Early Childhood Education

Advocacy and Leadership in Early Childhood Education


To advocate is to give voice to a particular issue or concern through the processes of persuasion, argument, or direct action intended to draw attention to the cause and propose concrete changes or solutions. In early childhood education, the work of advocacy entails speaking up on behalf of young children and their families in order to create more just, equitable, and effective social policies or community services. In addition, early childhood advocates often teach parents to become self-advocates, capable of speaking directly to teachers, administrators, or policymakers on matters that affect their ability to care for and educate their own children and the children of others.

Early childhood advocates focus on the ethical, social, and practical responsibilities that arise in the context of work with children and families. Advocates identify social and personal barriers that prevent families and communities from fostering children’s healthy development. In turn, advocates challenge those barriers and participate in their removal through changes in practice or policy at the local or national level. In doing so, advocates often take conscious and calculated risks aimed at altering the status quo in order to improve the lives of young children. Advocates use a range of tools that incorporate comprehensive data about the status and plight of children and apply specific strategies meant to change the ways in which institutions or communities respond to the needs of children. Such strategies may include collaborative, participatory organizing at the grassroots level as well as less direct means such as support for political candidates or testifying before local, state, or federal legislative bodies in order to enact child-focused social policies. In this light, advocates must be capable of analyzing and critiquing federal and state social policies as they affect the lives of young children. Advocates must be able to effectively communicate in oral and written forms their understandings, views, and positions on issues related to children’s well-being, for both lay and professional audiences.


The Arguments Used by Advocates

Early childhood advocacy generally relies on multiple rationales to argue on behalf of children and families. The custodial rationale argues that society has a collective or shared responsibility to care for young children while their parents work. A developmental rationale asserts that high-quality early experiences both in home and out of home benefit young children and provide them with the skills and dispositions necessary to succeed in school and community. A human capital rationale assumes that early financial investment in the lives of children produces long-term returns that will ultimately save society subsequent expenses associated with remediation, compensation, or even incarceration. A citizenship rationale, more prevalent in western European nations, views young children as citizens with fundamental civil and human rights, including access to the same level of support and education enjoyed by youth and adults. Finally, an ethical rationale suggests that society should provide high-quality, accessible, affordable services to young children and their families because it is the right thing to do. This moral stance is concerned less with saving money, enabling parents to work outside of the home, or improving children’s later academic achievement than it is with acknowledging a collective responsibility to and for all citizens, including those in the earliest stages of their lives.

Early childhood advocates are especially concerned with enhancing the lives of children who experience social and/or economic disadvantage because of their race, ability, ethnicity, native language, family income, or place of residence. In this light, the work of advocates has been especially influenced by the strategies and successes of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement beginning in the late 1950s, in which a wide range of methods have been applied effectively including civil disobedience, street protests, petitioning, legislative action, and community organizing.

The focus of civil rights advocacy on universal social justice has become a core principle of child advocacy. In 1973, the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) was founded by Marian Wright Edelman to “provide a strong, effective voice for all the children of America who cannot vote, lobby, or speak for themselves. [The Children’s Defense Fund] pays particular attention to the needs of poor and minority children and those with disabilities” (from the CDF mission statement). A year later, the Harvard Educational Review published a landmark collection of essays on “The Rights of Children,” the first comprehensive set of arguments that the social and economic needs of children deserve as much attention as those of other disenfranchised groups in the United States. The social justice emphasis in child advocacy has also been advanced considerably by the writings of Jonathan Kozol over the past two decades in such books as Savage Inequalities (Kozol, 1991) and Amazing Grace (Kozol, 1995). This focus on social and economic justice has expanded in recent years to include such areas as children’s sexual understandings and identity and the particular realities of AIDS as experienced by parents and teachers as well as children (cf., Silin, 1995). Evolving social conceptions of inclusion and children’s rights have been responsive to such realities, in turn demanding of advocates a broader set of lenses than has been the case in the past.

In the 1980s, child advocates were especially challenged by the Reagan administration, which attempted to significantly reduce federal support for many of the antipoverty and civil rights policies enacted in the previous two decades. The administration attempted to reduce funding or weaken regulations for programs such as Head Start, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (PL 94-142), and federal subsidies for low-income families in need of day care. At the same time, however, the human capital rationale described earlier was gaining credence, partly because of the values that became dominant during the Reagan years. Corporate and political leaders began to see that the inability of the United States to compete economically with Japan (see Volume 4) and Western Europe was due in part to insufficient investment in the lives of young children.

This growing concern led directly to the 1989 Education Summit, at which the nation’s governors declared a set of National Educational Goals for the first time ever. The first of the eight goals stated, “By the year 2000, all children in America will start school ready to learn.” This simple statement in turn led to a national Success by Six movement organized by the United Way in conjunction with hundreds of community-based organizations. Also in 1989, the United Nations promulgated the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which proclaimed that, “childhood is entitled to special care and assistance [and therefore] the family, as the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its members and particularly children, should be afforded the necessary protection and assistance so that it can fully assume its responsibilities within the community.” These two statements, one at the national level and one at the international level, have provided significant support for those who advocate on behalf of children and families.


Principles of Advocacy

As noted earlier, early childhood advocates exercise a range of strategies depending on their circumstances and goals. The options can be characterized along the following dimensions:

Internal versus external advocacy. Internal advocacy occurs when teachers, social workers, health care workers, or others use their positions within schools, hospitals, day-care centers, and other child-serving organizations to speak on behalf of children and families. These professionals attempt to improve the way the institutions in which they work meet the needs of their clients, patient, and customers by arguing for more responsive, accessible, and affordable services. External advocates are those who are not employed by the organization of concern or who do not live in the immediate community but who identify systematic injustices or inequities that they believe should be addressed. Often, internal and external advocates form alliances to put pressure on administrators or elected officials in order to stimulate change.

Individual versus organizational advocacy. Advocates may work on behalf of individuals or through formal advocacy organizations. In the former, friends, allies, guardians, or lawyers speak on behalf of a child or family that does not otherwise have the skills, knowledge, or confidence to speak for themselves. This is especially effective when a child or family is confronted with a complex bureaucracy with multiple regulations that require expertise to negotiate or receive the desired service. Formal advocacy organizations are concerned with practices or policies that affect groups of individuals or multiple communities. The Children’s Defense Fund cited earlier is perhaps the most widely known of these advocacy organizations. Others include the Child Welfare League of America and the National Association of Child Advocates, which represents state-level organizations such as the Children’s Alliance of New Hampshire or the Advocates for the Children of New York. The National Association for the Education of Young Children’s (NAEYC) annual Week-of-the-Young-Child, held each April, is another example of advocacy conducted by an organization consisting of some 100,000 early childhood teachers and administrators.

Data-based advocacy. In addition to operating from core values such as a commitment to social justice, advocates rely on empirical data to argue on behalf of children. To muster support for the issue being addressed, advocates turn to state and national data sources provided in the annual Kids Count profiles of child well-being published by the Anne E. Casey Foundation or the State of America’s Children reports released each year by the Children’s Defense Fund. At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and the National Center for Educational Statistics are important sources of data for child advocates.

Coalition building. Perhaps the most essential strategy for child advocates is to form coalitions with others in order to speak with one voice that will be heard by those who are in a position to effect change. The child advocacy organizations mentioned earlier are one example of such coalitions or alliances. In a democratic society with elected governing bodies, the power of numbers is the key to the change process. Often alliances of groups with similar missions or values are developed by advocacy leaders. Teachers, social workers, and community organizers may come together to advocate for after-school care for elementary-aged children. Judges, lawyers, and police may share work together to strengthen child protection systems in order to reduce child abuse and offer prevention programs. Business leaders and real estate agents might be concerned about the affordability of housing in a community in order to reduce homelessness. The most effective advocacy coalitions bring all these groups together in nonpartisan organizations such as the Voices for Katrina’s Children network formed after the 2005 Gulf Coast hurricanes and supported by the Packard Foundation.


The Link between Leadership and Advocacy

Early childhood educators are expected not only to be effective advocates, but they must also take on broader leadership roles in their schools, agencies, communities, and at the state and national level. By nature, good advocates make good leaders, as they articulate the needs of children and families and offer concrete solutions to the barriers that face those who are too young to vote or whose economic or social status puts them on the margins. In this light, early childhood educators must not only be good teachers, but they must also understand the processes of systems change, policy development and implementation, how to use the media effectively, how to supervise and support beginning teachers, and how to connect children and families to networks of social services.

Lambert et al. (1995, p. 47) offer a comprehensive inventory of the skills most needed by those who serve as leaders in social service organizations. These include the following:

• A sense of purpose and ethics, because honesty and trust are fundamental to relationships.

• Facilitation skills, because framing, deepening, and moving the conversations about teaching and learning are fundamental to constructing meaning.

• An understanding of constructivist learning for all humans.

• A deep understanding of change and transitions, because change is not what we thought it was.

• An understanding of context so that communities of memories can be continually drawn and enriched.

• A personal identity that allows for courage and risk, low ego needs, and a sense of possibilities.

These are broad concepts but are applicable to early childhood advocates who work simultaneously with children, parents, colleagues, policymakers, community leaders, and other allies. By definition, the most effective leaders will also be conscientious and articulate advocates. As Rodd (1994, p. 2) states it, “Leadership is about vision and influence. ... Leadership [is a] process by which one person sets certain standards and expectations and influences the actions of others to behave in what is considered a desirable direction. Leaders are people who can influence the behavior of others for the purpose of achieving a goal.” As indicated throughout this entry, these leadership attributes are synonymous with those of effective child advocates. See also National Education Goals Panel.

Further Readings: Charnov, D. J., and C. Rutsch (2000). Making a difference: A parents guide to advocacy and community action. Washington, DC: Children’s Resources International; Kagan, S. L., and B. T. Bowman (1997). Leadership in early care and education. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children; Kozol, J. (1991). Savage inequalities: Children in America’s schools. New York: Crown; Kozol, J. (1995). Amazing Grace: The lives of children and the conscience of a nation. New York: Crown; L. Lambert, D. Walker, D. P. Zimmerman, J. E. Cooper, M. D. Lambert, M. E. Gardner, and P. J. Ford Slack (1995). The constructivist leader. New York: Teachers College Press; The Rights of Children (1974). Reprint series no. 9, Harvard Educational Review; Rodd, J. (1994). Leadership in early childhood: The pathway to professionalism. New York: Teachers College Press; Silin, J. G. (1995). Sex, death, and the education of Children: Our passion for ignorance in the age of AIDS (the politics of identity and education). New York: Teachers College Press.

Bruce L. Mallory