Questions? Contact Us

Reimagining the Role of Leaders as Champions for a Culture of Initiative and Participation

By Catharine Hydon

Upholding the rights and best interests of children accompanied by embedded opportunities to exercise agency is increasingly understood as a feature of exemplary early childhood education and care in Australia. Every day educators invite children to make decisions about what matters are important to them, speak with families about what it means to uphold children’s right to play and look out for opportunities for children to contribute to their local communities.

These commitments rotate around a deepening understanding that children are rights holders from birth with, as the ECA Code of Ethics describe it, as citizens from birth with civil, cultural, linguistic, social and economic rights’ and ‘unique interests and strengths and the capacity to contribute to their communities’ (ECA Code of Ethics 2016).

Empowerment Agency and Rights

A shift in pedagogical thinking

Through the power of social media, educators from services across Australia are sharing stories and examples that showcase this monumental shift in our pedagogical thinking. Children are designing solutions to local environmental challenges and work with local authorities to change the communities’ attitude to parks and waterways. Families and children join with educators to protest changes to their communities that erode safety and the opportunities to enjoy public spaces. Educators plan experiences that invite children to think about the right of others through fundraising activities for bushfire affected communities. Children are also being invited into the operations of many early childhood services, making decisions about the purchase of new equipment and the design of the orientation process for the new children. Recently I was fortunate to be a part of a planning conversation with a group of educators who had just begun work with a local aged care facility to design a mutually beneficial visiting program – an idea that has now captured a nation.

A program that values empowerment, agency and rights

No doubt you have tuned into these stories and may well have implemented a multitude of learning experiences that cultivate a program that values empowerment, agency, and rights. Gowrie-039You might also be at the beginning of introducing such ideas at your service – taking the first steps towards empowering the children to become more active participants. Wherever you are in this process you may, like me, have paused a few times to consider how such substantial shifts in practice came about?

How did the leaders, who now oversee a program that includes a daily visit to the beach or long-term relationship with the recycling depot or tours for new families run by children, support and sustains a commitment to Empowerment, Agency and Rights?

Engaging learning opportunities

At the risk of speaking for these transformational leaders, might I speculate as to what might be going on behind the scenes – what are leaders doing that creates such engaging learning opportunities for young children. Perhaps this is a good list to start from – feel free to add you own.

kid plays together with teacher

Leaders who cultivate empowerment, agency and rights are:

Ethical – they have a deep commitment to ethical practice that privileges relationships and the right of humans (in particular children) to be respected and to have their voices heard and respected. In other words, they think and act in ways that enable everyone to live good life.

These leaders make decisions based on a powerful value base that is evident in what they say and do.

Knowledgeable – they know what can be done and why. They have a strong rationale for stretching practice in this way and the theory and evidence to back up their claims. They also know which ‘rules’ can be bent and how to deliver quality program(s) that meet the needs and best interests of those who a part of the service.

Courageous – they say yes when others might say no. They welcome the uncertainty of not knowing precisely how a learning opportunity might turn out and are prepared to propose ways that empowerment, agency and rights might be enacted in the face of opposition. These Leaders create a culture where being brave, trying something new, is seen as an essential professional characteristic rather than a problem to be solved.

Articulate – they are compelling champions for ideas that build a better outcome for everyone. They can defend their decisions while respecting diverse opinions. They speak of what is possible rather than defending what can’t be achieved. These leaders manage to, through their skilled communication techniques, convince people to take a conceptual leap and to abandon “take for granted” practice and to embrace new ideas with enthusiasm.

Democratic – they are fundamentally fair and work hard to listen to multiple voices in a spirit of collaboration and collegiality. These leaders realise that in a democracy, not everyone will welcome decision and they find way to support these individuals to find a way to belong.

Interpretive – they use their reflective practice skills to discern the right course of action in their context. These leaders are cautious about adopting an idea just because others are captivated, or it’s thought of as an exceeding practice. They consider the multiple dimensions that make up an early childhood service and make interpretive decisions accordingly.

Hardworking – they work on ideas and implementing plans when others have gone home. It’s something they need to be mindful of as we all navigate our collective wellbeing. These leaders demonstrate persistent commitment to a cause and frequently roll up their sleeves to join in the process of delivering empowerment, agency and rights to children and adults.

Leadership is part of the story of children’s empowerment, agency and rights that seldom gets told, but ought to. We need to acknowledge the important role leaders assume in bringing about such practice as we create a better future for everyone.