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Three components of girls' leadership development in early education that support tomorrow's leaders

Three components of girls' leadership development in early education that support tomorrow's leaders

By Heidi Echternacht

As our youngest learners are still only a few years away from learning how to walk and talk, many may question or even laugh at the concept of leadership as a skill set to be fostered at a young age. However, it is precisely within these early years of childhood that foundational leadership skills are learned, taught, and practiced each day within children’s school and home settings. From a tiny seed to a mighty oak. This article looks at some of the key components of leadership skills within the early and elementary school years and offers ways to support that growth for tomorrow’s leaders. 

Leadership Skill 1: Persevering Through Challenge 

“I Can Do It Myself”

As any parent or caregiver of a young child can attest, there inevitably comes the day when the young child asserts herself with the declaration, “I can do it MYSELF!” And so begins the slow process of learning to put on her own shoes, struggling, failing, and flailing with her tongue sticking out in focused attention. Through trial, error, and determination, finally she experiences, maybe for the first time, the feeling of accomplishment and success. As adults, our tendency is to want to rush in and help, but it is precisely at that moment when the adult makes the decision to stand back, rather than to do it for her, that leadership skills are first fostered. Creating space for a child to develop independence and autonomy is a foundational key for children’s development. A recent study by Julie Laurin and Mireille Joussemet correlates more autonomous parenting techniques with a greater locus of control and rule internalization in toddlers. This means that when parents allowed children more choices and independence, children showed an increase in executive functioning, which are the skills children draw on for planning tasks, organization and decision making. 


Deep within the struggle and frustration of a child learning to put on their own shoes is another skill we hear much less about, but which forms a critical piece of a child’s development, called self-regulation. A recent study found that “Self-regulation in childhood can predict achievement, interpersonal behaviors, mental health, and healthy living in later life” (Robson, Allen, Howard, 2020). The Child Development Institute, a leading organization specializing in early child development and intervention, says of self-regulation, “Children who master this crucial set of skills also show more organized thinking, focused attention, and better executive function.” Given the opportunity to persevere and cope with age-appropriate challenges and frustrations, children learn whether or not their caregivers will rush in to solve problems for them or whether they have to persist or look for new ways to solve the problems. It is through the development of self-regulation that key components of leadership emerge. 

Risk Assessment 

While many adults may think of risk assessment as a financial or business organizational term, risk assessment within the context of childhood is an important skill children need to develop. Determining “Is this something I feel that I can safely do?” before trying out a new skill on the playground is an instantaneous decision children make multiple times a day. Many times, well-meaning adults prematurely step into children’s play with the intention of trying to foresee and prevent accidents or injuries, but by doing that, they can also take away the child’s ability to make decisions about what she is capable of accomplishing. 

It is in that moment of pause, before the child jumps off the diving board into the deep end of the pool, that she builds confidence in herself, as she is able to assess whether or not she can do this and whether the risk is a reasonable one. Risk assessment can also mean asking herself whether or not she should persist with a playground move she is terrified of trying, even when her friends are encouraging her and cheering her on. Does she trust herself and know this skill is too difficult? Does she do the trick to save face with her friends, even though she knows it is too hard for her? Or does she know she needs to scaffold in easier tasks to help her build her ability levels up to the point where she feels confident enough to take that big jump? Leadership requires accurate self-knowledge, informed decision making, and the ability to know what you need to do or learn in order to reach your goals. 

Leadership Skill 2: Navigating Conflict

When a child is playing with others, they are not only exercising and developing their imagination, they are also doing important work in terms of problem solving. A young child may never have experienced being told “NO” before when they insist they are the dog in a game of imagination. Children under seven generally have no problem telling a friend “NO.” It is in that moment of sudden conflict that the child is faced with a choice: Do they scream? Cry? Lie on the floor and have a tantrum? Call the other child names? Lash out in anger? Children who have developed skills in this area can deftly navigate the conflict with a playful “meow” or perhaps even deeply barking like a big dog to prove herself a fully qualified playmate by responding playfully to the friend instead of crumpling to the floor in disappointment and defeat. While adults may grow tired of the frequent conflicts that can occur during playtime, it is precisely within those instances that the child is developing key leadership skills such as navigating conflict. 

Leadership Skill 3: Agency

Through play, children use their imagination to create and recreate elaborate adventures, essentially bringing stories to life while spontaneously co-creating and live editing the narrative with friends. This sort of “live action theater” we call pretend play is self-directed, self-created and modified over and over again through imaginative scenarios. The child’s ability to take ownership as well as to modify and create play results in a growing confidence as she exhibits increasing levels of autonomy and agency when making decisions and choices. 

Finally, and worth consideration and reflection, is considering what boundaries we enforce or supply children. Children unaccustomed to having choices within free play may see it as a signal to “go wild” rather than an opportunity to engage in purposeful activities of their own choosing. The study by Laurin and Joussemet found that “Autonomy supportive parenting fosters rule internalization, while controlling tactics hinder it.” Are we educating children, especially girls, towards compliance or are we creating boundaries in such a way that children can demonstrate and practice self-regulation, persevere, take initiative, and exercise agency at home and school? 

You can support independence and foster leadership at home by: 

  • Providing your child with jobs that are important to the functioning of the home
  • Utilizing natural consequences when appropriate, e.g., child refuses to wear jacket = child experiences being cold 
  • Engaging in open-ended dialogue and conversations: “How did you feel about that?”, “What did you do when that happened?”, “Why do you think that is?”, “What makes you think that?”
  • Giving children age-appropriate input in making decisions about things that matter
  • Ensuring predictable and consistent boundaries, schedules, timetables, tasks and transition routines 
  • Learning more about the intricacies, language, and importance of children’s play, e.g. watching a group of children at play and reflecting on what you notice or wonder 



Child Development Institute, webpage, 2018, retrieved November 14, 2023

Laurin, J.C., Joussemet, M. Parental autonomy-supportive practices and toddlers’ rule internalization: A prospective observational study. Motiv Emot 41, 562–575 (2017).

Robson DA, Allen MS, Howard SJ. Self-regulation in childhood as a predictor of future outcomes: A meta-analytic review. Psychol Bull. 2020 Apr;146(4):324-354. doi: 10.1037/bul0000227. Epub 2020 Jan 6. PMID: 31904248.


About Heidi Echternacht

Heidi Echternacht is the co-founder of Kinderchat, a weekly online, global professional development conversation. She is the author of a new teacher’s guide entitled “The Kinderchat Guide to the Classroom,” published by Routledge. Her work in the field of education has been featured in Forbes and the New York Times. Heidi started teaching in the After-School and Early Childhood program at Stuart in 1991 and currently teaches kindergarten in the Lower School.




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