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Adaptive Leadership: Reconceptualizing the Challenges Faced by our Field

February 25, 2022

This blog is a summary from the keynote remarks made by Dr. Valora Washington during the BUILD Initiative's Partner State meeting in fall of 2021.

Valora Washington

Dr. Valora Washington is an internationally recognized authority in early childhood education. She is known for conceptualizing, leading, and executing significant change initiatives impacting policy, programs, and practice in higher education, philanthropy, and national nonprofits as well as in local, state, and federal government programs. Read more…

Fragmented funding, program silos, and lack of state, regional, and local early childhood system infrastructure have forced many leaders to use technical solutions to fashion quick fixes and work-arounds to challenges such as low provider pay, uneven quality, and limited input from families and communities. But technical solutions are akin to taking medication for high blood pressure – known, convenient, and safe – as opposed to adaptive solutions, such as changes in diet, stress management and physical activity, which address root causes.

During her keynote remarks at the BUILD Initiative’s Partner State meeting in fall of 2021, Dr. Valora Washington said that early childhood system leaders are called on now more than ever to step back and define the adaptive and technical nature of the challenges facing the children and families they serve. “The technical things matter. But what we face in early childhood are adaptive challenges that we have tried to solve with technical tools and that is why we are not making progress.”

The Resulting Problems 
Failure to address adaptive challenges has had significant consequences for the early childhood field. These include lack of a widely embraced, public consensus of the field’s purpose; counterproductive competition among programs; a hierarchy among infant/toddler care, child care, and pre-K programs; and racially inequitable distribution of resources.
These consequences will blunt the impact of new federal funding for early care and education without the intervention of new types of leaders committed to adaptive work.

We need to think about our purpose as a field, our defining intent. We want parents to be able to work, but that is not our purpose. What is our identity? Are we responsible for third-grade test scores, kindergarten readiness? We need to grapple with these questions.

What Adaptive Leadership Skills Require 
Tackling adaptive problems often is a path of most rather than least resistance. “A true way you know it is an adaptive problem is that it challenges values, beliefs, roles, and approaches to the work,” Washington said.
Strategies developed during the past decade by Washington and others have proven effective in helping leaders build skills to change the way they conceptualize and deal with adaptive challenges. These include:

  • Moving from the dance floor to the balcony. Stepping back helps leaders name and frame the underlying issues. This can cause discomfort because it often reveals a discomforting gap between our aspirations and reality, Washington said.

Step back, reflect and think about what challenge you are actually facing. What is your adaptive challenge? This is important because it is hard to name the challenge. How are you going to regulate the distress caused by opening Pandora’s Box? One way people do this is by giving the work back to the people involved, to get them to take ownership of the strategies.

  • Regulating distress caused by seeing challenges in a new light, working beyond formal definitions of role and authority, and conflicts caused by disrupting the status quo. “A better world for kids, families, communities and providers without conflict is an imaginary world,” Washington said.
  • Giving the work back to those directly impacted by the challenges and helping them take ownership of how to meet them. This can be difficult because it involves loss – of formal authority, current expertise, and control of funding – to build feedback loops with providers and families, set shared agendas across early childhood systems, and blend funding.

Name the loss. What will change with leadership? You may no longer be the hero out there named with the credit. It is about community voice, letting the people do the work. That also reconstructs what it means to be a professional. What is my role and value? If you have to come through me, I hold power and identity. What if I do not have that anymore?

  • Avoiding work avoidance, which can include overly simplistic definitions of the problem, blaming others, or limiting solutions to your own expertise. Work avoidance often causes leaders to default to technical solutions, Washington said, such as legislative fixes to the problem of racial inequities in early childhood suspension and expulsion as opposed to giving teacher more support, getting more input from parents, and increasing access to mental health services.

Washington urged meeting participants to work with BUILD and other organizations with experience in helping states deal with adaptive challenges in early childhood systems building, including development of cross-sector shared agendas, working deeply in community to center parents and providers in feedback loops to remove barriers to services and supports, and using data to identify and reach populations furthest from opportunity.

About the BUILD Partner State Meeting 
State leaders from Alabama, California, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas, Washington, and Washington, DC, representing the early care and education, health, child welfare, labor and other sectors, participated in the meeting. BUILD hosts two Partner State Team Meetings annually, bringing together early childhood system leaders to strengthen policies, infrastructure, and cross-sector connections necessary for quality and equity.

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