Perspectives on Leadership in Early Education: “A Human-Being-First Approach”

An interview with Junlei Li on leading for positive interactions
Blog Post
March 17, 2020

New America's Early & Elementary Education Policy team is partnering with the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative at the Harvard Graduate School of Education on the blog series: Perspectives on Leadership in Early Education. We interviewed experts on leadership, management, and organizations for a cross-disciplinary conversation about cultivating great leaders in early childhood education.

In this interview, we talk with Junlei Li, Saul Zaentz Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood Education at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. Li focuses on understanding and supporting the work of helpers– those who serve children and families on the frontlines, whether in education or the social services. We talked with Li about the progression of his career, leading to the "Simple Interactions" approach he developed to promote positive relationships and systems-level change. Key excerpts from the interview follow here.

Nonie: You didn't start your career focused on early childhood. How did you end up in early education?

Junlei: You’re right—I started in K-12 science ed. These years got me focused on how the roots of what we might call achievement gap isn't just in science or in math or even just in the classroom. At first, I was the typical naive researcher who thought that if we just get the curriculum and teacher training right, we'll solve problems and close the achievement gap. But after spending time in classrooms, I became interested in this mystery of why children are so engaged in some classrooms and so distracted in others. I also noticed that effective curricula in some settings weren’t effective in others. And when we interviewed helpers—home visitors, families, teachers, youth violence prevention staff, and out-of-school-time participants and asked what mattered to them, they would say something akin to, “It's all about the relationships.” So, I started to focus on this idea that no programs or policies could be successful without building up the human beings who are actually involved. My work became very much aligned with the human-being-first approach—and thus my transition to the Fred Rogers Center.

Nonie: And the perfect fit. Tell us more about how you got to this notion of “Simple Interactions.”

Junlei: We started to ask ourselves what the human-first approach means for capacity-building—if you are actually running the program, if you’re staff, if you're a policymaker, or you decide to fund the program. We started to go deeper to try to understand and find something that's visible and observable in relationships and interactions in a minute, or five minutes. It was from there that the notion of simple, ordinary interactions came out as the building block of development and resilience. These are ordinary, everyday things that all of us are capable of doing. And it was about figuring out how to help people to not only see the interactions—but to see themselves as capable of supporting those kinds of interactions.

Nonie: If you are speaking with early education leaders —those who run centers, networks, or even quality rating improvement systems (QRIS)—how do you talk with them about creating the conditions for stronger, more positive interactions?

Junlei: We try to convey three things. The first is this idea that simple, everyday interactions are the heart of what makes quality—and how we can achieve quality with equity. We may not be able to envision a world where every child is in an equally glamorous facility, but we can picture a world in which every child has at least one person with whom on a daily basis they have these developmental interactions. The second is something you and Stephanie say often, which is that we cannot make a lasting impact on children if we skip over the adults. We so often say, “Let's do it for the children.” But common sense and research tell us that we are not going to do anything for children if we somehow skip the adult, or worse, blame the adults for everything that is wrong with children.

And the third is to tie these two together, to think about systems-level interactions with adults—the idea of doing for the helpers what you imagine the best helpers do for children. It can certainly happen on an inter-personal level, but I think it has to happen at the systems-level as well. We're losing child care providers every day, and when you ask them why they are leaving the field, they talk about typical things like low wages—but they've had low wages all along. Now, they also mention the difficulty of navigating the quality system, the sense of feeling isolated and disrespected.

Nonie: They need to see themselves in our efforts to improve quality.

Junlei: That's right. Rather than feeling like the love has gone out of their work. One dimension of our Simple Interactions work is “reciprocity,” which ranges on a spectrum from resistance to passive compliance to two-way serve-and-return. We talk about serve-and-return a lot in the context of working with children. At the systems-level, we can step back and ask: what is the relationship between a provider and a system that oversees the provider? Does the system expect passive compliance? And gets resistance instead? What does it mean to have a reciprocal relationship? When the system creates a non-reciprocal compliance culture, it filters all the way down to the teacher. How can a teacher in that environment be freed to have positive interactions with children if that teacher carries this kind of burden from the institution?

Nonie: Well, right. And even if we weren't blaming, the high expectations for adults has to be matched with high support.

Junlei: Right. Another dimension of the Simple Interactions tool is called “opportunity to grow.” Like what you just said, high expectations have to be matched with high support- it’s the very essence of that entire dimension.

Nonie: Thinking about policymaking, can you say more about what that quality system characterized by “reciprocity” and “opportunity to grow” would look like and feel like?

Junlei: I'm going to Kansas next year, one of the last states to develop a QRIS. They changed the "R" in QRIS from “rating” to “recognition." And just that one-word change to me is symbolic of what I think it might take, which is this idea that people cannot learn unless you authentically, genuinely believe that they have expertise to contribute to the learning process itself. We can't improve quality unless we start from a place where we genuinely, authentically believe that those who are providing the services have the knowledge and the expertise to contribute to the effort of growing quality—and we need to communicate respect in everything we do. I think that's a very different foundation upon which we can build and revise this kind of system.

Nonie: Yeah, and it's got a behavioral science feel to it, right?

Junlei: Right. If you look across studies that use behavioral nudges, they all use some reflective tool to let people know that they are already doing the kinds of things that can help a child learn and grow and promote them in engaging in more of those behaviors.

Nonie: Right, that’s really important to remember. Thank you, Junlei. So glad to talk with you about strengthening relationships and improving quality across the early education system.

Related Topics
Birth Through Third Grade Learning