children playing

Leadership for quality early childhood education and care

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Douglass, A. L.
Publication Date: 
17 Dec 2019

Excerpted from abstract and introduction


This literature review examines the research on early childhood education and care (ECEC) leadership and how leaders impact process quality in ECEC settings. Process quality refers to interactions and relationships between and among children and ECEC staff, and is a strong predictor of children’s learning, development and well-being. Research suggests that leadership plays a central role in improving and sustaining process quality in ECEC settings. This literature review presents findings about: 1) the functions, roles and structures of leadership in ECEC settings, 2) factors that may support or hinder leadership and its effectiveness, 3) working conditions and professional development for staff, and 4) how these factors might impact process quality. The results suggest that supports for ECEC leadership may be needed to strengthen areas such as leadership recruitment, preparation and professional development, credentialing and compensation, job design and further research. 


Research shows that children learn, grow, and thrive in Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) settings when those settings are characterised by high quality interactions and relationships. There is growing recognition that the level of quality in ECEC settings influences children’s learning, development and well-being. This attention to quality has generated continued interest in how to most effectively achieve and sustain quality. ECEC research has consistently focussed on pedagogy and classroom/playgroup/group quality as key determinants of children’s experiences in ECEC settings. Less is known about the role of leadership and its relationship to quality.

Research across sectors finds that leadership is one of the single most important drivers of organisational performance, quality improvement and innovation. This suggests that effective leadership is important and necessary in ECEC settings. While the evidence about ECEC leadership is still limited, there is a growing interest in gaining a better understanding about what ECEC leadership looks like across diverse settings and contexts, and how ECEC leadership can positively impact quality.

Because leadership carries many different meanings, it is important to define it. Leadership involves influencing change or action to achieve a shared purpose or goal for an organisation or a system. Leadership in ECEC encompasses both administrative and pedagogical functions (Figure 1). One individual may be responsible for all leadership functions, or these may be shared among two or more people. Leadership can be structured in various ways too. It can be exercised by a formal leader such as a principal or ECEC centre leader, and it can also be exercised by teachers, staff and/or parents. This is often referred to as distributive, shared, collective, or relational leadership, in contrast to a hierarchical structure (Douglass, 2017[1]). In distributed leadership structures, ECEC leaders may exercise facilitative leadership that creates the conditions in which ECEC staff have the autonomy and the necessary supports to solve problems and lead improvement efforts. Research on distributed leadership in educational contexts shows that the leadership of administrators and staff may each play an important, distinctive, yet interdependent role when it comes to improving quality (Wenner and Campbell, 2017[2]).