The limited research on pedagogical leadership in early childhood education

HomeEarly childhood education resourcesLeadership in early childhood educationThe limited research on pedagogical leadership in early childhood education

The limited research on pedagogical leadership in early childhood education

HomeEarly childhood education resourcesLeadership in early childhood educationThe limited research on pedagogical leadership in early childhood education

When preparing a set of research reviews on leadership in early childhood education, we wanted to include a guide on pedagogical leadership, which is well established as a leadership approach that leads to beneficial outcomes in the school sector (where it is often referred to as instructional leadership). However, there appears to be little published research exploring the concept of pedagogical or educational leadership in the Aotearoa New Zealand context, even though all teachers are expected to practise pedagogical or educational leadership and should be supported to do so by their positional leaders. This insight article will describe current conceptualisations of pedagogical leadership in existing policy and other documents in New Zealand, and introduce some of the limited international research on pedagogical leadership in early childhood education. 

Different terms are used in different contexts to describe leadership that supports learning and teaching, including pedagogical leadership and educational leadership. The term educational leadership is used in policy documents in Aotearoa New Zealand, while in Australia they refer to both educational and pedagaogical leadership and in Europe they use pedagogical leadership. Pedagogical leadership is not specifically mentioned in Aotearoa New Zealand policy documents, although it appears to be an inherent expectation. The definition of educational leadership provided in the Leadership Strategy for the Teaching Profession of Aotearoa New Zealand refers to ‘the practice of supporting others to make a positive difference to children’s and young people’s learning’ and ‘creating and sustaining the conditions known to enhance their learning’1. The Indicators of quality for early childhood education: what matters most include an expectation that ‘Leaders and kaiako work collaboratively to develop the professional knowledge and expertise to design and implement a responsive and rich curriculum for all children’2

It is challenging to find a clear definition of pedagogical leadership in early childhood education other than leadership that is focused on teaching and learning, although there is a growing body of literature that explores various aspects of this leadership approach. Pedagogical leadership activities and practices can be seen to include planning and assessment, developing a vision, collaborating with parents, facilitating reflection and provision of resources3 as well as goal setting, evaluation and leading change4. Some authors have promoted an expansion of the concept of pedagogical leadership to encompass learning related to multiple roles within early childhood services, including those of teachers, children and their families5. Others propose broadening the concept to take account of relationships and promoting social justice6, or frame it as praxis7.  

Research in Finland has identified several factors that influence the success of pedagogical leadership in early childhood services, including the context, both at micro and macro level, the organisational culture, the approaches taken by the positional leader and their pedagogical competence. Adequate resources such as staffing and time were also identified to be important in this study8. There is a growing body of literature connecting pedagogical leadership with distributed or teacher leadership that suggests that formal teacher leaders could work to achieve effective distributed pedagogical leadership by directing and facilitating staff resources9.   


[1] Education Council. (2018). The leadership strategy for the teaching profession of Aotearoa New Zealand. New Zealand Ministry of Education, p. 8.

[2] Education Review Office. (2020). Te Ara Poutama-Indicators of quality for early childhood education: What matters most. New ZealandMinistry of Education, p.16.

[3] Heikka, J., Pitkäniemi, H., Kettukangas, T. Hyttinen, T. (2021) Distributed pedagogical leadership and teacher leadership in early childhood education contexts, International Journal of Leadership in Education, 24(3), 333-348.

[4] Carroll-Lind, J., Smorti, S., Ord, K., & Robinson, L. (2016). Building pedagogical leadership knowledge in early childhood education. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 41(4), 28-35.

[5] Abel, M. (2016). Why pedagogical leadership?; Colmer, K., Waniganayake, M., & Field, L. (2015). Implementing curriculum reform: insights into how Australian early childhood directors view professional development and learning. Professional Development in Education, 41(2), 203-221.

[6] Heikka and Waniganayake argue that pedagogical leadership should be considered widely as it is concerned with ‘not only children’s learning, but also the capacity building of the early childhood profession, and values and beliefs held by the wider society or community’ (Heikka, J., & Waniganayake, M., 2011, Pedagogical leadership from a distributed perspective within the context of early childhood education. International Journal of Leadership in Education: Theory and Practice, 14(4), 499-512, p. 510).

[7] Male, T., & Palaiologou, I. (2015). Pedagogical leadership in the 21st century: Evidence from the field. Educational Management Administration and Leadership, 43(2), 214-231; Palaiologou, I., & T. Male. (2019). Leadership in early childhood education: The case for pedagogical praxis. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 20(1), 23-34.

[8] Fonsén, E. (2013). Dimensions of pedagogical leadership in early childhood education and care. In E. Hujala, M. Waniganayake & J. Rodd (Eds). Researching Leadership in Early Childhood Education. Tampere University Press (pp. 181-192).

[9] Bøe, M. & Hognestad, K. (2017). Directing and facilitating distributed pedagogical leadership: Best practices in early childhood education. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 20(2), 133-148.

By Kate Thornton


Dr Kate Thornton

Dr Kate Thornton is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at Victoria University of Wellington. Her research interests are educational leadership and leadership development, mentoring and coaching, and professional learning communities. Kate is a former secondary school teacher, Playcentre parent and Head of School.

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