Leadership is essential in any business or industry, but in the field of early childhood education, your responsibility and influence as a leader extend far beyond what you would typically face in a professional environment. 

As a leader in Early Childhood Education (ECE), you’re setting the tone for your staff and the students under your supervision. To that end, your impact will be measured for years to come, so it’s critical that you consistently evaluate and improve your leadership style.

But which style fits you? Read on to learn about the four most common leadership styles in early childhood education, what leadership looks like in early childhood education, the roles of an ECE leader, and the paths you can take to develop and refine your leadership skills.

Four Common Leadership Styles in Early Childhood Education

While there are a number of leadership styles, here are four that are common in the world of ECE

1.    Instructional leadership

Instructional leadership challenges you to set the agenda and establish best practices for those in your employ. In an early childhood education setting, this means defining the mission for your staff, establishing goals, monitoring progress, and overseeing the execution of your learning strategies. To ensure your leadership style is effective, you’ll need to give continuous feedback and commit to eliminating inefficiencies and obstacles so your staff can improve.

2.    Servant leadership

The idea that a leadership style begins with the word “servant” can be confusing, but that’s exactly what servant leadership is: a desire to serve and place the needs of others first. In the field of early childhood education, that means focusing all of your efforts on enhancing the lives of the students and improving the community in which they learn and play. Effective servant leaders become role models for students and staff, with all learning the importance of compassion, caring, and building trust. By doing what you can to help improve the lives of staff, you make them feel valued, which could lead to higher employee retention and job satisfaction.

3.    Transactional leadership

The transactional leadership style emphasizes improved performance through rewards and bonuses. When applied to early childhood education, staff and students are encouraged to do their best on tasks, assignments, and tests, and receive rewards based on the results. For students, rewards can be snacks/treats, verbal praise, playtime with toys or devices, and other forms of positive reinforcement. For staff, it may mean a special award or recognition, lunch, gift card, or other prizes.

4.    Transformational leadership

In a business setting, transformational leaders are always challenging employees to improve through a combination of inspiration, motivation, and encouragement. Those same principles can be applied to an early childhood education setting, where you and your team teach students to take responsibility for themselves and encourage them to grow through a curriculum of learning and play. Your staff will be motivated as well, if you are fostering an environment of collaboration and innovation, while leading by example.

What Does Leadership Look Like in Early Childhood Education Settings?

We’ve all been students at some point, so we’re able to think back about how our teachers and principals demonstrated leadership. But looking at leadership through the lens of an adult is much different. 

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) supports a model dubbed “The Early Childhood Administrator’s Influence” to show how leadership and management practices influence student development and learning through three core areas:

1.    Organizational culture and climate
Whether you hold a leadership position at a school or childcare facility, you set the tone for the organizational culture. Teachers will respond positively or negatively to your leadership style, and that could affect the way they interact with students. 

2.    Teaching practices
As an ECE leader, your decisions related to hiring, supervising, and developing your staff will greatly influence the success of your organization, which in turn impacts the success of the students. 

3.    Family engagement
Unlike other fields, education challenges you to build relationships with students and their families, in addition to your staff. You’ll need to learn how to manage expectations and develop policies that “honor differing family structures, involve parents and guardians in decisions relating to their children, and regularly solicit families’ feedback about the quality of the children’s experiences,” according to NAEYC .

What Are the Roles of an Early Childhood Education Leader?

It’s well-established that leadership and management are not the same, so you don’t have to hold a supervisory role to be considered a leader in early childhood education. Educators, for example, are leaders in the eyes of children — largely because they are the ones who interact with them most on a daily basis. 

There are many opportunities to be a leader in early childhood education, depending on your level of expertise:

  • Preschool owner
  • Childcare facility director
  • Preschool and childcare center/program education administrator
  • Early Head Start, childcare center, preschool, education, or executive director
  • Program director
  • School board member

Why Should I Be a Leader in Early Childhood Education?

If you’re passionate enough to make early childhood education your professional priority, there’s a good chance you have some ideas on how it could improve. Here are three reasons why you should be a leader in early childhood education:

1.    You have a genuine love for kids. This is easily the No. 1 reason you — or anyone — should consider a leadership role. The more committed you are to improving the lives of students, the more the field of education could use you.

2.    You want a lasting, fulfilling career. As long as families are having children, there will be a need for leaders in early childhood education. Now is an especially good time, as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts employment in education occupations will grow 10% through 2030.

3.    You believe you can make positive change. Leaders can see the big picture and are capable of rallying others behind their ideas and causes. If you possess essential leadership skills – communication, motivation, critical thinking, among others – and want to make positive change in early childhood education, your path is clear.


An online degree from the University of Arizona Global Campus does not lead to immediate teacher licensure in any state. If you want to become a classroom teacher, contact your state’s education authorities prior to enrolling at the University of Arizona Global Campus to determine what state-specific requirements you must complete before obtaining your teacher’s license. 

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