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Defining Your Role as a Manager and Leader

A program manager wears many hats. You handle the day-to-day business operations of the program, the organizational systems and protocols that keep children safe and healthy at your program, and act as a leader that inspires and supports staff members, families, and children. As a program manager, your vision and actions support a program culture that forms the foundation for supporting children and families. In this lesson, you will explore what it means to be a leader and how to maximize your leadership style and skills through self-reflection and action planning.

  • Reflect on and define your role and responsibilities as a program manager.
  • Engage in self-reflection around your leadership style, strengths, and potential areas for growth.
  • Examine facilitative leadership and how to facilitate shared decision-making in your program.



What does it mean to be a program manager in a child or youth program? Though your day-to-day responsibilities may not include direct care for children, your leadership decisions and actions set the stage for:

  1. Learning environments that provide secure, safe, and enriching experiences for children and youth
  2. Buy-in, satisfaction, and engagement from staff members
  3. Trust and engagement from families
  4. The success of your program as a business

Your work, presence in the program, and leadership style set the tone and culture for all that happens within a program. The decisions you make, the systems you set up, and the way you model the values of your program help staff members, families, and children feel respected, welcomed, and valued. This is key for staff member buy-in (and ultimately retention), the reputation of your program in the community, and family engagement—all in service of creating safe spaces that help each and every child thrive and develop.

Your job as a program manager involves both logistical organization and oversight (budget, scheduling, ordering materials, documentation and licensing requirements) as well as less tangible but equally important responsibilities of creating and sustaining a working and learning environment that is welcoming and supportive of every staff member, family member, and child. It is also your responsibility to oversee all aspects of the program and ensure that staff adhere to program policies and procedures. This means that your job is to create and sustain both the organizational systems and the culture of the program. Organizational systems refer to the structures and protocols in place to maintain a program that is safe and compliant with licensing and accreditation standards, keep an operating budget, and ensure adequate enrollment and functioning business operations. The culture of your program refers to the ways in which the values of your program are clear throughout day-to-day interactions between and among leadership, staff members, families, and children (Bloom & Abel, 2015). A program with a positive working culture is one in which staff members feel empowered, supported, and motivated to provide enriching learning environments for children and youth, and families feel welcomed and secure in leaving their children at the program every day. Your responsibilities as a leader and the manager of the organization are complementary, and thoughtful action within each brings your program’s vision and goals to life.

These managerial and leadership responsibilities may seem separate, but they are often quite complementary. For instance, creating a scheduling system that allows staff members to request time off several months in advance would fall under a day-to-day “managerial” task, but also works to convey to staff members that you value and respect them as professionals, and their need to have personal time to recharge and attend to their personal lives. In turn, this influences staff members’ buy-in, mental health, and the overall operation of the program. Also consider how taking time upfront to set up consistent and streamlined systems for certain day-to-day processes, gives you more time to dedicate to building relationships, building your own leadership skills, etc. Take the example of a system for requesting time off in advance; without a system in place, you might receive requests from staff members in person when they stop by your office. Some might leave notice with a front desk staff member, and some might email their request. Without a clear system, you will spend your time coordinating across multiple platforms, resolving miscommunications, and scrambling to solve scheduling issues during a time in which you could be engaging in meaningful conversations with staff members and coaches, planning a new initiative, or exploring opportunities to expand your own and your staff members’ knowledge and practice. These systems work to keep the program running smoothly and safely and also support a climate of trust and continuous improvement, which are also key aspects of your leadership role.

In Lessons Four and Five of this course, you will have the opportunity to think more deeply and concretely about what systems need to be in place and how you can set them up efficiently. This allows to you to keep up with day-to-day tasks without losing sight of long-term goals or visions, and it helps you go from a feeling of treading water and just getting through the day to feeling a balance and collective effort toward long-term program goals.

Where Do I Start? Clarifying Roles and Responsibilities

Thinking about all your roles and responsibilities as a program manager can feel overwhelming, especially if it’s a new position and you are just learning the ropes. Give yourself time to get through this learning curve, and don’t hesitate to ask questions. Though it might feel a bit daunting to see all your responsibilities written out in one spot, that is exactly where early childhood leadership consultant Christina Schmidt suggests you start in order to get a full picture of your role. In the book The Child Care Director’s Complete Guide, she recommends that new directors spend time learning about the expectations of their role by looking back at the job description used in the hiring process. You can use the job description to organize the broad categories that your responsibilities fall into, and then write out what the daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly tasks are that fall under each of those categories. So, for example, one of your listed responsibilities is likely to manage the program’s budget. You might take that category and consider what you would need to do weekly (e.g., track attendance for child care subsidy payments, review and complete order requests, file receipts and enter spending into the tracking system), monthly (e.g., confirm that payments for monthly bills have been sent, send out tuition payment reminders, cut checks for staff, deposit checks from fees and other payments), and quarterly (e.g., review budget and goals, address potential shortfalls, decide how to use any surplus) to stay on top of that broader responsibility. This creates an accountability system for you and can help you make sure that there aren’t things that end up consistently slipping through the cracks. You can update these lists regularly as you learn more about how much time certain tasks take you, which tasks you find yourself avoiding or putting off, and which are hard to get done within your current plan. Your first plan might not be perfect, but it gives you a place to start. If you are unsure of how to break down some of the broader responsibilities, you might consider taking that list to a supervisor or mentor, and make sure that your interpretation of the roles and responsibilities in the job posting is correct and that the tasks you have named are comprehensive (Schmidt, 2017). Throughout this course, we will break down some of the major responsibilities of the program manager including relationship building, reviewing policies and procedures, budgeting, documentation, compliance, and managing licensing requirements, which can help you get a better sense for how you might plan your time to address each of your job expectations.

In addition to knowing what your own responsibilities are within a program, you also want to take time to make sure you understand your program’s organizational structure: What are all the different types of roles within your program (e.g., assistant director, T&CS, administrative staff, support staff, lead teacher, assistant teacher)? What are the responsibilities and qualifications for each of those roles? What responsibilities or expectations are written in staff policy and handbooks? What responsibilities has each member of the team traditionally taken on—for example, do you or the T&CS handle the onboarding of new staff members? Do you have a front desk clerk, who typically manages the enrollment waitlist? With so many moving pieces within a program, it is essential for you to plan and communicate how your roles and responsibilities work in tandem with the day-to-day responsibilities of all staff members. Clear communication about what role each member of your program staff plays in keeping operations and classrooms running smoothly is essential. The example matrix below shows how you might take a broad category of responsibility (such as budgeting and orders) and explicitly identify how each member of a program staff plays a role.

Responsibilities by Role - Example Matrix

Direct Care Staff Members
Material Orders
  • Fills out and submits order request
  • Responds to requests from administration for ideas and input on ordering
  • Submits request for time off in advance when possible
  • Alerts front desk as soon as possible in the case of unplanned and emergency absences
  • Posts daily adult schedule so families know who is in the classroom
  • Informs program manager if there are times of day they feel understaffed or are at risk of being out of ratio
Family Communication
  • Communicates in person with families at drop off and pickup
  • Shares daily notes or messages home
  • Communicates what is going on in the classroom regularly (e.g., class newsletter, family bulletin board, etc.)
  • Responds to parent emails
  • Complete family conference forms prior to meeting with families and share with T&CS prior to conducting conferences
  • Conducts two family conferences annually
  • Member of support team when there are challenging behaviors or developmental concerns
Front Desk Staff Members
Material Orders
  • Files and organizes order requests
  • Distributes and files completed orders
  • Maintains school absence calendar
  • Alerts program manager when a new request for time off is submitted
Family Communication
  • Greets families upon arrival
  • Updates program website and maintains email message list
  • Review and approve all family conference forms prior to direct care staff meeting with family members
Material Orders
  • Provides input and insight into classroom and curricular needs to inform what materials are ordered
  • Works with program manager to ensure that there is adequate release time for staff members to engage in coaching, professional development, and training
Family Communication
  • Supports direct care staff in promoting engagement and communication with families
  • Member of support team when there are child challenging behaviors or developmental concerns
Program Manager
Material Orders
  • Approves order requests
  • Monitors and maintains budget for materials and food ordering
  • Maintains and monitors inventory and scheduling for regular orders
  • Asks for input from staff members prior to making orders for new equipment, classroom materials, etc.
  • Creates and maintains staff schedules, including that of floating staff members, substitute coverage, breaks, release time for professional development and back up plans for unexpected staffing changes or absences
  • Responds to time off requests promptly
  • Posts own schedule and names who is in charge if program manager is not in the building
Family Communication
  • Sends welcome letter to families when they enroll in the program
  • Maintains and distributes family handbook
  • Greets families upon arrival
  • Creates monthly newsletters to share updates about the program, share resources, and inform families about upcoming events
  • Plans and schedules quarterly family nights and other family celebration and engagement opportunities
  • Supports direct care staff members in resolving any problems or conflicts brought to them by families
  • Member of support team when there are child challenging behaviors or developmental concerns

A matrix like this explicitly shows how you as a program manager will show up to support your staff members and what the expectations are of staff members to keep things running smoothly. This level of planning and communication is particularly important if you share certain managerial responsibilities with other members of a leadership team. A document like this can help avoid delays in staff members getting requests and needs met and ensure that there aren’t inadvertently mixed messages coming from the leadership team. This type of system makes it clear who the first point of contact should be related to various issues and needs. We will explore how you can break down each of these major processes (budgeting, scheduling, etc.) in Lessons Four and Five of this course.

It is important to remember that while it may at times feel like your role is behind the scenes, managing and orchestrating a smooth-running system that allows staff members to thrive as educators and support families, children, and youth, you are in many ways the face of the program. Be sure that you are making daily efforts to be present in the program. This means being outside your office and talking to families and children and youth as they enter or exit the building so that you can get to know them and they can see and get to know the person behind the newsletters and communications they receive. It also means regularly blocking off time to walk around the program, check in with direct care staff members, and observe in a non-evaluative context. Make time to really get to know each staff member and let them get to know you. Being present helps build trust and can help break down feelings of “us” and “them” between staff members and the leadership team. It also helps you gain perspective and context so that when families or staff members come to you with suggestions or issues, you can be ready to engage in productive discussions. We will cover strategies for facilitating these types of relationships and conversations with staff members and families in more detail in Lesson Three of this course.

Becoming an Effective Leader

Though your day-to-day tasks related to the basic operations of the program may take up a lot of your time and energy, it is important not to lose sight of the bigger picture and your role as a leader in your program. Early childhood education leader and expert Maurice Sykes names four key principles on which effective leadership is built, all centered around various types of knowledge:

  1. Knowledge of yourself
  2. Knowledge of leadership
  3. Knowledge of others
  4. Knowledge of the craft

In this lesson, we will focus on key aspects of self-reflection and action planning that serve to expand your knowledge of self and leadership. In later lessons of this course, we will cover topics related to gaining knowledge of others (such as staff members, the families in your program, the community members at large you might interact with) and knowledge of the craft (such as your knowledge of the teaching practices and supports that you want direct care staff to use when engaging in their work).

Self-Reflection and Planning

Becoming a leader starts with reflecting upon yourself, who you are, and who you want to be as a leader. There are many paths you may have taken to becoming a program manager. Perhaps you are a longtime educator with a lot of classroom experience who has recently transitioned into a leadership role at the program you have worked in for years. Perhaps you are brand new to the program or come from a different sector, such as business or customer service. Whatever your journey, it is important to begin the new role with some reflection about yourself as a leader. Consider what strengths and experiences you bring to the table, your organizational and management style, and your approach to forming connections and supporting staff members. This stage of self-reflection is pivotal in defining your role as an administrator and building your skills and abilities to support staff members, families, children and youth.

Because everyone comes to the leadership role through a different journey, everyone also brings unique strengths, experiences, goals, and skills to the job. Leveraging your unique path is key to maximizing your effectiveness as a leader. It helps you recognize your strengths and think about how you can apply them across your leadership and managerial tasks. This reflection can also help you find where your “blind spots” might be (Sykes, 2019; LeeKeenan & Ponte, 2019). The collection of reflection questions below can be an important starting point. When reading these questions, think about your response, how that response might change based on the context or specific situation (e.g., might you react differently in a high-stress moment, an emergency, etc.), and what your response might mean for how you approach communication and interactions with staff members and families. As you reflect on these questions, you might also think about how leaders you have admired might answer these questions. What insight can you pull from how an effective leader has interacted with you in the past or what you have seen modeled (LeeKeenan & Ponte 2019)?

  • Am I organized and good with details or more of a big picture person?
  • Do I tend to be outgoing or more reserved?
  • Do I tend to work collaboratively, or do I use a more authoritative approach?
  • When faced with a task, do I focus more on getting the task done or on the best way to do so?
  • How comfortable am I with disequilibrium and conflict? How do I tend to handle situations involving them?
  • How flexible am I?
  • Is my communication style more direct or indirect?
  • Do I make decisions easily and quickly, or do I take my time?
  • Do I keep my feelings to myself or freely show them?
  • Do I stick with methods I know work, or do I tend to consider new approaches?

These questions are important for leaders to ask themselves, particularly if you are transitioning into a new leadership role. There is no specific “right” answer to any of these questions. Your answers represent your overall style and approach to interacting with others and managing your responsibilities as a leader. The goal in engaging in self-reflection is not to necessarily change something that is “wrong” about your style or approach, but to consider how your natural tendencies influence how you make decisions, carry out tasks, and interact with others. For example, you might reflect that you tend to approach communication about feedback or classroom suggestions very directly and bluntly, which might not match well with how some staff members want to receive directions or feedback. This reflection might then lead you to explore strategies for approaching feedback in different ways to help build your skills for forming responsive relationships with all your staff members. Similarly, knowing you are excellent with organization and task management may mean that you feel very comfortable in setting up an efficient organizational system, but maybe you need to ask the coach or another colleague to set aside time in a monthly meeting to revisit your organization’s larger vision and goals, to help you keep the big picture in mind so you do not get lost in the weeds. Knowing these things about yourself helps facilitate the work that you do, helps you identify potential sticking points and encourages you to work preventively rather than reactively. You can learn more about the practice of self-reflection in the Self and Cultural Understanding course in the VLS Management Track.

What Does it mean to be a Facilitative Leader?

What are the essential components of being a leader? As we’ve already reviewed, program managers hold many responsibilities in a program, ranging from day-to-day managerial tasks that ensure safety, compliance, and ongoing operation of the program to helping to carry forward the values and vision of the program. In this course, we will focus specifically on skills and practices associated with what is known as facilitative leadership . A facilitative leader views their role not as one of power over others, but as a central figure that creates systems and environments that support and empower staff members in striving toward and achieving shared goals. Facilitative leaders are thoughtful about how they can use their position of power in an empowering way instead of an authoritarian way that could lead to tensions, resentment, and less committed and effective work from program staff members. Facilitative leaders “understand that leadership is not about being in charge, but about serving and supporting others” (Humphries, 2018). Effective, facilitative leaders know how to (Bella, 2018; Humphries, 2018; LeeKeenan & Ponte, 2019; Macdonald, 2016; Sykes, 2019):

  1. Recognize, honor, and celebrate each staff member’s unique strengths and needs and encourage staff members to reflect and build upon their own leadership skills that they bring to their team and their classroom.
  2. Facilitate genuine shared decision-making instead of making unilateral decisions without input from those who will be affected most by those decisions
  3. Regularly invite staff members and families to share ideas and perspectives on how processes within the program could be improved or expanded.
  4. Show staff members and families that their ideas and perspectives are valuable by meaningfully incorporating them into changes into the programs’ environments and procedures.
  5. Share a clear vision for the program with staff members and families and communicate about how decisions being made are in service to that vision.
  6. Inspire staff members to be professional and creative and to work collectively to build classroom environments that are supportive of each and every child and family.

Authentic Shared Decision-Making

Facilitative leaders know how to do the above in an authentic, genuine way. As pointed out by early childhood leader and expert Maggie Carter (in her article What do teachers need most from their directors?) asking for input when you have already decided does not feel genuine to staff members, and it does not work to foster trust. Think carefully about what types of decisions you can engage staff members in shared decision-making around and what types of decisions might involve external constraints that prevent you from offering flexibility or engaging in a fully shared decision-making process (such as those related to safety, licensing requirements, fiscal constraints, or have a very tight time window). Even if for some decisions the final call must rest with you as the manager, you can still share with staff members why those decisions are not as open for input as others, ask for input where you can, and be as transparent as possible about what information you used to guide your decision.

Planning for how and when you will ask staff members to supply input and play a role in making decisions at the program is a key aspect of facilitative leadership. For true facilitative leadership, stating intentions for shared decision-making and planning for getting input are not enough—there must be action and it must be clear to the staff members what that action is and how you arrived at a decision. We’ve all experienced feeling frustrated with a situation that is “all talk” but little action. These situations can make us resentful or less likely to speak up the next time someone asks for our ideas. You cannot always honor every request or idea that comes across your desk, but you can work proactively by updating staff members about decisions that have been made and about work that is being done to make ideas, suggestions, and resolutions to problems come to life. By frequently and transparently communicating, you foster an environment in which staff members feel heard and trust that when you can, you will act based on their input, and when you can’t because of an external limitation, you will be clear and honest about how and why you made that decision. Shared leadership and decision-making can foster trust and buy-in from all staff members. The message you convey to staff members is that their expertise, opinions, and actions matter and play an essential role in building the living mission of the program. This paves the way for an efficient system, staff members that feel empowered and valued, and children and families who feel supported.

If shared decision-making is new to you or your program, consider the guiding questions and prompts below to help guide you in starting the process (Bella, 2018; Macdonald, 2016)

Guiding Questions for Shared Decision-Making

Identify opportunities for shared decision-making
  • What decisions can you authentically involve staff members in?
  • What decisions are you unable to involve staff members in because of external constraints or policies?
  • Who would be most affected by the decision, and who should you make sure you get input from?
  • What constraints do you need to communicate to staff members in advance, so everyone is clear on the parameters for the decision (e.g., budget, certain safety or curricular requirements that might influence what materials you select, etc.)?
Share the opportunity and seek input from staff members. Be sure to include a deadline if the decision is time sensitive.
  • Can you carve out time at a staff meeting to highlight decisions or opportunities that are coming up?
  • Depending on the decision being made, can input be obtained from a simple survey or poll or is more discussion needed?
Share updates
  • Communicate with staff members about the progress of the decision and whether follow-up input is needed to make a final decision. Once a decision is made, be sure to communicate with staff how the decision was made and what the timeline is for implementation. If there were suggestions or opinions about a decision that were in competition with one another, discuss how you weighed options and how you will continue to consider all the input you received in future decisions.
Have ongoing opportunities for staff members to share ideas, not necessarily connected to an immediate decision being made.
  • The best way to know what your program staff members need is by asking. Work to create a culture where staff members feel comfortable speaking up and offer multiple ways for staff members to share feedback and ideas, both in person and anonymously. Make time to review the suggestions and input regularly so you can show the staff that their ideas are being taken seriously.

Supervise & Support

There are many ways that you can engage staff in shared decision-making. Below are just a few examples of decisions that could be made using a shared decision-making process.

  • Writing a vision and mission statement for the program that will be shared on the program website
  • Selection of new materials or equipment for a shared gross-motor area
  • Designating or redesigning workspaces for staff members
  • Deciding on a focus and agenda for an in-service workday

What other decisions go on in your program that you might be able to start a shared decision-making process with staff?

Listen as program managers discuss the value of engaging staff in shared decision-making and the strategies they use to create an environment where staff members feel comfortable sharing their ideas.

Engaging Staffing Shared Decisions

Learn the value of involving staff members in shared decision making.

If you are just beginning your role as a program manager, consider the systems and plans that you can put into place within your first few months in this role to support your leadership and management of the program. If you are a more seasoned program manager, reflect on whether these systems are already in place or if they can be improved.

  • In your first 30 days:
    • Get a clear picture of your roles and responsibilities and outline what you will need to do daily, weekly, and monthly to complete the tasks associated with each responsibility.
    • Plan for how you can be present every day in your program so that you can get to know staff members, families, and children, and they can get to know you.
  • In your first 60 days:
    • Engage in self-reflection about how you tend to handle certain situations and what that means for how you show up as a leader for your staff members. Identify steps you will take to learn more about specific leadership skills.
  • In your first 90 days:
    • Plan for when and how you can incorporate shared decision-making into your decision-making process.


Hearing about the experiences and reflections of others is a valuable way to learn more about how to build effective leadership skills. Read the Top 5 Things I Wish I Had Known as a Director resource from the McCormick Center for Early Childhood Leadership. Think about which of the responses or suggestions resonate with you, and then share the article with a trusted mentor or colleague and see what they agree with, and what else they might add to this list.


Every staff member can be a leader, regardless of their official title or role within a program. Part of your job is to help staff members learn how to be leaders within their own classroom teams. The article Expanding the Lens: Leadership as an Organizational Asset includes a leadership skills inventory to support you in thinking about leadership behaviors that you should model in your day-to-day interactions with staff, families, and children, and it guides you in thinking about whether members of your staff also model those behaviors. Read the article and reflect on ways that you may expand leadership opportunities within your programs. Then use the inventory within the article to identify three behaviors that you want to (1) model more intentionally in your day-to-day interactions and (2) learn more about to support your staff in modeling in their day-to-day roles. Share this and discuss with your coach.

Self-reflection is a critical part of becoming an effective leader and refining your leadership practices over time. Use the Program Manager Competency Reflection to self-assess your skills as a leader in the program and to develop your own professional development goals.


Facilitative Leadership:
A philosophy that views an administrator or manager who uses their leadership position and skills to engage all members of an organization in working toward a collective goal
Organizational Systems:
The systems in place (budget, scheduling, emergency procedures) that ensure a program is running smoothly, safely, and in compliance with licensing standards
Program Culture:
The unique vision and values of your program and how those values are clear throughout day-to-day interactions between and among leadership, staff members, families, and children
Shared Decision-Making:
A framework in which all individuals who are likely to be affected by a decision are authentically involved in supplying input and making that decision


Which of the following is an example of shared decision-making?  
True or false? Administrators should always stay behind the scenes and should not interact with staff members or families throughout the day.   
Which of the following statements demonstrates facilitative leadership? 
References & Resources

Abel, M., Talan, T. & Masterson, M. (March 22, 2017). Whole Leadership: A framework for early childhood programs. McCormick Center for Early Childhood Leadership.

Allred, K. W., & Hancock, C. L. (2015). Reconciling Leadership and Partnership: Strategies to empower professionals and families. Young Children, 70(2), 46-53.

Barrett, M. (2015 March 27). Time Management: Making time for what matters most. McCormick Center for Early Childhood Leadership.

Bloom, P., & Abel, M. (2015). Expanding the Lens: Leadership as an organizational asset. Young Children, 70(2), 10-17.

Bloom, P. J., Hentschel, A., & Bella, J. (2013). Inspiring Peak Performance: Competence, commitment, and collaboration. The Director’s Toolbox Management Series. Lake Forest, IL: New Horizons.

Bella, J. (December 12, 2018). Circle of Influence: Implementing shared decision making and participative management. [Webinar]. Early Childhood Investigator Webinars.

Carter, M. (2000). What Do Teachers Need Most from their Directors? Child Care Information Exchange, 136, 98-101.

Derman-Sparks, L., Nimmo, J., & LeeKeenan, D. (2015). Leadership Matters: Creating anti-bias change in early childhood programs. Exchange, 37(6), 8-12.

Humphries, J. (October 16,2018). Facilitative leadership: An exercise of influence. McCormick Center for Early Childhood Leadership.

LeeKeenan, D., & Ponte, I. C. (2019). From Survive to Thrive: A director's guide for leading an early childhood program. National Association for the Education of Young Children.

MacDonald, S. (2016). Inspiring early childhood leadership: Eight strategies to ignite passion and transform program quality. Gryphon House.

Parlakian, R. & Seibel, N. (2001). Being in Charge: Reflective leadership in infant family programs. Washington, DC: ZERO TO THREE.

Schmidt, C. (2017). The Child Care Director’s Complete Guide: What you need to manage and lead. Red Leaf Press.

Sykes, M. (September 9, 2015). Eight Leadership Qualities that Advance the Right Choices for Young Children. [Webinar]. Early Childhood Investigation Webinars.