Maurice Sykes: Building Leadership, Equity & Social Justice in Early Learning - Early Learning Nation

Maurice Sykes: Building Leadership, Equity & Social Justice in Early Learning

Editor’s Note: The Early Learning Nation Studio recently attended the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s annual conference where we spoke with early learning researchers, policymakers, and practitioners. The full collection of video conversations can be found here.

How do you build leadership in early learning? According to Maurice Sykes, Executive Director of the Early Childhood Leadership Institute, it goes beyond the usual skills and benefits from an eye towards equity and social justice: “[making] sure that children, regardless of zip code or surname or gender, have access to high quality programs.”


Chris Riback:                 Maurice, welcome to the studio.

Maurice Sykes:              Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Chris Riback:                 So let’s get right to it. How do you define leadership in early childhood learning?

Maurice Sykes:              Well, leadership is really a transferable set of skills, so it’s not distinguished by the arena in which you apply your leadership skills. Early childhood leadership, I believe consists of a number of things. I have a theory about basic principles, and so one is a knowledge of self, knowledge of others, knowledge of the craft of early childhood education, and knowledge of leadership. And so we sort of build the leadership development around those basic pillars.

Chris Riback:                 And is leadership just for leaders or is leadership, or the skills around leadership, is it important throughout an organization? Of course, we’re talking here about early childhood education, but is it important to have those skills throughout an organization?

Maurice Sykes:              Well, sure, and there is sort of the designated leader, the head and the top of the organization. But the skills of what I said in terms of those basic pillars, teachers need to be knowledgeable of themselves and they need to be knowledgeable and respectful of others. They need to know their craft to a high level, and then they need to know what leaders, because they are a leader in the classroom. The role of leadership is interchangeable, so depending on the organizational setting, but to answer your question, yes, we all need leadership skills.

Chris Riback:                 Among the issues that are being discussed at this conference, and are really two of the core issues and concerns around early childhood education, equity, achievement. What’s the role of leadership to address those gaps or those opportunities?

Maurice Sykes:              I would also add equity, social justice, and leadership.

Chris Riback:                 Thank you.

Maurice Sykes:              Because the inequity in settings serving young children are unjust, and so one of the chapters in the book that I wrote, Doing the Right Thing for Children: Eight Qualities of Leadership, I talk about social justice as being a main principle of leadership. And so how do we make sure that children, regardless of zip code or surname or gender, have access to high quality programs? And I think what NAYC is doing through its position statement on equity, it’s drawing to the fore the importance of us being aware. So it’s not enough to say, I like children. We believe that all children should have access to high quality programs. And when we say high quality, it needs to be equal across the board. So children in more affluent areas have better teachers, better facilities, better leaders, and so we believe that all children should have access to those things.

Chris Riback:                 And it’s really, I think a key point, and you tell me if I’m misunderstanding, but equity, certainly means access, but access isn’t enough. Access is the starting point. It then has to be quality throughout.

Maurice Sykes:              Well, quality throughout, and equity, no, you’re absolutely right. It’s not just about access. I mean, it is a disgrace in this country that children who are young children are disproportionately expelled from pre-K programs. This is a national disaster. And children of color are disproportionately, and boys of color are, so all of those, these are equity issues. These are, so even if I had access to a high quality program, but because of my home language or because of my skin color, I’m going to be expelled. I mean that’s, so that’s inequitable, and it’s unjust.

Chris Riback:                 You are absolutely right. Those statistics, I’ve seen those statistics around the expelling of children, it’s exactly what you described.

Maurice Sykes:              Yes. And I mean, so much so that the Office of Civil Rights now makes states report their expulsion rate at pre-K. I mean, what could you do as a three or four year old that would have you removed forever?

Chris Riback:                 Yes.

Maurice Sykes:              Pretty bad.

Chris Riback:                 Cycle of trauma. There’s a great deal of research around the negative impact that childhood trauma can have on education, and the good news, of course, is that children show great resiliency and there’s great research around resiliency. But the bad news, of course, is trauma can come in many forms and it can be pervasive. What is the cycle of trauma?

Maurice Sykes:              So the cycle of trauma, and particularly for children who have had adverse early experiences, early childhood experiences, is that children and primarily from, and it’s across the board, it becomes more intense when you take into consideration socioeconomic background, because the poor in your community, the more things you’re going to see and be exposed to that are adverse. But when we think of the cycle of trauma, and this relates to equity and social justice, children exposed to traumatic experiences come to early childhood settings and act out those behaviors, those same behaviors sometimes that are related to the expulsion rate. So children come in, they act out, they cause secondary trauma to the people, their caretakers, be it a teacher or home care provider. So then they pass their trauma on to the adult caretaker. The adult caretaker reacts to that secondary trauma by doing something negative to the child, and they re-traumatize the child. The cycle of trauma is child comes to a setting with trauma, gives secondary trauma to the person who is the adult, the adult reacts negatively and re-traumatizes the child. So we just keep that cycle going.

Chris Riback:                 As you’re looking forward, and you’re looking for success or at least impact in this area that you’re talking about – you’ve worked at all levels, you’ve worked with governments, state, local, national, you’ve worked with the schools, you’ve worked with the education. Where’s the bottleneck? Where do you think that you will really need to put in your focus to break that bottleneck?

Maurice Sykes:              The bottleneck in terms of what’s keeping what from happening?

Chris Riback:                 In terms of getting the focus on teacher resiliency and educator resiliency, in terms of putting the focus on mental health of the caretakers, that you’re now passionate about.

Maurice Sykes:              I really think it starts in our own organization. You know, we spend a lot of time talking about wages and conditions, but what does money matter if you’re whacked out, you know? I mean, it really does. I mean, we need to lift this issue up to the upper levels of our own association, which is an advocacy organization, but we seldom, if ever, talk about the mental wellbeing of the people who are providers.

Chris Riback:                 Well, you already wrote Doing the Right Thing for Children. Perhaps next, it will be Doing the Right Thing for Caretakers and Educators.

Maurice Sykes:              Thank you for the title for my next book.

Chris Riback:                 You’re welcome. That’s for you. Thank you. Thank you for coming by the studio.

Maurice Sykes:              My pleasure.




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