Understanding Leadership in Early Care and Education: A Literature Review

Publication Date: April 20, 2021
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  • Published: 2021


Research Questions

  1. Who participates in leadership in center-based ECE settings?
  2. What do ECE center leaders and teaching staff bring to their work that might influence their role or success in leadership?
  3. What do leaders do—what actions do they take or what practices do they pursue—to produce positive outcomes for staff, center quality, and children and families?
  4. What are the pathways by which ECE leadership can influence outcomes, including center quality and children’s learning?
  5. What are the contextual influences on how ECE leadership is developed, improved, and sustained?
  6. What evidence exists from K–12 and other fields to guide understanding of leadership in center-based ECE settings?

Leadership is widely recognized as an essential driver of organizational performance and improvement, but little is known about who participates in leadership in early care and education (ECE) center-based settings and its role in improving quality and outcomes for staff and children. Additionally, information on how to define key constructs associated with leadership and the activities that demonstrate leadership is lacking.

The Early Care and Education Leadership Study (ExCELS), funded by the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation (OPRE) in the Administration for Children and Families, has three goals: (1) fill the definitional and measurement gaps to understand what leadership looks like as defined by who participates in leadership in center-based ECE settings and the ways in which leaders can improve quality experiences for children in ECE settings, (2) develop a short-form measure of ECE leadership, and (3) identify actionable leadership quality improvement (QI) initiatives and methods of evaluating them. Two foundational products will guide the rest of the project: This literature review, which informs a theory of change of ECE leadership for quality improvement, and a separate compendium of existing measures of leadership. The information from these products will inform the design of a descriptive study to develop and test a new measure of ECE leadership.


The purpose of this literature review is to understand what is known about what leadership looks like within center-based ECE settings and how it functions to improve center quality and, in turn, children’s experiences and outcomes. This literature review and the ExCELS project as a whole focus on leadership within center-based ECE settings, at the building or center level. The ExCELS project approaches leadership as a construct that defines the range of people who participate in leadership in ECE centers—who leaders are—as well as what they bring to leadership, and what they do as leaders. Leadership, defined in this way, is broader than one leader, even while a strong center leader may be an essential ingredient to effective leadership.

Key Findings and Highlights

Effective leadership is a driver of quality improvement in the literature we reviewed from the fields of K—12 education, management, and health. The ECE leadership literature is limited but emerging, and it identifies essential elements of leadership that align with aspects of effective leadership demonstrated in other fields. Little research or rigorous evidence exists in the ECE field about how ECE leadership may be effective in promoting quality and providing positive experiences for children that can lead to good outcomes. The report discusses key findings such as:

  • Distributed forms of leadership that involve teaching staff as leaders might be particularly effective in achieving positive outcomes in center-based ECE settings.
  • Pedagogical and management knowledge in combination with level of education, experience, or training, and other skills and values shape what leaders are able to do to promote quality improvement and positive outcomes.
  • The ECE leadership literature identifies a set of practices that leaders pursue or are expected to pursue that can lead to a positive work environment, strong instructional practice, healthy partnerships between leaders and staff and staff and families, and sustainable operations.
  • The context within a center—what happens in the center—interacts with leadership to influence outcomes. The ability of leadership to achieve positive outcomes may rest on building relational coordination that fosters organizational learning and improvement.

Contextual influences that are external to the center (such as the policy, regulatory, and economic environment) can affect what happens in a center as well as what leaders bring and do as leaders. The characteristics of the center itself can influence who participates in leadership within a center.


The process for conducting the review consisted of searching for relevant literature and summarizing key information about each study. ExCELS used a two-tiered search strategy comprising:

  1. A comprehensive search on leadership in ECE, focusing on leaders within center-based settings; and
  2. A focused search for reviews, syntheses, or meta-analyses of leadership in the K—12, health, and management fields that best apply to the unique qualities of ECE settings and ECE leadership.

The intent of searching other fields was not to be exhaustive but to identify commonalities in defining leadership and the unique contributions that come from perspectives outside of ECE. This review draws from 51 studies; for each study, ExCELS documented the leadership measures used; data sources and respondents; leadership elements examined; and whether and how the association between leadership and outcomes was assessed.


The review of the literature and the resulting theory of change provides some directions for the measurement of ECE leadership.

  • A complete measure of ECE leadership should look at the formal and informal ways that a range of center staff—including directors, managers, and all teaching staff—contribute to leadership.
  • Literature from other fields suggests that a focus on measuring practices might maximize an understanding of who exhibits leadership and the extent to which it might influence outcomes.
  • In testing a measure of leadership, it will be important to measure the work environment to understand the pathway of influence that leadership might have on both center quality and child outcomes.
  • Further exploration is needed to ensure the specific contexts and influences of leadership in settings that serve low-income children, like Head Start and centers funded primarily by Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) subsidies, is addressed.


G. Kirby, A. Douglass, J. Lyskawa, C. Jones, and L. Malone. (2020). Understanding Leadership in Early Care and Education: A literature review. OPRE Report 2020-XX. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


Early care and education
Distributed leadership:
Leadership that recognizes behaviors or actions rather than job title or formal position alone, and that involves the primary center leader along with a range of staff—including teaching staff—in learning, decision-making, and planning and implementing change for improvement.
Who participates in leadership by contributing to decision-making and influencing change and quality improvement; Leadership can include center leaders and teacher leaders.
Quality improvement
Relational coordination:
Shared goals, shared knowledge, mutual respect, and high-quality communication among center leaders, teacher leaders, other center staff, and families.