Whole Leadership for Family Engagement

by Michael B. Abel

September 26, 2017

Editor’s Note: This article was originally featured in the Summer 2017 edition of Kansas Child Magazine, a publication of Child Care Aware of Kansas.

FOR DECADES, the value of partnering with families to support children’s learning and development has been touted among early childhood care and education leaders. Initiatives to enhance family engagement in early childhood programs and schools is increasingly prevalent, and with good reason. Family engagement increases children’s age-appropriate cognitive skills (Roggman, Boyce, and Cook, 2009), improves student achievement (Forry, Bromer, Chrisler, Rothenber, Simkin, and Danieri, 2012; McWayne, Hampton, Fantuzzo, Cohen, & Sekino, 2004), and supports early literacy in diverse families (Barrueco, Smith, and Stephens, 2015).

Involving parents and other family members in the learning opportunities that occur in child care settings and building bridges between the home and the program extend learning and promote child development in a meaningful and authentic way.

Early childhood administrators might feel unprepared to lead efforts that foster family engagement. However, being intentional about involving families in program activities and choosing to consider family members’ perspectives in decision-making go a long way toward overcoming any reticence the leader might have about reaching out to families. A shift in the leaders’ thinking aids in creating an organizational culture that welcomes family partnerships.

Leadership for family engagement might include creating policies and practices that respect differing family structures, involving family members in decisions related to their children, and regularly asking for feedback from family members about their experiences with the program. Directors who make family engagement a priority actively seek parents’ and extended family members’ support and assistance. They also encourage staff to allow families easy access to the classroom and school. Supervisors can urge teachers to make families a visible presence in their classrooms by posting photos or displaying artifacts from children’s experiences outside of the program (Pelo 2002).

Encouraging teachers to bring family life into the classroom is a function of the administrator exercising pedagogical leadership. The McCormick Center for Early Childhood Leadership at National Louis University recently developed the Whole Leadership Framework to clarify and differentiate various aspects of leadership in early childhood programs (Abel, Talan, Masterson, 2017). This broad view of leadership can be explained through three domains: leadership essentials, administrative leadership, and pedagogical leadership.

Leadership essentials include foundational skills in reflective practice, communication, and relationship-building. They include such personal attributes as self-efficacy, empathy, creativity, authenticity, humility, transparency, adaptability, and a learner’s perspective on which administrative and pedagogical leadership are built and are often expressed in leadership styles and dispositions. Leadership essentials are foundational for influencing and motivating people around a shared vision.

Administrative leadership involves maximizing capacity to develop and sustain an early childhood organization. It is about setting goals, orchestrating work, and mobilizing people to sustain an early childhood organization, with both operational and strategic leadership functions. Operational leadership is accomplished through such critical functions as hiring, evaluating, and supporting teaching staff; developing budgets aligned with program goals and needs; and maintaining a positive organizational culture and climate. Strategic leadership involves guiding the direction of an early childhood organization with the future in mind. Strategic leaders clarify mission and values, inspire staff to pursue a shared vision, and ensure that program goals and outcomes are attained. Effective administrative leaders establish systems for consistent implementation of program operations to meet the needs of children, families, and staff.

Pedagogical leadership involves supporting the art and science of teaching, including ensuring high-quality interactions with children and affecting the dispositions of teachers. Pedagogical leadership includes instructional leadership and family engagement. As pedagogical leaders, directors continually assess whether classroom activities are implemented with fidelity to the program’s philosophy and curricular objectives. They examine the learning environment from the child’s perspective and consider whether it is authentic to their life beyond the classroom, and inclusive of families’ cultures. Is it provocative enough to capture children’s interests and challenging enough to affect their development? Pedagogical leaders also create systems of accountability for assessing children’s development and learning, using evaluation data to guide and differentiate instruction, and optimizing learning environments.

Instructional leadership in an early care and education setting involves establishing and maintaining an organizational culture that functions as a learning community. Program leaders attend to teaching and learning as the primary focus of the program and make it a priority in their work. As instructional leaders, directors can affect classroom practices by establishing peer learning teams, increasing awareness of emerging pedagogical methods, and allocating resources for professional development. Reflective supervision can support child development and learning by providing feedback to teachers about their practice and drawing attention to the children’s individual needs. Fostering an organizational culture that values reflection and continuous improvement is a powerful tool for effective instructional leaders.

Engaging families to support children’s learning and development requires leadership and organizational focus.

In tandem with establishing a community of learners among staff, pedagogical leadership requires including families in the process. When administrators acknowledge the primary role of parents and family members in their children’s learning and development, it influences the program’s pedagogical approach. The director’s role in shaping expectations for family engagement and establishing an organizational climate that supports families’ participation in learning activities is critical. Hilado, Kallemeyn, and Phillips (2013) found that administrators who had a more flexible definition of family involvement tended to have more positive views of parents and perceived higher levels of involvement. Bornfreund (2014) emphasizes that random acts of encouraging family involvement aren’t enough. Simply inviting parents to center celebrations, distributing a newsletter, or creating a parent resource room is not likely to lead to improved outcomes for children.

Pedagogical leadership that affects children’s learning and development requires establishing family-center partnerships where power and responsibility are shared. It can be challenging to shift attitudes and perspectives within an organization to embrace a philosophy that families are central in the learning equation, but effective leaders are able to articulate a vision for partnering with families and manage change processes that influence the collective core beliefs about shared responsibility for children’s learning. Ongoing individualized communication, home visits, and multiple opportunities for families to be involved in the life of the program and classroom can aid in changing the organizational culture with regard to family engagement.

It is important to recognize that the domains of Whole Leadership — Leadership Essentials, Administrative Leadership, and Pedagogical Leadership — do not operate independently. Few leadership roles and functions are mutually exclusive. Rather, leadership exercised in one domain affects and/or requires reciprocal leadership in the other domains. Administrative and pedagogical leadership are separate but connected. The interdependent relationship between the domains is vital to organizational success, especially as it relates to family engagement. Implementing family engagement efforts that affect teaching and learning requires strategic and operational leadership, such as planning for coordinated and aligned activities, establishing objectives for shared decision-making, and allocating resources to involve families. It is through a balanced approach to leadership that family engagement can flourish.

Michael B. Abel is the Director of Research and Evaluation at the McCormick Center for Early Childhood Leadership at National Louis University where he designs and implements original research studies regarding administrative practice in early childhood programs. His education includes an Interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Educational Leadership Policy and Foundations, an M.A. in Educational Administration, and an M.A. in Early Childhood Education. Mike has extensive experience in higher education, child care management, and service with NAEYC.



  • Abel, M. B., Talan, T. N., & Masterson, M. (2017, Jan/Feb). Whole leadership: A framework for early childhood programs. Exchange (19460406), 39(233), 22-25.
  • Barrueco, S., Smith, S., & Stephens, S. (2015). Supporting parent engagement in linguistically diverse families to promote young children’s learning: Implications for early care and education policy. New York, NY: Child Care & Early Education Research Connections.
  • Bloom, P. J., & Abel, M. B. (2015). Expanding the lens—Leadership as an organizational asset. Young Children, 70(2), 8-13.
  • Bornfreund, L. 2014. Family Engagement Is Much More Than Volunteering at School. http://www.edcentral.org/family-engagement-much-volunteering-school/.
  • Forry, N., Bromer, J., Chrisler, A., Rothenberg, L., Simkin, S., & Daneri, P. (2012). Review of conceptual and empirical literature of family-provider relationship, OPRE Report#2012-46. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  • Hilado, A., L. Kallemeyn, & L. Phillips. 2013. “Examining Understandings of Parent Involvement in Early Childhood Programs.” Early Childhood Research and Practice 15(2): 1–12.
  • McWayne, C., Hampton, V., Fantuzzo, J., Cohen, H.L., & Sekino, Y. (2004). A multivariate examination of parent involvement and the social and academic competencies of urban kindergarten children. Psychology in the Schools, 41(3), 363-377.
  • Roggman, L. A., Boyce, L. K., & Cook, G. A. (2009) Keeping kids on track: Impacts of a parenting-focused Early Head Start program on attachment security and cognitive development. Early Education & Development, 20(6), 920-941. Pelo, A. (September 2002). From borders to bridges: Transforming our relationships with parents. Exchange(147): 39–41. www.ks.childcareaware.org

6 Responses to “Whole Leadership for Family Engagement”

  1. Daniel Dinnell says:

    I hope this makes sense. . . For the most part, as a parent I loved this article as it really tries to highlight some of the issues and weaknesses occurring in todays programs and organizations.

    However, in “hearing” what this article was saying I find that it misses a small, key point/pillar in the development of the “Whole leadership” for Family Engagement process, or at least does not highlight enough. . . so I have the following to submit as support that “whole leadership” also means providing and supporting the development of parents so that they can “collaboratively” and “responsibly” share as partners in the actual leadership for the development and implementation of programs. . .

    Quote – Family: “F10. Practitioners inform families about leadership and advocacy skill-building opportunities and encourage those who are interested to participate.” – from Division for Early Childhood’s DEC Recommended Practices in Early Intervention/Early Childhood Special Education – 2014.

    Quote – “7. Support families’ connections and capabilities. Provide opportunities for families to build upon their knowledge and skills to foster children’s development, learning and wellness; advocate for their child and family; share experiences and expertise with other families; and take on leadership and advocacy roles in early childhood systems and programs. . .” – from U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES and U.S. DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION POLICY STATEMENT ON FAMILY ENGAGEMENT FROM THE EARLY YEARS TO THE EARLY GRADES – May 5, 2016

    “Parents who have lived the experience of parenting a child with… health needs and have learned the hard way how to access services are a largely untapped high value/low cost resource… the overhead on their incredible experience and the trust they can engender among other families is likely to be modest compared to the high costs of traditional services”. — Adapted from Peer Parents: A Solution to Extend Child Mental Health Services, Posted March 17, 2011, by Kimberly E. Hoagwood, Ph.D, Professor of Clinical Psychology in Psychiatry, Columbia University and Kelly J. Kelleher, MD, MPH, Director, Center for Innovation in Pediatric Practice, Research Institute, Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

  2. Steven Erwin says:

    How can I learn more about Whole Leadership?

  3. missybrown says:

    Thank you Michael for really flushing out the Framework, especially around this topic. Your article shows how each piece works together and will make it easier for me to help others embed this into their practice.

    Thanks again to MCECL for creating the Whole Leadership Framework!

  4. Delores Sheppard says:

    I really enjoyed reading this email. Family engagement is at the top of the agency agenda for this year. Our mission is meeting the parents where they are and developing a plan with the leadership to assist them in moving to the next level.

    Thank you,

    Delores Sheppard / Director
    Home of Life Community Development Corporation

  5. Do you run workshops and if yes, do you have a schedule of upcoming ones

  6. Would love to receive information on workshops