The Importance of Positive Emotional Leadership in ECE: An Online Research Study

by Kate Zinsser (guest author)

July 27, 2016


In a McCormick Center post earlier this spring, Safiyah Jackson helped orient readers toward the North Star of Leadership by describing the essential competencies to promote high quality practices. Embedded within the whole leadership concept are words that ring particularly true for my own research of social and emotional teaching and learning; words like “empathy,” “authenticity,” and “communication” speak to the role that early childhood education (ECE) leaders have in building positive emotional climates for teaching and learning. In today’s post, I want to highlight the importance of engaging in positive emotional leadership and seek your help in advancing this research agenda.

On top of administrative and pedagogical expertise, successful leaders in ECE also often possess great social and emotional acumen. In a field dominated by low pay, high turnover, and intense workplace relationships (with children, parents, and co-workers), ECE is a unique, emotionally interconnected context to work in. Within this context, teachers are increasingly expected to promote children’s social and emotional competency by parents and policymakers—a task they will struggle with if their own emotional intelligence is under-developed.

Likewise, without emotional leadership skills, administrators will struggle to cultivate a work environment that promotes adult emotional health and well-being. I’d like to believe that across industries, most leaders would be concerned to hear about their workforce experiencing elevated rates of depression, stress, and emotional exhaustion, but teacher distress is of additional concern due to the possible ramifications it has on their interactions with children and families. Research has shown that teachers who report greater distress at work:

  • use less effective classroom management strategies
  • experience more anger in the classroom, and more often direct it toward children
  • have children who display greater aggression and negativity
  • are less likely to seek help or feedback from colleagues and supervisors
  • feel less effective in managing emotional and behavioral challenges in their classroom

While there is a growing body of evidence about the administrator’s influence on teacher well-being, more research is needed to explain what administrators can do to promote the emotional health of the ECE workforce. What formal resources and policies benefit staff? What informal and interpersonal styles promote teachers’ psychological safety and cultivate a positive emotional ecology for teaching and learning that ultimately benefits teachers and children alike? Based on interviews and focus groups with teachers and administrators across the country, we are slowly moving toward a deeper understanding of what positive emotional leadership looks and feels like, and how it can benefit teachers and students alike.

But as Teri Talan emphasized in her February blog post, effective leadership needs to be defined by those doing the work. So please, join in my efforts to understand emotional leadership. Share your thoughts and experiences by participating in our online research study and by sharing the link widely. We want to hear from early childhood professionals who work in any type of program serving children birth to preK—center-, home-, or school-based care; private or nonprofit; or any other type of program. All those involved in the care and education of young children, such as aides, teachers, and administrators, are encouraged to participate.

Click Here To Complete the Survey

Responses will be accepted through September 2016. We look forward to sharing findings on the McCormick Center website. For more information on our prior and ongoing research, please visit There we share brief reports on prior studies and helpful resources for parents and teachers.

Dr. Kate Zinsser is an Assistant Professor in the Community & Prevention Research program in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Through her research, Kate strives to support the social-emotional well-being and development of young children and their caregivers by conducting applied research that can inform practice and policy. Kate earned her Ph.D. in applied developmental psychology from George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia and her B.A. from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Learn more about the research being conducted by Kate’s Social-Emotional Teaching & Learning Lab by visiting


6 Responses to “The Importance of Positive Emotional Leadership in ECE: An Online Research Study”

  1. missybrown says:

    What timing! In our monthly provider newsletter I just shared about how work needs to be fun ‘in-the-action and out-of-the-action. I had two timely blog posts that came to by inbox to share as well as highlighting Chicago Cubs Manager, Joe Maddon’s antics. I think that paying attention to the people in your organization is critically important because everything begins with those relationships.

    You can see my article here:

  2. Laura Newman says:

    I found this topic particularly engaging as one who facilitates regional monthly cohort support meetings to child care owners and their directors. One of the topics I deliver is coincidentally entitled, “Ensuring Emotional Health in Your Early Childhood Program as a Workplace” where among other things we discuss several points in your piece sadly, often gone unnoticed let alone addressed. Without an honest and open dialogue relevant to emotional health in leadership, ones’ staff and ultimately the children they care for and guide will suffer. The adults who teach as well as the children deserve resources with tools to support positive growth to establish the foundation for coping mechanisms throughout life. Without a doubt, the influence of a director undoubtedly has far reaching implications that should not be ignored. The very informal and interpersonal styles you touch on are key to a successful program delivery, a balance in place with the needs of the staff and families they serve in mind. Hats off to you for bringing this to the forefront of a field that already has so much to conquer and manage.

    Laura Newman
    Quality Care for Children
    Director, The GA Alliance for Quality Child Care

  3. kzinsser says:

    MissyBrown, thanks so much for reading and for sharing. What an important message to spread in your newsletter (and what a fabulous picture of the Cubs!) You’re spot on that the relationships matter – even Google is coming to realize the critical link between quality relationships, organizational climate, and productivity. Check out this NYT article about teamwork and team time:

  4. kzinsser says:

    Laura, Thank you for the kind words, I’m glad that this post struck a chord and I’m glad to hear that you’re also drawing attention to it in your training! Keep spreading the word!

  5. Starlene says:

    I was interested in doing your survey but unable to due to being in Canada with a postal code. Good luck with your study.

    • kzinsser says:

      Oh dear! I’m sorry to hear that you had trouble – we’ve fixed the settings so if you have the time, we would greatly appreciate hearing about your experiences. If you have any additional concerns or questions, please feel free to email the research team at

      Thank you again!