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Does leadership in Early Childhood Matter? A Literature Review


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Does Leadership in Early Childhood Matter? A Literature Review


Early childhood education is a crucial stage in child development that requires effective guidance and management practices. For this reason, leadership is an instrumental part of early childhood education, as it helps to create a sense of direction, focus, and confidence both among those who are led and among the leaders. The roles of teachers within a standard early childhood education setting extend from disseminating knowledge to developing a rapport with learners, building trust, dealing with organizational processes, managing work volumes, and building confidence in others. They also purpose to develop skills and to diagnose organizational and individual issues. Each of these roles has to be performed effectively, hence the need for an understanding of organizational leadership, and particularly Early Childhood Leadership. However, different perspectives have been developed around effective Early Childhood Leadership, some of which define specific attributes that Early Childhood leaders have to develop. Various past works of literature have also discussed leadership perspectives among Early Childhood Leaders, and these are presented in the literature review.

Characteristics of Early Childhood Leadership

Early childhood leadership can be described as one of the most encompassing roles in education. Leadership in this context is defined through one's ability to not only mold young minds but also to foster an environment that can enhance that growth. According to Talan, Bloom, and Kelton (2014), early childhood leadership is first characterized by the ability to understand challenges and address them effectively from a systems perspective. This implies that every early childhood leader must be able to help those they lead by identifying system challenges and making the initiative to solve them through different approaches. Stefanova (2014) points out that one of the mandates of early childhood leaders would be to research and engage in conceptual knowledge building to help in understanding the roles that can be played by organizations towards creating environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable environments. This can be linked to the perspective of system-wide problem-solving in the sense that for that approach to problem-solving to be successful, research has to be conducted to establish an understanding of organizational core competencies and skills relative to the issues facing the target population.

Problem-solving, however, is impossible without an understanding of the goals towards which an organization is supposed to be moving. Brownlee, Nailon, and Tickle (2010), have emphasized the importance of a clear organizational goal for an early childhood institution. However, this can only happen when the leader already has a vision that is required to move forward. Besides the vision, there has to be intentional value affirmation, since a vision without values may be difficult to achieve. The values provide a sense of direction and guidance for decision-making purposes for the leader. Talan et al. (2014) also further focus on this characteristic as it encompasses a wider perspective lens to looking at leadership in the early childhood education setting. According to Talan et al. (2014), an early childhood leader should not only be able to envision goals but should also be able to unite the employees and the children in one purpose, should consistently affirm values, and be able to motivate staff.

The motivational feature has also been extensively discussed as one of the core characteristics of effective leaders not only in early childhood but also at all leadership levels. Han, Yin, and Boylan (2016) discuss the importance of motivation for school teachers. In the discussion, the authors explore the concept of motivation from a teacher perspective as well as from the student perspective, with the conclusion that sufficient motivation results in stronger psychological engagement and a better sense of self-fulfillment and job satisfaction. In this regard, motivated employees in a school setting tend to perform better than the unmotivated ones. Similarly, early childhood education is considered a type of school environment in which motivation plays an essential role in the growth of the children and the sustained availability of educators. Talan et al. (2014) posit that motivating staff goes hand in hand with other characteristics such as value affirmation and fostering unity of purpose, among others. The motivation encourages both staff and their students to focus on the ultimate objective of early childhood education.

While describing the characteristics of early childhood leadership, Brownlee et al. (2010) emphasized the role of transformational leadership towards achieving organizational objectives. In their study, Brownlee et al. describe the dimensions of transformational leadership that should be characteristic of the early childhood leadership environment. The first of these dimensions is an idealized influence, whereby leaders act as role models without hindering the development of a mission among the group. This begins with the promotion of respect and trust among staff members. Secondly, leaders in early childhood ought to provide inspirational motivation, which relates to the enhancement of staff engagements. Other dimensions of early childhood transformational leadership would involve intellectual stimulation, which fosters growth, and individualized consideration, which involves an understanding of individual members of the organization and their core competencies as a basis for decision making.

Early childhood leadership should also encompass a deliberate effort to attain optimum growth by creating an environment for potential exploration and a climate that fosters growth (Talan et al., 2014). To achieve this, the methods used in early childhood leadership, educational frameworks, and materials/ resources provided should enable effectiveness in the learning experiences. To some extent, this could also include conducting system-wide research to assess the status of progress in the facility and to make the necessary changes that would foster growth towards the intended objectives. In line with this, Han et al. (2016) argue that assessing teacher capabilities and motivation is one of the approaches towards ensuring sustained growth as motivated teachers would ultimately be effective in their performance. Similarly, understanding student characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses is another consideration that has to be made to ensure an environment of growth is established. This, therefore, means that many approaches could be suitable for achieving an optimum growth environment, as long as they focus on both the children and the employees.

Roles of Early Childhood Leaders

The described characteristics of early childhood leadership imply that early childhood leaders have to perform a specific set of roles and responsibilities. A study by McKnight (2017) shows that the most commonly identified role of a teacher, even in the capacity of a leader, is to provide resources. As a resource provider, the teacher is responsible for providing learning and support resources for the children under his/her care. This implies that the student or other teachers can reach out to an early childhood leader when in need of resources, and they should be confident in finding those resources from the leader. This role is also mentioned by Strehmel (2016), who purports that even in the early childhood learning environment, the children depended on their teachers for information. The most common source of information would be through the availability of books, print media, electronic notes, and other studying materials. This is the primary objective of education, which is to be achieved daily.

Besides the provision of resources, other roles are encapsulated within the 7 dimensions framework developed by Strehmel (2016), for the description of leadership roles in early childhood development. According to Strehmel, one of the dimensions is that of human resource management, which entails dealing with the employees of an early childhood education environment. The human resource management dimension can still be linked to the characteristic of motivation and goal development, which has been associated with early childhood leaders by Talan et al. (2014). Strehmel further stresses the importance of diverging the roles of early childhood relationships such that the human resource management dimension entails strengthening the pedagogical quality and ensuring that children have excellent learning opportunities and caring for the professional development of the staff. All these have been described in past literature concerning the specific roles of the teams. Strehmel (2016) asserts that such management fosters motivation, autonomy, professional work, empathy, reflexion, and learning. With these as the particular outcomes of the motivation, the interconnection between these roles and the characteristics of early childhood leadership becomes clear.

The second dimension is described as that of collaboration. Childcare is often defined as a multi-pronged activity involving several centers of attention. While the focus is mostly on the children as individuals in need of attention, early childhood leaders can only provide sufficient levels of attention through collaboration with others. Brownlee et al. (2010) describe this form of collaboration as a partnership with stakeholders, who have specific interests in childcare. The partnerships are supposed to be for the greater good of the children and for continued and sustainable growth. Similarly, Strehmel (2016) purports that the collaboration dimension should include working with stakeholders from both inside and outside early childhood institutions. This requires an understanding of the team dynamics, probable conflicts, as well as the methods of possible conflict resolution. Each of these aspects characterizes successful team interactions. Parents play a crucial role in fostering the growth of their children, and for them to have full visibility of the progress, they need to collaborate with the teachers and early childhood leaders. Further emphasis is placed on the collaborative role of the early childhood leader, with the assertion that pedagogical orientations and the teams' self-confidence are shaped to some extent by the leader's attitudes and leading strategies (Strehmel, 2016).  Leaders further form the point of contact for external collaboration to ensure that resources necessary in early childhood education are obtained.

The Australian Children’s Education & Care Quality Authority (2018) defines the quality standards expected in early childhood education and the role of the early childhood leader in achieving these standards. Particularly, there is a mention of the promotion of organizational culture, and leading the development as well as the implementation of the educational program to be used. Accordingly, these roles influence childcare outcomes in ways such as enhancing the individual learning and development of the children, taking a reflective approach to addressing individual needs of the children, and collaborating with other leaders and service providers towards satisfactory service delivery (Australian Children's Education & Care Quality Authority, 2018). The early childhood leader performs these roles within the context of intended growth and development in childcare performance. Strehmel (2016) also focuses on this subject, albeit from a different perspective, namely, organizational development, which is described as the efforts towards ensuring sustainable quality delivery in early childhood institutions. In this context, Strehmel defines the roles of the early childhood leader as including developing curricula and initiating new rules and challenges that are aimed at enhancing the quality of education and working with new target groups such as children with special needs. Rouse and Spradbury (2016) mention that early childhood leaders work with educators in providing directions in curricula development and ensuring there is a framework through which children can achieve educational outcomes. The authors further assert that it is the role of early childhood leaders to collaborate with the community, parents, colleagues, and mentors to ensure the outlined quality education initiatives are achieved. These arguments emphasize the importance of early childhood leadership to both the growth and development of children and to their academic outcomes.

Other roles have been mentioned in association with the early childhood leadership position including strategic management (developing and communicating the vision and growth frameworks of their institutions) (Strehmel, 2016); self-management (taking care of self and work management to ensure psychological well-being for effective performance) (Han et al., 2016; Strehmel, 2016); and the use of epistemological education methods to foster knowledge sharing (Rouse & Spradbury, 2016). Each of these roles is linked to the objectives of early childhood education, which is primarily to foster growth and development among children.

Early Childhood Leadership Challenges

While the characteristics of early childhood leadership and the roles of leaders seem to be clearly defined, the task is not without challenges. Various studies indicate that the challenges associated with early childhood leadership vary widely, from the actual education-related challenges to those that are linked to the personality traits of the children and the teachers. For instance, one of the main challenges in early childhood leadership is that the context is highly feminized. Most of those who work as leaders in the sector are females, and this poses a challenge for men who desire to be part of the sector. One of the rationales behind this conceptualization of early childhood leadership as feminized is founded on the principle of women's care ethics, which nurtures and is related to intrinsic relations to others. In this context, leadership behavior is delinked from individual competencies and skills, which raises concerns about performance in a field in which evaluation is based on social expectations. A study by Hard (2011) affirms that for men, dealing with the feminine nature of this role can be a challenge. The increasing campaigns towards professional inclusivity have, however, resulted in changing perceptions about early childhood leadership, with the focus shifting to the education providers than to the actual leadership roles. Hard (2011) points out that government policy has particularly played a crucial role towards ensuring gender equity and labor market participation for individuals of all backgrounds.

The consideration of the early childhood context is more of an educational rather than a general growth and development institution is another challenge faced by early childhood leaders. Goffin (2013) posits that there has not been a clear definition of what leadership is in the context of early childhood development, a phenomenon that has resulted in persistent definition of the early childhood leader's role within only in the educational context and not as an interplay between several functions including the personality attributes of the leader, the leadership situation, identity and leadership behaviors among others. Accordingly, there are bound to be shifting goalposts and expectations, which can result in poor evaluation practices and the non-recognition of individual strengths and weaknesses. Other studies also illustrate this exceptional focus on education at the expense of other attributes (Hard, 2011). Understanding the specific roles of the early childhood leader within an educational context can be considered an important strategy towards attaining balance. The leadership role can be allowed to play out more through collaboration with other stakeholders, development of the educational curricular, realization of the need for training, and focus on opportunities for growth.

Contemporary thinking about leadership has also been an important factor contributing to challenges in the early childhood education sector. While the shift is somewhat good for early childhood leadership, it comes with a lot of complexity in leadership. The shift includes changes in educational reforms, changes in the characteristics of arising issues in education, including the education readiness age, career readiness, and other factors. With these changes, there has also been a significant shift towards systems thinking, an outcome that continues to create positive impacts on the early childhood leader. However, these changes also come as a challenge with respect to change management, as they demand flexibility in supporting change, redefining followership, and transcending traditional boundaries in leadership (Goffin, 2013). Moodley (2016) asserts that in spite of these challenges, it is still possible to develop leadership models, which are aligned with the pedagogical approaches of early childhood. In this way, it becomes possible to not only satisfy the contemporary demands of early childhood leadership but also to ensure that those demands do not pose a burden to the leader.

There is always the possibility of psychological pressure in early childhood leadership as a result of the divergence between conventional early childhood practices and those of other education levels. According to Haile and Hussien (2017), early childhood leadership comes with a greater psychological burden as most of those tasked with the responsibility report lack of experience, limited training on leadership practices, and the need for community engagement to sustain relationships between institutions and parents. From the findings of other studies that outline the roles of early childhood leaders, it has been clarified that one of the core roles is to foster stakeholder collaboration (Talan et al., 2014; Rouse & Spradbury, 2016). This finding illustrates that the inability to create this collaboration can be a source of stress for early childhood leaders. Similarly, implementing conventional leadership practices within an early childhood setting can be difficult due to the complexity of early childhood interactions. For this, leaders in the sector have to be ardent at understanding the distinctions between early childhood and other contexts, and subsequently to change their leadership practices based on the circumstances under consideration. This can, however, be achieved with experience.



Australian Children’s Education & Care Quality Authority. (2018). The role of the educational leader. National Quality Standard.

Brownlee, J., Nailon, D., & Tickle, E. (2010). Constructing leadership in childcare: Epistemological beliefs and transformational leadership. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 35(3), 95-104.

Goffin, S.G. (2013). Building capacity through an early education leadership academy. Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes.

Haile, Y., &  Hussien, B. (2017). Practices and challenges of preschool leadership and management in public and private kindergarten in Jijiga city administrations. Journal of Humanities and Social Science, 22(12), 74-83.

Han, J., Yin, H., & Boylan, M. (2016). Teacher motivation: Definition, research development, and implications for teachers. Cogent Education, 3(1).

Hard, L. (2011). Leadership in early childhood education and care: Facing the challenges and embracing new possibilities.

McKnight, N. (2017). Exploring early childhood leadership and policy enactment in Jamaica. Electronic Theses and Dissertation, 4959.

Moodley, E. (2016). Leadership in early childhood education: The journey of Pasifika educators. Auckland University of Technology, Thesis.

Rouse, E., & Spradbury, G. (2016). The role of the educational leader in long daycare – how do they perceive their role? Early Childhood Development and Care, 186(3), 497-508.

Stefanova, M.D. (2013). Principles for responsible management education- United Nations global compact strategy to grow sustainable business leaders.

Strehmel, P. (2016). Leadership in early childhood education – theoretical and empirical approaches. Journal of Early Childhood Education Research, 5(2), 344-355.

Talan, T.N., Bloom, P.J., & Kelton, R.E. (2014). Building the leadership capacity of early childhood directors: An evaluation of a leadership development model. Early Childhood Research and Practice.


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