Education Leadership in Early Childhood Education
Kate Thornton
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 September 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0257


Leadership in early childhood education is a relatively young but expanding field of scholarship reflected in the early 21st-century nature of the literature in this entry. In many cases, the literature draws on existing leadership theories and relates it to the early childhood education context. Common theories of leadership such as transactional or transformational leadership have been rejected by those in the sector as these approaches do not reflect the collaborative nature of leadership in the early years sector. Conversely, broader leadership approaches commonly referred to in the wider education sector, such as pedagogical and distributed leadership, are seen as relevant to the early childhood education sector and sections of this entry are devoted to literature on these. Literature on Distributed Leadership and teacher leadership focuses on the practice of leadership rather than those in leadership roles and literature on the link between leadership practice and quality in early childhood is also included. Leadership is acknowledged to be contextual and this is particularly the case in the early childhood education sector where the status of the profession, the structure, and the terminology used varies widely across countries. Much of the writing in the field has come from countries such as Australia, New Zealand, England, and Nordic countries, where teachers and leaders are more highly qualified and where there is a greater level of recognition for the sector and the importance of leadership. In contrast some of the literature from North America reveals a sector in which the importance of leadership struggles to be acknowledged or respected. While there is a separate section on Leadership in Different Contexts, context is of relevance in the majority of literature included. Reasons for the lack of recognition for leadership in the sector include the lack of support for leadership development highlighted in the selection of articles focused on this entry. Tensions in the field are highlighted in a section on Challenges and Debates. The predominance of women in the sector appears to be another factor in the lack of recognition and this is reflected in the authorship of the literature with the majority of articles being written by women. While most of the literature referred to takes the form of articles, some books are included. These are mainly Texts and Guides for practitioners however some include theorization on the nature of leadership in the field.

Conceptualizations of Leadership

Conceptualizations of leadership in early childhood education draw on existing leadership theories rather than being unique to the sector—however, increasingly conceptualizations are being offered that relate existing theory to the early childhood education context. Aubrey 2019 and Aubrey, et al. 2013 promote conceptualizations of leadership involving distributed leadership or leadership as practice. Davis 2012 attempts to clarify the link between the theory and practice of leading change in the early childhood education sector while also drawing on change while Stamopoulos 2012 highlights four areas of leadership practice that leaders need to know, understand, and apply. Nicholson, et al. 2018 reviews literature on leadership in early childhood education and critiques the inclusion of social justice perspectives while Nicholson and Maniates 2016 takes a postmodern perspective acknowledging changing relationships and multiple identities. More theoretical stances are taken in Fairchild 2019, which uses posthumanist theorizing to highlight the complexity within leadership groupings and Mettiäinen 2016, which also takes a posthumanist view of leadership related to the concepts of becoming and temporality.

  • Aubrey, C. 2019. What early childhood leadership for what kind of world? Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood 20.1:65–78.

    DOI: 10.1177/1463949119828145

    Uses autoethnography to explore definitions and contexts of early childhood education leadership with the aim of unsettling some of the dominant discourses and supporting assumptions. Offers an alternative leadership-as-practice model.

  • Aubrey, C., R. Godfrey, and A. Harris. 2013. How do they manage? An investigation of early childhood leadership. Educational Management Administration and Leadership 41.1:5–29.

    DOI: 10.1177/1741143212462702

    Aims to identify, describe and analyze the meaning of leadership in the early childhood education sector. Roles, responsibilities, and characteristics as well as core components and leadership practice are explored and distributed leadership is promoted as an approach that resonates with those in the sector.

  • Davis, G. 2012. A documentary analysis of the use of leadership and change theory in changing practice in early years settings. Early Years 32.3:266–276.

    DOI: 10.1080/09575146.2011.638278

    An analysis of reflections written by early childhood professionals studying for masters’ degrees is drawn on in the development of a theory of leadership and change for the sector.

  • Fairchild, N. 2019. The micropolitics of posthuman early years leadership assemblages: Exploring more-than-human relationality. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood 20.1:53–64.

    DOI: 10.1177/1463949118793332

    Broadens current views on early childhood leadership by taking a more-than-human view of relations between human and nonhuman bodies (such as matter, materials, and the natural world). Reveals the complexity found within early childhood leadership aggregations.

  • Mettiäinen, V. 2016. Early childhood education teachers and leaders becoming the leadership(s). Reconceptualizing Educational Research Methodology 7.2:62–73.

    Employs poststructuralist and humanist research approaches to view leadership as being or becoming during the research process. Suggests leadership is understood as a conceptualization of bodies rather than residing in an individual.

  • Nicholson, J., K. Kuhl, H. Maniates, B. Lin, and S. Bonetti. 2018. A review of the literature on leadership in early childhood: Examining epistemological foundations and considerations of social justice. Early Child Development and Care 190.2:91–122.

    DOI: 10.1080/03004430.2018.1455036

    Explores how leadership is theorized and whether social justice and equity are considered in this theorization. Discusses the shift toward more relational and distributed constructions of leadership while highlighting the importance of considering social injustice.

  • Nicholson, J., and H. Maniates. 2016 Recognizing postmodern intersectional identities in leadership for early childhood. Early Years 36.1:66–80.

    DOI: 10.1080/09575146.2015.1080667

    Applies a postmodern lens to the reconceptualization of leadership. Invites complex understandings that take into account multiple identities and dynamic relationships.

  • Stamopoulos, E. 2012. Reframing early childhood leadership. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood 37.2:42–48.

    Presents a leadership model that recognizes four complementary aspects: developing professional identity, developing professional knowledge, building relational trust, and applying an interpretive lens.

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