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A guide to great leadership in early childhood education

Explore the essential role of educational leaders in early childhood education and uncover valuable tips for selecting the right candidate and excelling in this position.
Educational leadership

In Leadership and Management in the Early Years, Jane Cook and Liz Rouse remind readers of childhood’s fleeting nature. This, they argue, makes the delivery of exceptional support during this critical phase especially important. As experienced early childhood educators understand, early years education lays the groundwork for a child’s future learning journey. Having a clear strategy can help children achieve key learning outcomes (Houghton 2024) and good educational leadership can maximise the effect of this.

In early years settings specifically, leadership can elevate educational, health, and social outcomes for children (Siraj and Hallet 2014). Discover how educational leadership in early years settings can inspire educators to develop their professional practice and transform outcomes for children.

Qualities of educational leadership

Four educational leadership qualities underpin principals’ ability to lead their schools in Aotearoa (Ministry of Education, 2024):

Manaakitanga
Leading with moral purpose. A commitment to improved learning and social outcomes should be demonstrated by supporting students. Additionally, it should also be applied by guiding other educational leaders and teachers in their own professional development.

Pono
Self-belief. It means valuing oneself and encompasses self-care, resilience, wellbeing, and a healthy lifestyle.

Ako
Being a role-model for your school by taking your own learning and professional development seriously. Promoting and supporting the ongoing professional development of kaiako is a key responsibility of educational leaders. (ELS-Te-Whariki-Early-Childhood-Curriculum, p. 59)

Awhinatanga
Awhinatanga is about having empathy with groups and individuals in the school community. This is relevant to Te Whariki, which emphasizes kaikaio’s responsibility to work collaboratively with parents, whanau and communities to support each child’s individual learning pathway (ELS-Te-Whariki-Early-Childhood-Curriculum, p. 2)

Choosing an educational leader

When designating an educational leader, consideration needs to be given to whether the person is:

  • suitably qualified and experienced
  • willing to make time for the role and eager to learn more
  • approachable and well respected
  • knowledgeable about theories, pedagogy and the relevant learning frameworks
  • skilled at supporting educators of varying abilities and learning styles
  • knowledgeable about the NQS and related regulatory standards.

(The Role of the Educational Leader, Information Sheet Developed by ACECQA)

Inspire, Communicate, Motivate: The role of the educational leader includes a helpful decision tree to assist educators in choosing an educational leader.

Halton and Treveton explain that the appointment of an educational leader doesn’t have to be a permanent decision. Some services use a rotating system, with educational leaders changing annually. Others might have educational leaders serving fixed terms of several years, allowing them to grow with the role.

Tips to inspire your leadership work in early childhood education

We have identified the qualities of a leader but how to put them into practice? Leadership and Management in the Early Years: A practical guide to building confident leadership skills contains helpful exercises and approaches for educational leaders.  According to the authors, success as a leader lies in self-reflection and learning how to incorporate other skills, attributes and knowledge. The following exercises can help you identify your strengths, establish clear goals and build an effective team. According to the ACECQA, effective collaboration and communication has the following benefits for educators: 

  • improved self-esteem and morale
  • increased job satisfaction
  • reduction of stress and burnout
  • a sense of ownership for the direction of the service
  • development of stronger relationships and communication with children and families
  • the contribution to children’s safety, security, happiness and learning.

Reflective practice

Authors, Cook and Rouse, explain how feedback from others on your educational leadership and careful self-reflection enable leaders to identify their strengths and apply them effectively. According to them, ‘Reflective practice is the art of engaging in conscious and deliberate reflection on experiences and actions that enhances an individual’s desire for self-learning.’

One way of incorporating this idea into your early years education practice is by starting a reflective journal. They suggest creating a lifeline like the one below to kickstart your thinking

Vision for educational leadership

A strong vision is central to your role as a leader. In Leadership and Management in the Early Years A practical guide to building confident leadership skills, ‘vision’ is described as ‘both a standard of excellence to aspire to, and the purpose of current work.’ If you are struggling to identify your vision, the book suggests writing a letter to yourself from the future.

Educational leadership teamwork

To implement your vision, it is important to have a strong team around you. Reflective practice identifies gaps in your own skillset that help build a team to support you in these areas effectively.

Proper staff induction is key to helping your team understand their roles and responsibilities. One suggestion made in the book is to assign a mentor to new staff, who can assist the new joiner with documents, explain practice and help them settle in by meeting with them regularly.

Great educational leadership is essential

When the role of the educational leader was first introduced, some early years services struggled to implement it (Cook and Rouse 2014). However, it is a rewarding role for an educator who is adept at setting goals and eager to inspire their colleagues to improve their existing pedagogical practices.

For more information on educational leadership, check out Leadership and Management in the Early Years and Inspire, Communicate, Motivate.

References

Ministry of Education. Te Whāriki He Whāriki Mātauranga Mō Ngā Mokopuna O Aotearoa Early Childhood Curriculum. 2017.

ACECQA. “Educational Leadership.”

ACECQA, Quality Area 7 – Governance and Leadership,  2019.

Siraj, Iram, and Elaine Hallet. Effective and Caring Leadership in the Early Years. Google Books, SAGE, 24 Oct. 2013. Accessed 2 May 2024.

ACECQA, Educational Leadership and Team Building, 2018. Accessed 9 May 2024.

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