Taking the lead How to develop the skills of aspiring leaders in your setting


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Formal leadership development programmes provide crucial professional learning experiences for aspiring early years (EY) leaders. But when time and money for formal professional learning are short, we also need to look for opportunities to help aspiring leaders develop their leadership skills in settings on a day-to-day basis. We recently conducted research with 15 baby room leaders across the UK on how they develop the leadership skills of others. We found opportunities to support aspiring leaders through:

  • Building aspiring leaders’ confidence
  • Working together as a team
  • Providing opportunities for staff to take on leadership roles

Building aspiring leaders’ confidence

Providing positive feedback can help aspiring leaders feel confident in their natural abilities. When chatting with Evie McGarrity, a baby room leader at Archfield House Nursery, she shared that her nursery has ‘smile cards which we use when we’ve noticed someone has done something amazing. We just write a little card for them to say well done.’ Openly and consistently praising aspiring leaders can help them take inventory of the leadership skills they have, empowering them to feel confident as they consider entering a more formal leadership role.

During feedback sessions, while it’s important to point out areas your staff needs support, it’s also essential to highlight their strengths. In conversation with Joanne Mellor, a baby room leader at Acorns Nursery School Cirencester, she noted that ‘If you need to say something negative when giving feedback, always have something positive to back it up with. That’s how you build confidence.’ Aspiring leaders need to know that they can take on leadership roles and responsibilities, even when they have areas that require growth. Building them up with positivity will help them feel confident in their abilities.

Here are some more tips on how to build aspiring leaders’ confidence:

  • Take time at the end of each week to share one thing each staff member did well
  • During feedback sessions, try to ‘sandwich’ critiques with praise by starting and ending on a positive note
  • Make sure to voice supportive remarks throughout the day – if a staff member tried something new or helpfully took the initiative, tell them. It sounds simple but makes a world of difference to confidence and staff morale

Work together as a team

Teamwork is essential to having a smooth day in any EY setting. However, it can also be used to develop the skills of aspiring leaders. One key part of this is listening to staff’s ideas. When talking with Joanne, she shared, ‘You must let everyone have a voice. Just because I’ve done something one way for many years doesn’t mean that somebody else can’t come in and have a good opinion on how to do something differently.’ When we listen to our staff’s input, we show them that their ideas matter and are worthy of being implemented, building up their confidence in their leadership capabilities. In addition to listening to staff’s ideas, it can be helpful for aspiring leaders to reflect as a team. Reflection is an essential skill set for EY leaders, empowering them to understand the decisions they’ve made and make even better ones in the future. In conversation with Evie, she shared that ‘At the end of the day, I’ll sit down and ask how my staff would rate the day on a scale of 1-10 and to think about how we could get to a 10. I make sure everyone gets their input.’ When we reflect together with aspiring leaders, we can provide a safe space to practice the essential leadership skill of reflection.

Provide opportunities for staff to take on leadership roles

Once leaders feel more confident in their abilities, they can take on leadership responsibilities. When chatting with Isobel Lambert, a baby room leader at Blue Door Nursery, she shared how she holds space for staff to try new things. ‘Instead of me always saying “Oh, I’ll call that parent”, I say “Do you want me to talk you through how to have that conversation with them?”’ Aspiring leaders need opportunities to take on leadership responsibilities, giving them the hands-on experience, they will need in the future.

When we provide staff with opportunities to develop leadership experience, we must offer guidance and support. In conversation with Lyndsey Smith, a baby room leader at The Nest Nursery Copper Beech, she shared that ‘It’s about letting staff take on those leadership roles and responsibilities and being there to support them. I encourage them to think about whether it will work, and then have those discussions with them after just to see whether it did work and what we could do better.’ Creating a safe space for staff to try out new things and reflect on the impact develops key leadership skills and sets them up for success in the future.

Here are some suggestions for where to let aspiring leaders take on leadership roles and responsibilities:

  • Let staff members take the lead on difficult phone calls with parents. You can support them by setting out a list of talking points beforehand and reflecting on how the call went afterwards
  • Swap roles with staff members during transitions by letting an aspiring leader take the lead while you act as support
  • Encourage staff members to contribute new ideas to the learning environment. This could range from piloting new resources to introducing new themes and areas in the learning environment. Then, reflect with them on how the changes have impacted the room and the next steps they might take

Supporting aspiring leaders in everyday ways is about building their confidence and providing opportunities for them to practice key leadership skills. When we do this, we empower the leaders of tomorrow and today.

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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