Managing early childhood programs at the center or organizational level is a complicated, multi-faceted job. Not only does a successful leader or team need to know about best practices in child development and pedagogy, but also about marketing, finance, development, family services, human resources, community relations, and the list goes on. With so many responsibilities and tasks on the “to do” list each day, we often tackle each issue or problem with a band-aid approach; addressing or fixing each one in the moment, as it arises, so that we can check it off the list and move on to the next thing. That may seem like the most logical and timely approach, yet if we don’t strategically work through issues that threaten the quality of our programs, those band-aids will eventually fall off.  

As early childhood educators, we can learn a thing or two about the design thinking approach to solving problems; using strategies from this approach in a way that is applicable to our context.  What is design thinking exactly? Simply put, design thinking is an approach to learning, collaboration, and problem solving. As this definition clearly indicates, design thinking is not just for designers!

There are several steps in the design thinking process. Let’s break it down.

Step 1: Learn. You will listen to, and empathize with your team (colleagues, staff, parents, whomever) to gather information about the problem. You’ll also want to evaluate any data you may have at your disposal.

Step 2: Define. In this step, you’ll define the needs of your constituents, their problem, and what your approach might be.

Step 3: Ideate. I love this word! During this step you will create and/or generate as many ideas (with your team) as possible that could be used to address the problem you’ve identified and defined. In other words, BRAINSTORM!

Step 4: Prototype. You will start creating solutions based on the list of possible ideas you’ve identified in Step 3.

Step 5: Implement. Now is the time to test them out. Many design thinking models stop here but I’ve added…

Step 6: Evaluate. Did your solution work?  How do you know? Is it time to try something else? Or start the design process from beginning again?Let’s look at an example from an early childhood administrator’s lens. There’s a classroom in my program that is underperforming in the area of curriculum implementation. Ahhh! What am I going to do? I can a) panic, b) start writing lesson plans and step in as the teacher for the year, or c) go through the design thinking process to generate some alternative solutions. Moving through the steps allows me to:

  • use data to help solve my problem
  • work collaboratively with others to generate solutions (two or more brains are always better than one)
  • use my creative side to solve problems
  • circle back to evaluate how well my solution may have worked

Not only does this approach create “buy in” from those on your team, but it also helps to create solutions that stick (saving time and energy). An immediate fix might last a little while, but the efficiency, collaboration, and effectiveness that the design thinking process will produce will be WAY worth it in the long run!