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Want better child care? Invest in entrepreneurial training for child care workers

A child care worker and preschool-age girl sit at a table together in a day care classroom and work on handwriting together.
Entrepreneurial leadership values expertise from providers, educators and parents. SDI Productions/E+ via Getty Images

Christine Heer – a veteran preschool teacher – had long harbored a passion to run a nature-based preschool. So in 2015 she opened Sprouts Farm and Forest Kindergarten in central Massachusetts.

Diana Stinson did something similar in 2018 when she co-founded Nature Explorers Preschool, which is housed on a wildlife sanctuary on Cape Cod.

Five months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Dottie Williams, a Boston child care provider, was invited to testify before Massachusetts lawmakers. She spoke about how child care providers were helping children adapt during the pandemic.

In the fall of 2021, as very young children exhibited anxiety about playing with other children without a mask – something they had previously been taught was unsafe – Emilee Johnson wrote a children’s book about how to stay safe.

All of these early educators have one thing in common – they were all trained in entrepreneurial leadership.

A different kind of leadership

As a researcher who studies how to develop effective leadership skills among early childhood educators, I know that entrepreneurial leadership training is not like other kinds of leadership training. For instance, it doesn’t emphasize hierarchy. Rather than elevate the expertise of administrators and authorities, it recognizes the expertise of those who work directly with children – that is, the child care providers, educators and parents.

When directors and administrators of early learning centers are trained in entrepreneurial leadership, innovation becomes a bigger part of what they do. They build relationships that value “curiosity, questions, and reflections about current practices,” according to a 2021 federal report. Staff members contribute ideas to improve teaching practices, enhance program quality, implement strategies for improving workplace culture, promote equity and welcome feedback from parents.

Benefits to children

Children benefit when early educators are trained in entrepreneurial leadership, research shows. This is largely because classroom quality is connected to the improved workplace culture, parental engagement and support for experimentation – all things brought about by entrepreneurial leadership. The quality of leadership and the organizational climate set by early educational leaders are “critical variables” for the quality of early education.

Entrepreneurial leadership training transforms how early educators think. It leads them to redefine leadership. They begin to see leadership as collaborative and purpose-driven rather than hierarchical.

Some early educators use their new skills and confidence to open new schools, as Stinson and Heer did. Some develop new resources for educators, as Johnson did. Some become highly effective advocates, as Williams has. But most early educators trained in this form of leadership return to their programs to make seemingly small but powerful changes that result in better care and education for children.

Opportunities limited

Despite the positive effects of entrepreneurial leadership training, it’s not widely available. One survey found only 35 leadership programs for early educators in the entire country. Of those, 32 focus on the “positional responsibilities” of directors and administrators.

As the pandemic continues to disrupt early care and education programs, with reduced student enrollment and teachers leaving the profession because of fears of exposure to COVID-19, resources must be used wisely. Investing in entrepreneurial leadership training for early educators is one way to make sure that happens.

[Interested in science headlines but not politics? Or just politics or religion? The Conversation has newsletters to suit your interests.]

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