leadership in early childhood education

Guide to Great Leadership in Early Childhood Education

“Leadership” is a buzzword that gets thrown around a lot but is often misused.

There is a lot more to being a great leader than a fancy job title. Just because someone is an Owner or Director does not mean that they are an effective leader, while a new junior teacher may be demonstrating exceptional leadership skills amongst their peers.

In this guide, we’ll go over what leadership means in the context of early childhood education, why it’s so important, and provide actionable tips on how to start becoming the leader that your center needs.

What is the Role of a Leader?

A leader is someone who provides an organization with a clear vision and motivates everyone involved to see it through.

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This is not to be confused with a boss. Although both are positions that others look to for guidance, a boss instructs whereas a leader inspires. When people do things when they want to – rather than because they are supposed to — they are generally happier, stick around longer, and are motivated to do their very best work.

The Importance of Leadership in Early Childhood Education

Being a leader is challenging no matter where or what you are leading, but this is especially the case in early childhood education.

On the one hand, ages 0 to 5 are the most critical for a child’s development. This is why it is so important for a childcare center to provide the best experience possible for these developing minds.

On the other hand, early learning is one of the most undervalued areas of society. Staff are grossly overworked and underpaid, leading to frequent burnout and turnover. Parents are often unable to find adequate care for their children, or are faced with exorbitant costs when they finally do. Depending on where a center is located, little to no funding or guidance may be given to assist with providing a suitable learning environment.

With the odds so stacked against childcare providers, being a strong leader becomes all the more important. You must never lose sight of your goal to improve learning outcomes for children and rally your entire community to share in this goal.

It can be tough and sometimes feel impossible — but it’s not! There are amazing childcare centers all across the world who beat the odds to provide exceptional experiences, and if you take a close look at these organizations, you will undoubtedly trace it back to strong leadership.

So how do you become one of these great leaders? Read on to learn how to improve your leadership skills!

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How to Be a Great Leader in Early Years

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to becoming an early years leader. Every center and community is different, and what works for you might not for others. Use the following techniques as a starting point and try different things to see what works best for you.

Never Stop Learning

If you ever think to yourself, “ok, I now know everything,” then you have just stopped being an effective leader. There are always new things to learn and everything is also constantly changing, so it is imperative to have a lifelong passion for learning.

Whether you are seeking new information on teaching techniques, learning frameworks, management techniques or running a business, you can never go wrong by continuously learning. A leader needs to thoroughly understand all aspects of their organization, so always keep an open mind to educate — and re-educate — yourself on anything and everything.

Understand That It’s a Journey, Not a Quick Fix

Improvements don’t happen overnight; they take weeks, months, years or even the length of an entire career. A one-day workshop won’t be enough to make you a better leader or improve your team’s skills. You need to commit to this over time.

Use Reflective Practice

Be sure to regularly challenge everything that is the “norm.” Try to look at things from a newcomer’s point of view (or armed with everything you’ve learned since the last time you thought about something) and see if there is any room for improvement.

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For example, you may have a monthly after-hours meeting with all of your staff that you’ve ran since your center opened, but your staff always seems bored and anxious to leave. Use this as an opportunity to switch up the format from what may have worked at first but no longer resonates with your newer employees.

Or, perhaps you’ve noticed that your teachers are always running back and forth frantically to quickly get an item. Something as simple as reorganizing where certain supplies are stored could be all it takes to have an easier layout that makes your teachers’ lives a whole lot easier.

The point is, not all fixes are glaringly obvious, and may only become apparent when you make the time to consciously go through everything and see if you can’t find a way to do it better. A little can go a long way, and they all add up to make a better experience overall.

Be an Early Learning Advocate in Your Community

Don’t just talk about why early childhood education is important — show it!

A true leader thinks beyond their immediate surroundings. Raise issues affecting early learners with your local representatives. Join associations for other leaders in your area that aren’t necessarily involved in early childhood education. Speak at local events when the opportunity arises. When others see how passionate you are about early learning, that passion is infectious and will help them become more invested as well.

Have a Strong & Clear Vision

It can be so easy to get caught up in the day-to-day routine that people lose sight of the overall goal that they are working towards. By having a vision for your childcare center, you will make decisions that are in your center’s best interest, give your team something to rally behind, and provide more meaning behind the work they do each day.

Vision and mission statements also help ensure you have everyone’s support, as you will have a clear reference point that communicates your center’s philosophy. Include this statement in easily accessible places like your website or parent handbooks to make sure everyone understands and shares your approach as well.

Be Assertive (When Necessary)

Unfortunately, it is impossible to see eye-to-eye with everyone 100% of the time. This means that you will sometimes be in uncomfortable situations where you need to stand your ground. Although you may not want people to be unhappy with you, to be a leader, you will at various points need to be assertive and do what’s best for your organization.

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That being said, this is definitely a fine balancing act. Ineffective leaders make the mistake of thinking that because they’re the boss, whatever they say goes. Whether or not you have this level of authority, you do not want to be an authoritarian. Always try to do everything you can to explain why something is necessary, but if it comes down to it, do not be a pushover. Once someone sees you waver and change your plan because it led to confrontation, they will begin to lose confidence in your ability to lead.

Work On Your Time Management

All of the other techniques in this article are fully within your control, but there is one thing you will never be able to change: there are only 24 hours in the day. It is up to you to work within this constraint as best you can.

A great leader is able to prioritize how long to focus on what. Steve Jobs famously wore the same outfit every day, saving him the time it takes to decide what to wear in the morning and going shopping for new clothes. While this might not seem like a lot, it is part of the mentality that decides where one’s efforts are best spent.

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If you are working around the clock, then that is not healthy for you, your family or your team. You owe it to everyone to make better use of your time, including having much-needed downtime. This is often a matter of deciding what are truly the most important things to focus on, and passing off responsibilities to others when you are taking on too much yourself.

Delegate

It is impossible to do everything yourself. Leaders do not have an “I’ll just do it myself because only I can do it right” attitude; rather, they are always thinking about who else will be best suited to handle certain responsibilities.

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Understand that it’s perfectly OK for someone else to be more skilled at something than you. A great leader knows their team’s strengths and weaknesses and delegates tasks accordingly to produce the greatest possible output. The fact that your decision-making lead to great results is how your leadership skills will be measured, not how much you did yourself. Plus, when you’ve empowered people with additional responsibilities, they’ll feel challenged and fulfilled, making them much happier in their role.

Ensure Everyone Knows Why

“Because I said so” should never be something you say to your staff.

Always make sure that your staff understands why they are doing something. Never assume that they know this intuitively, even if it seems obvious to you. If people understand the importance of their task, they will be much more likely to give it their full effort and do a great job.

Provide Professional Learning Opportunities

No one wants to feel stuck in their job. A great leader shows that they are invested in their team and wants them to continue improving. This could be in the form of courses or conferences for training and development, but it also doesn’t have to be expensive. Even something as simple as a book club will provide your team with an opportunity to learn something new and evolve in their roles, helping you build up your staff into a superstar team.

Make Yourself Available

It is important for you to have a connection with your team and for them to know that you value them. Some leaders have an open-door policy and encourage their team to drop by when they want to chat; others have regularly scheduled 1 on 1 time to catch up, address items of concern and provide guidance. Even if each meeting is not 100% necessary, your staff will feel valued knowing that it is important for you to spend time with them during your busy day to make sure they’re happy and on their path to success.

Provide Experiences for Staff to Pass On to the Children

The best way for teachers to know how to provide a great experience for the kiddos is by having one themselves. The way that you treat your staff will impact how they treat the children both positively and negatively, so ensure that you are focusing on the care of your team members as well by regularly engaging your employees.

Make it a point to encourage creativity, respect their individual learning styles, promote (reasonable) risk-taking and working together towards a shared goal. For example, a team-building activity at an escape room will bring out all of these skills (in addition to giving your team a much-needed refresher from their daily routine). Once your staff know what these experiences feel like, they will naturally be motivated to provide the same thing for the children.

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Set Your Team Up for Success

While it’s important to challenge your team, do not set unrealistic expectations. If they don’t have the time or tools required to complete the objectives you’ve set, then you have set them up for failure before they even started.

Always keep in mind their regular responsibilities, training level, and resources provided when assigning work, and consider whether it is possible for them to succeed at what you are proposing. Your staff can be eager to impress by taking on more and more things without realizing that they are not possible when considering their existing workload. A great leader will factor in whether they are asking for something reasonable or unrealistic. Failure can be very deflating, so always try to avoid mishaps and keep the momentum of success rolling.

Work on Your Emotional Intelligence

A career in early childhood education is among the most emotionally draining, so this needs extra attention. Be empathetic to how a team member is feeling and speak with them in a way that best matches their mood. Don’t wait for someone to tell you that something’s not right; most times they won’t. A great leader will see past “everything’s fine” and know when they need to step in to address a bigger underlying issue.

But it’s not just others’ emotions you need to keep in mind. Employees want a confident and reliable leader, so it’s important to not let your emotions get the best of you. No matter how much pressure you are under, do not take it out on your staff or do anything to make them think you won’t be able to get through this latest challenge. This is not to say that you need to be an emotionless robot; just pay close attention to the way you are behaving and effect this may be having on others.

Prioritize Quality

People go into early childhood education because they want to make a positive difference in childrens’ lives, so make sure that you are providing the best environment possible for learning and development. Depending on your location, you very likely have an approved State or Provincial early learning framework to help guide early childhood education programming and ensure children are acquiring skills that are important for their development.

Adding a framework to your center will demonstrate your commitment to the children in your care, and if you already have one, it’s never a bad idea to brush up on updates since you started or finding ways to better align to the framework.

Communicate Openly & Often

When others feel like you are keeping secrets or making sudden changes with no warning, your team will not feel secure in their environment. This is the opposite you want because building trust is one of the most important things for you to do as a leader.

While you will not be able to share 100% of everything with everyone, it is important to have open communication with your team as much as possible. When a change is coming, give them plenty of notice, reminders, and training (if necessary) so that they not only are expecting the change but are looking forward to it!


Leadership is not always an inherent skill. To lead your team effectively, you will need to put the work in to constantly improve your skills so you can be the best leader possible. By following the tips in this article and committing to improving your leadership skills, you will be on your way towards being the best version of yourself for your staff, students and center.

Who are great leaders that you admire? What are the most important skills you look for in a great leader? Let us know in the comments!

Michael Keshen

Michael is the Content Manager at HiMama, with over 7 years of online content publishing experience. He is the current editor in chief for HiMama's early childhood education blog and ECE Weekly newsletter. When not developing content for early childhood professionals, he can usually be found out and about with his wife and daughter exploring all that Toronto has to offer, or playing music with his karaoke band.

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