Focus Area 4: Ethics
1. Ethical Practices for Youth Work Professionals

Ethics is generally considered to be about the norms of behavior people follow regarding what is good or bad and what is right or wrong.

Usually, ethical issues are about matters of human (and animal) well-being or welfare.

Ethics in the context of professional practice is about:

  • Developing the ability of practitioners to see the ethical dimensions of problems, to reflect on issues, to make difficult decisions and to be able to justify these decisions.
  • Acting with integrity according to one’s responsibilities and duties which may include behaving in accordance with professional principles, guidelines, or agency rules.


In Focus Area 1: The Field of Youth Work, you learned that what all youth programs have in common is helping young people develop their unique skills and talents to become productive adults and contributing members of society.

As a youth worker, you aim to support youth as they move from dependence to independence. Your work encourages their personal and social development and enables them to have a voice, influence, and place in their community.

Youth programs share these characteristics:

  • They offer services in places where youth can choose to participate.
  • They encourage youth to become critical thinkers about their responses to their experiences and to the world around them.
  • They provide guidance to help youth make informed choices about their personal responsibilities within their communities.
  • They work alongside parents, friends and family members, teachers, medical and mental health professionals, and community members to encourage youth to achieve their own unique potential.

In this way, youth work is a practice designed to help young people develop their own ethical standards for successfully navigating through the ups and downs of daily life.

Just as you have your own set of personal values that drive your work with youth, there are common values that shape youth work overall:

  • Trust
  • Honesty
  • Relationship
  • Dedication
  • Equity
  • Social justice
  • Integrity
  • Purpose

Because purpose and values are always part of the fabric of ethical behavior, it is helpful to remember the purpose of youth work as you complete this module. The purpose of your work lays the foundation for understanding the ethical principles that guide how you conduct the work.


Youth work is informed by a set of beliefs that include a commitment to offering equal opportunity, having young people as partners in learning and decision making, and helping young people develop their own set of values as they mature into adulthood.

As a youth work professional, you have a responsibility to:

  • Yourself
  • The youth you serve, and their families
  • Your employer and co-workers
  • The profession of youth work
  • Your community and society overall

These principles offer a framework to guide ethical thinking and decision making in your day-to-day work with young people. 

Responsibility for Self

Within the context of your role as a youth work professional, you have a commitment to:

  • Uphold high standards of integrity and professional conduct.
  • Develop knowledge and maintain the skills and competence required to benefit youth and their families. This means:
    • Taking responsibility for identifying, developing, and fully using knowledge and abilities for professional practice.
    • Obtaining training, education, supervision, counsel and/or experience to assure competent service.
    • Taking on work or responsibilities only for which you have the necessary skills, knowledge, and support.
    • Seeking feedback from service users and colleagues on the quality of your work.
  • Practicing self-care to maintain your physical health and emotional well-being.
  • Practicing self-awareness of your own values and interests and their implication for practice. This includes respecting differences with colleagues and co-workers, as well as the youth you serve.

Brandon Jones is a psychotherapist, professor, and behavioral health consultant. In this video, he talks about the ethical imperative of taking care of yourself as you work with young people.

Responsibility to Youth and Their Families

As a youth worker, you have a commitment to:

  • Not harming any child, youth, or family. This includes not participating in practices that are disrespectful, degrading, dangerous, exploitive, intimidating, psychologically damaging or physically harmful to clients.
  • Providing expertise and protection, as well as maintaining privacy and confidentiality as appropriate. This includes recognizing, respecting, and advocating for the rights of the child, youth, and family.
  • Recognizing that your professional responsibility is to protect youth and you will advocate for the youth’s best interest.
    • Where conflict exists between obligations to one young person and another, it is resolved in ways that avoid harm and continue to support the person least advantaged by the resolution.
    • Support individuals in advocating for their own rights and safety.
    • Youth workers and youth-serving agencies will not advance themselves at the expense of young people.
  • Ensuring that services are culturally sensitive and non-discriminatory.
    • Services do not discriminate on basis of race, color, ethnicity, national origin, national ancestry, age, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, religion, abilities, mental or physical capacity/ability, medical condition, political belief or affiliation, or socioeconomic status.
    • Youth workers are responsible for obtaining training, education, supervision, experience and/or counsel to assure sensitive and non-discriminatory service.
  • Recognizing and respecting the diversity of life patterns and expectations
    • Provides individualized services and programs to meet a youth’s psychological, physical, social, cultural, and spiritual needs
    • Youth and family services and programs address the youth’s developmental status, understanding, capacity, and age.
  • Encourages a child or youth’s participation within a family and community and facilitates the development of social networks.
  • Recognizes the life space of young people involves physical, emotional, mental, and virtual domains (including social media, messaging, gaming, etc.)
  • Recognizing that competent service often requires collaborations that draw upon the expertise of many (e.g. referring youth to other professionals, seeking assistance from others).
  • Recognizing the need to be accountable to youth, as well as to their parents/guardians and also to your employer, funders, and other relevant stakeholders in the community. This means:
    • Recognizing that accountability to different groups may conflict and taking responsibility for seeking appropriate advice and making decisions in cases of conflict.
    • Being open and honest in all dealings with youth. This includes enabling them to access information so that they can make choices and decisions regarding participation in program activities, as well as in their lives in general.
  • Recognizing the youth’s membership within a family and community and facilitating the participation of significant others in serving the youth. This means:
    • Respecting and promoting the youth’s rights to making their own choices and decisions. This is also known as “client determination.”
    • Raising youth’s awareness of the range of decisions and choices open to them and providing opportunities for discussion and debate on the implication of particular choices.
    • Offering learning opportunities for youth to develop their ability and confidence in making decisions and choices. This includes being able to participate in a program or agency’s decision-making bodies and working in partnership with youth workers in planning activities.
    • Respecting the choices and views of youth unless their own welfare or the welfare of others is seriously threatened.
    • Seeking to enhance the power of the youth by making power relationships open and clear.
  • Respecting the privacy of youth and holding in confidence information obtained in the course of professional service. This means:
    • Not using information provided by young people against them, nor sharing it with others who may use it against them.
    • Making youth aware of the contextual limits to confidentiality and their permission is sought for disclosure. Until this happens, the presumption of confidentiality must apply. 
  • Ensuring that the boundary between professional and personal relationships with youth is explicitly understood and respected and the behavior of the youth worker is appropriate to these boundaries. This means:
    • Maintaining the integrity of professional boundaries. The youth work relationship is a professional relationship and is intentionally limited in order to protect the young person. Youth workers will not sexualize their clients. Sexual intimacy with a youth or a family member of a client is unethical and potentially illegal.
    • Recognizing the tensions between developing supportive and caring relationships with youth and the need to maintain an appropriate professional distance.
    • Refraining from activities for personal gain or accepting substantial gifts or favors from youth or others that may compromise the professional integrity of the work.
  • Promoting and ensuring the welfare and safety of young people. This means:
    • Taking responsibility for assessing risk and managing the safety of work and activities involving youth.
    • Drawing the attention of your employer to the existence of activities or policies that may be seriously harmful to the interests and safety of the youth you are working with. If this proves ineffective, bring your concerns to the attention of those in power or, finally, to the general public.
    • Recognizing the need to strike a balance between avoiding unnecessary risk and permitting and encouraging youth to partake in challenging activities.
  • Recognizing the impact of ecological and structural forces on youth. Your work is not limited to facilitating change within the individual young person but extends to the social context in which the youth lives.

Responsibility to Your Employer and Co-Workers

As a youth worker, you have a commitment to:

  • Treating colleagues with respect, courtesy, fairness/equity, and good faith.
  • Model flexibility and inclusiveness in working with colleagues and family members.
  • Using professional consideration with the youth who are working with your colleagues.
  • Respecting commitments made to the employer or employing organization. 

Responsibility to the Youth Work Profession

As a youth worker, you have a commitment to:

  • Recognizing that within your professional practice, the principles of youth work shall guide the resolution of ethical conflicts.
  • Promoting ethical conduct by members of the profession. This means:
    • Seeking arbitration or mediation when conflicts with colleagues require consultation and if an informal resolution seems appropriate.
    • Reporting ethical violations to appropriate persons and/or bodies when an informal resolution is not appropriate. 
  • Encouraging collaborative participation by professionals, youth, family, and community and sharing responsibility for client outcomes. This means:
    • Recognizing the limits of your role as a youth worker and the roles of others.
    • Consulting with youth (and/or parent and guardians), as you collaborate with others in securing the best possible outcomes for youth. 
  • Fostering and engaging in ethical debate in youth work. This means:
    • Re-examining these principles, engaging in reflection and discussion with colleagues and contributing to organizational wide learning where you work.
    • Developing awareness of the potential for conflict between personal and professional values and the interests and rights of different individuals, as well as conflict with the ethical principles of youth work.

Responsibility to Your Community and Society Overall

As a youth worker, you are committed to:

  • Promoting awareness of the profession and the needs of children, youth, and families to the community.
  • Promoting respect and appreciation of diversity, racial equality, social justice, and cultural humility.
  • Demonstrating the ethical principles of youth work in interactions with youth, families, and community members.
  • Encouraging informed participation by the public in shaping social policies and decisions affecting children, youth, and families. 

As you’ve just seen, there are many facets to the various principles intended to guide your conduct. Ethics is a system of moral principles governing the appropriate conduct of a person or a group. Ethics helps to ensure that your actions are not just random, arbitrary, or in-the-heat-of-the-moment reactions to situations.

In reviewing the principles listed here, did you notice any that may be missing from your work? Did you notice which ones you’re already paying very good attention to?

For many youth workers, especially those who enter the field with little or no formal training, becoming aware of ethical principles might make it seem like you still have quite a lot to learn. You’re not alone. Most youth workers would find room for improvement in this area. Just don’t be intimidated or discouraged if you found some gaps that you need to fill.

This is something you will need to come back to and revisit again and again. With practice, and conscious effort, these principles will begin to feel second nature to you. That is the aim of your focus on ethics.

If your agency does not currently have a written code of professional conduct or an outline of the principles of youth work they would like you to follow, consider how you might drive an initiative to collaboratively create one with your team.

Reference Sources

1 In developing this section, we have used resources from:

  1. Association for Child Care and Youth Practices (Standards for Practice of North American Child and Youth Care Professionals)
  2. The Statement of Principles of The National Youth Agency; and
  3. The Code of Ethics for youth work developed by Dr. Howard Sercombe in conjunction with the youth sector in Western Australia.
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