Caring School Leadership

Our guest authors today are Mark A. Smylie, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois-Chicago, Joseph Murphy, professor at Peabody College, Vanderbilt University, and Karen Seashore Louis, professor at the University of Minnesota.  Their research concerns school organization, leadership, and improvement.  This blog post is based on an article titled “Caring School Leadership: A Multi-Disciplinary, Cross-Occupational Model” which will be published later this year in the American Journal of Education.

From our years of studying school leadership and reform, working with practicing educators, and participating in education policy development, we have come to the conclusion that caring lies at the heart of effective schooling and good school leadership.  In this time of intense academic pressures, accountability policies, and top-down approaches to reform, however, the concept of caring has been neglected, overshadowed by attention to more “objective”, task-oriented aspects of school organization and leadership (Cassidy & Bates, 2005; Richert, 1994 (pp.109-118); Rooney, 2015).  This, we contend, is a serious problem for both students and teachers.

In this blog, we share some of our recent thinking about what caring school leadership is and why it is important. We draw on empirical and theoretical literatures from education and from disciplines outside education, particularly research on human service occupations such as health care, social services, and the ministry. And we present a model of caring school leadership. Our ideas were developed with principals in mind, but they apply to any educator engaged in school leadership work. We focus on students as the primary beneficiaries of caring. It should be noted that, as we argue for the importance of caring in schools, we do not mean to diminish the importance of academic achievement nor the need to care for staff and the community. We consider managing mutually-reinforcing combinations of caring support and academic press a central function of school leadership.

Most people would agree that caring and caring leadership are important in schools.  However, we don’t really know if caring, in fact, takes place. If we are to develop and encourage caring school leadership we would first have to consider what it is and how if functions so that that we can begin to think about how to promote it. This is the focus of our essay.

What is Caring? 

There is a solid consensus: Caring is a central quality of human relationships. Caring goes beyond a particular behavior or action provided on behalf of others. Caring also goes beyond feelings of concern and sentiment about others. It refers to the matter, manner, and motivation of personal and professional actions and interactions (Benner, 1994 (pp. 42-62) Lawrence & Maitlis, 2012; Noddings, 2005). Caring is directed toward particular purposes, namely to promote the functioning, success, and general well-being of others. It aims to help others grow and develop in their own right. Caring is anchored on particular positive virtues, such as compassion, empathy, kindness, fairness and justice, and respect. It is guided by a mindset of attentiveness to others and motivation to act on their behalf. Caring also requires competence in action and interaction if the needs, concerns, and joys of others are to be understood and constructively addressed. Caring is not confined to any particular domain of activity, nor is it defined or constrained by any particular set of behaviors. It is a general quality of human relationships and can characterize most human actions and interactions.

In schools, caring and the support it engenders are associated with many positive outcomes for students. Caring can contribute to a sense of being known and to feelings of belonging and relational trust, among other aspects of social integration (Crosnoe, 2011; Scanlan & Lopez, 2012; Wallace & Chhuon, 2014). It can promote inclusion, commitment, and positive psychological states, such as self-concept, esteem, and efficacy, as well as motivation, persistence, and resilience (Howard, 2001; Lewis et al., 2012).  In addition, caring can bring services and provisions to students that can help address their needs and concerns and help them achieve their objectives (Silins & Mulford, 2010). Caring can encourage engagement in school and can promote student learning and well-being (Balfanz et al., 2007; Demaray & Malecki, 2002; Ma, 2003). Importantly, the experience of caring can also promote additional caring (Noddings, 2013; Wuthnow, 1995).

Why Care About Caring in Schools?

There are four general reasons why caring is so important. First, caring is a worthy human endeavor for everyone, particularly important in human service enterprises and political and social institutions that affect the lives of society’s most vulnerable members (Abbott & Meerabeau, 1998 (pp. 1-19); Tronto, 1993).  Second, as noted above, there is substantial empirical evidence that the social and academic support that may arise from caring is good for students and their success (Murphy, in press; Murphy & Torres, 2014).  Moreover, caring support in schools seems particularly powerful for students placed at risk (Lewis et al., 2012; Wallace & Chhuon, 2014). Third, caring is important because social and academic support for students is highly variable in schools today (Lee & Smith 1999; Consortium on Chicago School Research, 2012). Fourth, to some observers, we are experiencing a long-term crisis of caring (Rauner, 2000; Putnam, 2015).

Indeed, indicators of such a crisis are evident in education today.  Most recent education policy directs educators to focus on academic press, accountability, and the technology of “best practices.” Educators regularly tell us that pushing and pulling students to success via curricular and instructional specification, high stakes testing, and educator evaluation come increasingly at the cost of their relationships with students and colleagues. The growing emphases on data, dashboards, and metrics, even as they may disaggregate information by groups, favor collective characterizations, depersonalization, and objectification that can pull educators even further away from meaningful personal relationships with students (Rooney, 2015). Also, we tend to assume that caring occurs in schools because caring for children is part of what schools are supposed to do; yet the educators with whom we speak tell us that their schools have few systematic ways to bring caring to life and gather little evidence to show that students are well cared for.

Caring School Leadership

We define caring school leadership as leadership that itself is caring (as described above), that cultivates caring communities in schools, and that develops contexts of caring beyond the school. These elements form the three main components of a model of caring leadership, shown in Figure 1. We now take a closer look at the main components of the model drawn from the education and non-education disciplinary and occupational literatures.

  1. Leader caring. Caring can be a defining characteristic of all aspects of leaders’ work, including the relational side of school leadership, developing a school’s mission, vision, and core values, promoting expectations for teaching and student learning, instructional leadership, providing services and allocating resources, giving support and promoting accountability, administering discipline, and engaging with families and community. What makes leadership caring is the matter, manner, and motivation of its practice. 
  2. Cultivating caring communities in schools. We know that school leaders play an important part in developing positive school environments, including caring. The cultivation of caring communities in schools includes three aspects: (a) developing the capacity for caring among others; (b) developing the social relationships that students have with adults and peers in school; and (c) developing organizational conditions conducive to caring. Aspects of organization that may be prime targets for the development and practice of caring include structures that create formal and informal opportunities in schools for students, teachers, and principals to interact, to learn about and understand each other, and to engage in caring action and interaction. Indeed, creating opportunities for such interaction is key to cultivating caring. 
  3. Developing caring environments beyond school.  Caring school leadership is also concerned with developing webs of caring relationships outside of school and shaping the influence of policy and institutional environments that affect caring in school and create well being for those outside the school. An important aspect of school leaders’ work is nurturing relationships with families and other sources of support within the community for the school and for students.  School leaders’ work with families and community organizations may contribute to caring in several ways. It might tap important sources of understanding about students, their conditions, and their needs and concerns that could inform caring inside the school. School leaders may be able to couple in-school caring with out-of-school sources of caring to strengthen the overall network of caring that students experience. Finally, school leaders may develop partnerships of family education to strengthen caring in the home.  

Shaping the influence of external policy and institutional environments brings school leaders into interaction with wide-ranging influences on caring in schools, from the school district central office to the broader social, cultural, and political environments in which students live and in which schools operate. Individual school leaders may lack capacity to influence these broader environments in meaningful ways, yet they are importantly boundary spanners.  They manage the boundaries of their schools to “bridge” to sources of support, as we discussed above with regard to out-of-school webs of caring relationships. They “buffer” their schools to manage negative influences. In addition, school leaders are capable of engaging in advocacy work beyond their schools on behalf of their students, families, and communities. They need not be silent about the social, political, and economic conditions that affect schooling and the learning and development of children and youth. Such advocacy and engagement can be considered acts of caring.

Developing Caring School Leadership

School leaders can do much on their own to develop their capacity for the caring work we have described. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to place the responsibility for developing caring in schools and caring school leadership solely on the school leader. This responsibility belongs to many. If caring is to be made a priority in schools, it must be a priority of the profession itself. Caring must occupy a central position in the norms and expectations for the profession’s work, and must be reflected in the standards, policies, and procedures for school leader preparation, certification, ongoing professional development and evaluation. Without the support of institutional actors (e.g., professional associations and organizations that regulate the profession) developing caring school leadership will likely be difficult, particularly in this time of academic pressures and high stakes accountability when opportunities for meaningful relationships in schools are so important. And students will be less likely to reap caring’s benefits.


I find it particularly sad that anyone felt they had to research the importance of caring leadership.


Yes the focus is so much on academics even when research backs up that caring an empathy are related positively and significantly to academic success.I appreciated this blog very much. I have laid out what a caring school would look like in my book "Developing caring relationships among parents, children, schools and communities. Sage 2008. Also want to note that my colleague Dr. Harriet Heath has an awesome curriculum for K-12 called Learning how to care; Education for parenting.