At the University of Sheffield, we are currently working on an international research collaboration with the Australian Catholic University. The aim of this research is to theorise how learning-rich leadership enhances service quality in Early Childhood Education. As part of this research we interviewed 20 graduate leaders across the Early Years sector and with a range of qualifications including the Early Years Professional (EYP) and the Early Years Teacher (EYT).
Reflecting on the research process and the findings that emerged from the data, one of the most revelatory aspects has been understanding the many different roles that Early years leaders are expected to carry out. As a way of understanding how leaders navigate the pressures they face on a day-to-day basis, we categorised four key roles based on the data: Team Leader, Agent of Change, Responsible Agent, and Pedagogical Leader. Underpinning these four roles was a clear sense of moral agency and children-centred thinking, highlighting the emotional intelligence and labour of the Early Years leader:
“It’s a physically and emotionally draining job. Sometimes at the end of the day it’s reading signs of whether we’re sitting down to have an evaluation meeting or whether we need to sit down, make a cup of tea and have a group hug”
As part of the well-being week I wanted to use this blog to highlight some of our findings on the emotional labour and intelligence involved in working in Early Years. It has been well-documented that emotions are a necessary quality in Early Childhood, as the nature of the work involves feelings around protecting and supporting children and their family’s as well as supporting and caring for colleagues (Osgood, 2006), and participants in our research talked extensively about this kind of work.
Attributes that emerged from the data included leaders’ ability to recognise the strengths and weaknesses of their team, and how they would utilise those strengths and address weaknesses through professional development opportunities. Through effective communication and a democratic approach, leaders were able to navigate changes that needed to be made in the setting. It was also very important to our participants that they were seen as being a team player, often involving themselves in the day-to-day activities such as changing nappies and serving lunches. The leaders were also passionate advocates for the children, their staff and the very nature of their role as early years professionals.
“Standing up for things that you really, really don’t agree with .. but then again you sometimes need people to stand up .. children don’t have a voice that’s going to be heard very loudly so you need to stand up sometimes .. I think in all my careers I’ve never been afraid to stand up and say when I think something is wrong”.
Participants thought it very important to ensure the team were on board with the direction of the practice and listening and understanding staff perspectives was key. They also talked of the importance of empowering staff to implement their own changes, and how they would try to facilitate this. Leaders were also keen that staff enjoyed their work and it was highlighted how this ultimately had an impact on children if staff were happy:
“You want to make sure they’re enjoying going to work .. and I know people say it’s just a job but I just think you’re responsible for those children and I want to make sure they’ve got everything they need and more”.
Despite there being clear disparities between pay, status and career prospects of the Early Years workforce in comparison to that of a teacher with Qualified Teacher Status (QTS), there was a distinct altruism as leaders recognised the important work they did, and the expert knowledge and skilfulness utilised as part of their role:
“They are crying out for early years teachers in settings like this and if I just shift and think ‘well for myself I’ll do better if I go elsewhere’ then private practice will never attain and offer children the same kind of opportunities as they’re getting in school nurseries or with a child minder”.
For all our participants, working with young children was an informed choice even if it meant that they would not enjoy the same career benefits that a teaching career offers. The important work done by the workforce needs to be recognised and rewarded to ensure staff well-being is looked after, as ultimately children’s early education experiences depend on this.
“At the end of the day we’re here for the children. So if it’s not good for the children it’s not going to happen.”
Osgood, J. (2006). Deconstructing Professionalism in Early Childhood Education: Resisting the Regulatory Gaze. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 7(1), 5–14. https://doi.org/10.2304/ciec.2006.7.1.5
I am a qualified teacher and have worked across all three primary key stages, with the majority of my career spent teaching in the Early Years. I am now employed as a Lecturer at the University of Sheffield. My current research is in collaboration with Monash university and the Australian Catholic University exploring learning-rich leadership in the Early Years workforce. I am also involved in the MakEY project which explores the place of the rising ‘maker’ culture in the development of children’s digital literacy and creative design skills.
My research interests include pedagogy in the Early Years, curricular and assessment frameworks, and the impact policy has on children and teachers.