It conveys a sense of the mission of a field and acknowledges the obligations its members share in meeting their responsibilities... It supports practitioners in their work, so they base their decisions not on their individual values and morality but rather on the core values of the profession.

A professional code of ethics can be used for assistance when making professional decisions. It provides those who work with vulnerable populations (including children, youth, and individuals with disabilities) with a framework for addressing problems that may arise in daily interactions.

Your program should have written procedures for addressing complex situations, as ethical dilemmas can occur in your classroom, on the playground, and out in the community. If you have not been introduced to your program's policies and standards during your onboarding to the program, make sure to request a copy from your program director.  

Having difficult conversations with parents is uncomfortable but necessary. Just as it can be hard to start a conversation with a parent it can be hard to receive information. This is why relationship building is so important from the beginning. It helps to build trust in your role as a caretaker. When you begin a conversation that may be hard to hear, remember to have compassion and sensitivity. Consider the following tips on approaching a difficult conversation:

  • Start with a positive
  • Set up a time to have a conversation when children are not present
  • Share specific information/facts and observations. Remember your role is a caretaker and not to diagnose children.
  • Engage the parents in the conversation. Parents have thoughts and insight which is vital in determining how to best meet their needs.
  • Assure parents of your intentions which is to meet the needs of their child and assure.

Big emotions can follow a difficult conversation. Remember to always speak respectfully even if a family has a negative response to your observations. If a family member raises their voice when they arrive at the program, offer to continue the conversation in a neutral place where children are not around. If emotions feel too big for the moment, suggest talking on a different day. Offer to bring your mentor or director of the program to support you and the family.

For additional tips on how to approach uncomfortable conversations, view this article:

The Importance of Being an Ethical Staff Member

Responsible and Ethical Practices

As staff members, participating in professional development opportunities helps ensure that you are aware of responsible and ethical practices in your work with families and children. Staff meetings can include opportunities to review case studies or role-play situations that address ethical dilemmas. You should always feel comfortable speaking to your trainer or coach about any situations in which you are unsure about how to proceed. Seeking this guidance will help foster an atmosphere in the program that builds trust and communication. Other staff members can also learn from your example about what to do in difficult situations.

Being part of a program that fosters these types of exchanges and communication between direct-care staff, trainers, and administrators, provides a supportive environment as you become familiar with ethical decision-making. If the program leaders (administrators and trainers) build relationships and maintain a positive, nurturing environment, then when difficult situations arise, you will ask yourself, “What is the most positive way I can address this situation and maintain relationships with all who are involved?”

In your work with families, you will encounter different parenting practices and cultural beliefs. Situations may arise where you will need the guidance of your trainer or coach to learn how to work in collaboration with families who may have different beliefs and child-rearing practices from your own.

Professional Ethics Lived Day by Day

Professional ethics are not something to review and then place in a drawer; they are lived every day in discussions with children, in supporting families from diverse cultures, in collaborating with fellow staff members, and in participating in community partnerships. As a direct-care staff member, adhering to high-quality professional standards is critical for children, youth, and families in your care. You have an obligation to act responsibly and ethically at all times. You should prioritize holding yourself accountable for your actions and maintaining high professional standards. You should look to your Service’s code of conduct to guide you in decision-making and remember that you should always refer to your coach or trainer for guidance on difficult decisions or when you are unsure about something.

As a direct-care staff member, it is important to get to know the standards that apply to your program. You should take the time to find out about competencies, standards, or position statements that serve as guides for expectations when working with children, youth, and their families. Knowing this information should be of particular importance to you and your work. Your program may already be in the process of accreditation or re-accreditation through a professional organization, and you can learn a lot by being involved in this process.

Maintaining Confidentiality: Children and Families

Lani, a caregiver in the toddler room is curious about the way Nia, a teacher in the after-school program is coping with 6-year old Millie's challenging behaviors. During lunch in the staff lounge Lani asks Nia what is going on with little Millie that is causing her to "act up" and what is Nia doing about it. Lani is a friend of Millie's aunt and she wants to reassure her that Millie's challenging behavior is being addressed by Nia.

Nia responds to Lani, "We are working with Millie to address her behavior." Nia is very careful not to discuss confidential information about any individual child or family with Lani or any program staff who are not directly interacting with that child. Nia is surprised at Lani's question and writes a note to herself to ask her coach or program manager about the importance of maintaining confidentiality at the next staff meeting. Reviewing principles of the code of professional conduct needs to occur on a regular basis during staff meetings.

Maintaining confidentiality is a crucial part of professionalism. State and federal laws (e.g., the Privacy Act of 1974) ensure and protect individuals’ right to privacy. As a direct-care staff member, you should respect and protect the privacy of all children and families. When you work so closely together on behalf of children and families, you may become friends with one another. You may also encounter friends and relatives of children enrolled in the center when you are out in the community. When you socialize and attend events outside of the center, you may be asked for confidential information about a child by someone who is not a staff member directly working with a child. You may only share confidential information about a child only with the child’s family members and those professionals for whom the family members have signed a release of information form, such as a school district special educator, a social worker, etc. Always check with your trainer or administrator if you are unsure about how to handle any situation that involves information sharing.

In the above example it would be a breach of confidentiality for Nia to tell Lani about her plans for addressing Millie’s challenging behaviors. As a direct-care staff member, Nia knows she must uphold the rules of confidentiality and not share personal information about a child with someone who is not directly involved with that child. Nia knows she must model this professional behavior at all times and ask her coach or trainer questions when unsure about something.

Holding yourself accountable and maintaining a professional image on social media and networking sites are also important information you may choose to share on your personal page could have a long-term professional effect on you and your program's image. Photographs or information about children and families in your program should never be shared on social media. You should always consider how new technologies can affect children and families and respect confidentiality at all times.

The coaches and administrators rivacy and to only share confidential information with those staff members who are directly involved with a child, youth, or their family members. Coaches and administrators observe and have knowledge about all of the children and youth, so it is especially important for them to only speak about an individual child’s behavior or family situation with those staff members who directly teach the child. Also, you should consider it as part of your program's conduct to not speak about an individual child or youth in front of them without including them as part of the conversation. Respecting young children and youth is vital in your relationship building. If you have a sensitive conversation to speak with the family member regarding the child, schedule a time to discuss with the family member when the child is not present.

It is your responsibility to familiarize yourself with your program or program’s requirements for confidentiality as they pertain to children and families. Check with your trainer or administrator about where and how you can access written policies about confidentiality. They may be included in staff and family handbooks, or made available on your program’s website. Depending upon your program’s requirements, as a new staff member you may have to sign a confidentiality agreement, indicating that you have read and understand the program’s policies.

Upholding laws regarding confidentiality may involve in-service training for new and experienced staff members. Your administrators will very likely want to revisit confidentiality rules during staff meetings throughout the year. It is helpful to review these policies during staff meetings and in-services specially dedicated to professional practices.

Mandated Reporters

As part of your responsibility as a direct care staff member, you need to familiarize yourself with the state laws and programs rules in regard to being a mandated reporter in identifying child abuse and neglect. As a new staff member, you must complete training in child abuse and neglect identification and reporting procedures. Your program manager will make sure that these procedures are reviewed with all staff members as part of the hiring process. Some programs may require staff to sign a form each year stating that they have reviewed the child abuse and neglect warning signs and procedures for reporting.


Ethical Practices

Hear staff reflect on the importance of being ethical.


Acting responsibly and ethically should be at the core of your practice as a direct care staff member. In your daily interactions with children, families, colleagues and administrators, engage in the following:

  • Keep information about children and their families confidential. This refers to reviewing child and family records, having conversations with other staff members at school or in the community, or engaging in conversations with other people you know in the community.
  • When you know confidential information about a child, family, or fellow staff member, use that information to support and provide resources for them, not to place your own personal judgement.
  • If individuals ask you for confidential information about children or families in your program, refer them to your program trainer or director.
  • Treat each child, youth, and family member with respect, and acknowledge and honor individual differences in terms of gender, cultural background, family income, abilities, or family composition. Get to know the children and families in your care and incorporate those interests or practices in your daily work as a direct-care staff member. Plan for bias-free experiences and materials.
  • Recognize and celebrate the contributions of fellow staff members in your program.
  • Act in a responsible, reliable, and dependable manner. Be at work on time, be prepared, and communicate clearly with children, families, colleagues, and supervisors.
  • Support practices that are ethical, responsible, and developmentally appropriate and speak out when they are not. Familiarize yourself with your service’s regulations, standards, and expectations for professional behavior. Remember to always look to your coach or trainer for guidance in difficult situations.
  • Develop and cultivate a collaborative spirit as you work with colleagues on a daily basis. Ask a more experienced fellow staff member questions about her practice or offer ideas to a staff member who may be newer than you and may need assistance.

Note: The contents of this Do list are also available as an attachment in the Learn section below. You may want to print out this information and refer to it in your daily work.


Ethical dilemmas occur in early childhood programs from time to time. The National Association for the Education of Young Children’s (NAEYC) Code of Ethical Conduct and Statement of Commitment can be used to address dilemmas.

Read the Scenario Reflection activity and think about similar situations that have occurred in your program. Reflect on how you can handle a similar situation in the future using NAEYC’s Code of Ethical Conduct and Statement of Commitment as your guide. Share and discuss your responses with your trainer, coach or administrator.


Use the resources listed in the Professional and Ethical Resources handout to help you understand the importance of professionalism and ethics in your work as an infant and toddler caregiver.


Code of ethics:
A document that maps the profession’s responsibility to society: it conveys a sense of the mission of a field and acknowledges the obligations its members share in meeting their responsibilities; it supports practitioners in their work, so they base their decisions not on their individual values and morality but rather on the core values of the profession
The study of right and wrong, duties, and obligations; it involves critical reflection on morality, and the ability to make choices between values and to examine the moral dimensions of relationships
Professional ethics:
Reflection on professional responsibility that is carried out collectively and systematically by the membership of a profession; a guide to what we ought to do and not do as professionals


True or false? You may share confidential information about a child or youth with all staff and employees in your program.
Which of the following can help when you need assistance making professional decisions?
Finish this statement: Social networking should be…
References & Resources

Bruno, H.E., & Copeland, T. (2012). Managing legal risks in early childhood programs. Teachers College Press.

Feeney, S. (2010). Ethics today in early care and education: Review, reflection, and the future. Young Children, 65(2), 72-77.

Feeney, S., Freeman, N.K., & Pizzolongo, P. (2012). Ethics and the early childhood educator: Using the NAEYC code (2nd ed.). National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Hickey, M. (2020). Becoming your best: Building professional competencies. National Association for the Education of Young Children.

National After School Association (2009). National after school association code of ethics.

National Association for the Education of Young Children (2011). Code of ethical conduct and statement of commitment.