Crabs in a bucket

What do crabs in a bucket have in common with Leadership? More than you would think writes Karen Hope in this blog—which first featured on the ECA Leadership Program. Leadership is a constantly evolving concept and what fits in the corporate world isn’t always how it works in early childhood educational settings. Read on for more of Karen Hope’s ideas on leadership.

I often spend time talking about workplace culture and behaviour with early childhood educators. These types of conversations generally open up the floodgates to an avalanche of stories, anecdotes and narratives about a culture of bullying and harassment that exists in some early learning services today. This type of workplace culture makes it hard enough for you to turn up every day let alone influence neural pathway development in young children.

One of the questions that I ask educators is: ‘Do you know why you do not need to put a lid on a bucket of crabs if you go crabbing’?


This is the best explanation I have read:

‘Anyone who has ever gone crabbing knows that it is unnecessary to put a lid on a crab bucket because as soon as one crab tries to scuttle out, the others drag it back down. Some places function in the same way, actively resisting the efforts of any member to press beyond normal practice’ (Krovetz & Arriaza, 2006, p 39)

I suspect a lot of workplaces function in this way and early childhood education and care services are no different.

I know, right? The irony. A profession that is historically built on care, and often places the welfare and needs of others ahead their own, can sometimes behave so badly to those who work within it.

What does bullying and harassment look like in these environments?

I suspect much the same as anywhere else. Some of the features might include but are not limited to:

  • Thinly veiled insults.
  • Talking about you behind your back or stopping talking when you walk in.
  • Overhearing negative conversations about yourself or other colleagues.
  • Eye rolling.
  • Ignoring. Not answering emails. Not responding to questions.
  • Resistance to new ideas and change.
  • (adapted from Rodd, 2013, p 117)

You can probably think of more than these.

Maybe it is happening to you?

Maybe you are doing it to others?

Bullying can and does have a devastating effect on people and the trickle down effect on physical and mental wellbeing can be profound. It can make you question your choice of profession and the skills you bring to it. It makes you doubt yourself.

Recently I have been reading and thinking a lot about ‘horizontal violence’ in the workplace.  This idea has come out of research from the Nursing profession however there is much to suggest that it is alive and well within the early childhood sector—which, interesting to note, is another female-dominated profession, (Rodd, 2013, p116).

It can be defined like this. Peers and co-workers rather than the ‘boss’ might perpetrate this type of bullying. It is often psychological rather than physical. These people might have the same job role as you and similar or the same qualifications and skills sets as you. They are horizontal.

It can also be defined as some people thinking they are better than other people.

While these types of behaviours might generally occur in work places in which there are poor models of leadership and ingrained maladaptive practices, where respect, trust and inclusivity are not valued, at some point people need to be held accountable for their own actions and decisions. We cannot always blame poor leadership models for our own bad behaviour.

What toll does bullying, harassment and meanness have on the workplace?

I would say mostly on creativity. It comes with the loss of a vibrant, dynamic and changing workplace. One that is always ready to revisit and reconsider traditional ways of doing and thinking. Just because we have always done it that way does not mean we have to keep doing it that way.

Incapacity to consider new developments in early childhood education and a reliance on theories, ideas or ways of doing things to maintain the status quo actually flies in the face of our early childhood code of ethics, which includes the principle:

‘Effective learning and teaching is characterised by professional decisions that draw on specialized knowledge and multiple perspectives’ (Early Childhood Australia—Code of Ethics, 2017)

What to do about it though? It’s hard. Do you do something or do you do nothing? I think there is an element of flight/fight here and only you know which is the best approach for you.

Stay well and stay safe.


Krovetz, M., & Arriaza, G. (2006). Collaborative teacher leadership: How teachers can foster equitable schools. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Corwin Press.

Rodd, J. (2013). Leadership in Early Childhood. Allen & Unwin.


Karen Hope

Karen is an early childhood consultant, lecturer and freelance writer who has extensive experience in a broad range of services within the early childhood care and education context. Her consultancy practice and teaching aims to provide teachers and educators with a disruptive approach to working with, and thinking about, children. Challenging taken for granted practices and dominant discourses is a feature of her work.

3 thoughts on “Crabs in a bucket”

    Jessica Horne-Kennedy says:

    Thank you Karen for bringing these ideas into focus using such a fantastic analogy of ‘crabs in a bucket’. After reading this blog post I reflect and ask the question: How do we invest in a culture of care and respect for each other and in doing so create the emotional climate that allows us to be powerful ’emotionally intelligent’ role models for children?
    I look forward to more professional dialogue about this topic at the ECA National Conference later this year.

    Thanks Jessica – there are some great keynotes and workshops on this theme at the ECA National Conference in Sydney 19-22 September. Looking forward to seeing you there!

    Karen Hope says:

    Jessica,thank you for the feedback about this piece of writing. I have been amazed at the number of emails I have received from people telling me about their work place experiences. I like your idea of ’emotionally intelligent’ role models.

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