Let Students Lead the Way

10 proven strategies for educators to encourage kids of all ages to practice their leadership skills.

Topics: Student Engagement

It’s a rainy morning at Mannsdale Upper Elementary School (MUES) in Madison, Mississippi, and the “umbrella brigade” is out in full force, providing cover from the storm while escorting students from cars to the school’s front doors. If the sun had been out, you’d see the same group walking the school grounds alongside principal Debra Houghton, picking up trash as they go.

This is the Leadership Academy, a group of MUES’ fifth-grade students dedicated to serving as leaders in their school community. Houghton believes leadership development should start early. “It’s important for students to see they make a difference, even as little kids,” she says. “If we wait until junior high or high school, sometimes we miss out on that.”

All children are potential leaders. Research shows that leadership skills can be learned and recommends developing such skills at a young age. The Social Change model of leadership development defines leadership as a collaborative process, and leaders as not just those who hold formal leadership positions, but those who are able to effect positive change under a common vision.

It is the responsibility of adults to provide opportunities to enhance the development of leadership qualities in all children. There are experiences in every classroom, every school, and every community for educators to build the competencies needed for students to lead.

In the Classroom

1. Class managers. As a second-grade teacher, I began each year brainstorming classroom jobs with my students. What jobs did they think were important for the daily management of our class? Why were these jobs necessary, and what would be the responsibilities? I wanted my students to take ownership in their learning, be vested in their classrooms, and feel that their ideas and opinions would be heard.

With minimal scaffolding, they generated lists that included everything from line leader to attendance-taker to table-washer. We created job descriptions for each position and changed their titles to hallway manager, office manager, cafeteria manager, and so on to reflect the level of responsibility that came with each position. If a need arose during the year, we added new positions.

Jobs rotated weekly. Each student had a chance to try each position in the first half of the school year and apply for self-selected jobs in the second half. This shared leadership model set the tone that all students had a voice and had responsibilities in our learning community.

2. Class greeters. Co-author Adam Dovico outlines the concept of class greeters in the book When Kids Lead. Visitors—staff members, volunteers, community members—are frequent in classrooms. The class greeter is responsible for discreetly welcoming each guest, allowing the teacher to continue instruction without interruption. Greeters are trained in tools of leadership, such as offering a firm handshake, maintaining eye contact, asking questions, and informing the visitor of the current learning objectives.

Training is important for the greeter and the other students, who are expected to remain engaged in learning. Dovico recommends that training be done when explaining other classroom jobs, with subsequent minilessons to introduce new skills. Dovico’s school installed class greeters in every classroom, then expanded the program to include schoolwide building ambassadors to take greeting to another level.

3. Class meeting leaders. Class meetings have become a longstanding approach to creating a classroom community while developing students’ social and emotional skills. Most often used for connecting, planning, and problem-solving, class meetings can be a valuable opportunity to develop leadership skills when they are student-led.

In her book, Class Meetings: Building Leadership, Problem-Solving, and Decision-Making Skills in the Respectful Classroom, teacher Donna Styles includes student discussion leaders as key components of class meetings’ effectiveness. Styles recommends that teachers “trust the ability of your students to lead meetings, participate in discussions, choose solutions, and make decisions that will affect the classroom.”

In her view, class meetings can play a critical role in the development of students’ emotional, social, moral, and intellectual development. Styles also suggests that student-led class meetings can promote personal growth, organizational and public-speaking skills, problem-​
solving skills, interpersonal skills, and leadership skills.

More targeted SEL programming is most effective when a diverse range of stakeholders is involved in program selection. Rather than using a top-down approach, allow students to review options for SEL programming and offer feedback. They may also participate in activities that serve to improve classrooms, shape instructional practices, and improve school climate.

In the School

4. Student-led media. With today’s abundant media platforms, there are countless opportunities for students to get involved. Students at Washington School in Kingsport, Tennessee, research topics of interest, write scripts, broadcast, and anchor the WSIC (Washington School Is Cool) morning news while learning technical skills, teamwork, cooperation, communication, and other skills.

“We have been pleasantly surprised that some of our students who don’t always feel comfortable being in the spotlight academically have truly grown through the opportunity to lead and find their voices through this programming,” says principal Heather Wolf. “Putting yourself out there—even digitally—takes courage, and we believe [this] has helped our students step out of their comfort zones to find a passion that otherwise might go unrecognized.”

Social media provides additional channels for student involvement. In When Kids Lead, co-author Todd Nesloney describes the power of employing his students as social media interns, charged with creating content each day. Knowing how much access kids have to technology, Nesloney felt social media could be a useful tool to build student leadership. “The more we can help kids see the power of social media for good, the more likely they will become leaders who use it to instigate change and make a positive impact,” he writes.

5. Building ambassadors. Many schools have implemented student ambassador programs to guide school visitors, support new students, and lead special events in their buildings. In developing the skills needed as ambassadors, such as public speaking, presenting information, managing time, receiving feedback, and building confidence, students can grow socially, emotionally, academically, and as leaders. These programs can be designed to fit the needs of a school.

Adam Couturier describes a unique literacy ambassador program in his Scholastic blog post, “Literacy Ambassadors: Building a Student-​Centered Culture of Reading.” Couturier found that his school’s culture of reading flourished when students were empowered to share their love for reading. Students drive discussions, make recommendations, and serve as role models in sincere, passionate, and authentic ways adults can’t. The ambassadors grow as readers, increase fluency, and develop confidence and public speaking skills, while seeing firsthand how their opinions, ideas, and passions impact others.

6. Leadership Academy. MUES’ Leadership Academy came about organically. Administrators saw a need to promote student engagement and positive behaviors and used the character education and social-​emotional learning curriculum in place as its foundation. A long list of students wanted to get involved, and administrators used that as motivation.

Applicants must maintain a certain grade average, submit letters of recommendation, and write an essay on leadership, and they must not have major behavioral referrals. The Leadership Academy maintains a highly visible presence at MUES, assisting students and staff alike, and members enjoy the freedom to seek out ways to serve their school. Principal Houghton sees the Leadership Academy as an opportunity for students to put the character traits they have been taught into action effectively.

7. Peer mentors. Peer-to-peer youth mentorships can be designed to support academic, social, and emotional goals, and they can produce positive outcomes for mentees and mentors alike. While the benefits bridge these categories, experts emphasize that the primary objective should be a relationship between mentor and mentee.

In “Building Effective Peer Mentoring Programs in Schools: An Introductory Guide,” the National Mentoring Resource Center (NMRC) reminds us that “cross-age peer mentoring programs are most successful when they take a developmental, rather than an instructive or prescriptive, approach.”

Mentor programs must be strategically planned and well managed to have the double impact schools can hope to achieve. Mentor screening, participant training, engaging activities, and ongoing match supervision are critical, NMRC says. When properly implemented, a peer-to-peer mentor program can help students develop qualities that make strong leaders, such as assertiveness and decision-making, teamwork, public speaking, and conflict management.

8. Student council. Nationwide declines in civics proficiency have made headlines recently, and organizations such as iCivics are calling for greater investment in civics education. If your school does not yet have a student council, this might be an ideal time to start one.

Elementary student councils are authentic opportunities for civic engagement and often our students’ first exposure to democracy in action. Young citizens can experience a governing body, participate in elections, take an active role in planning school activities, and learn the importance of community action.

Student councils also provide valuable experiences for leadership development. Students learn to use their voices effectively, recognize other perspectives, and collaborate to solve challenges. Student councils help students learn to serve, motivate others, inspire trust, and take on or give up responsibilities. The American Student Council Association can provide valuable resources to start a new council or elevate your council to the next level.

In the Community

9. Youth advisory councils. These councils can provide leadership opportunities for students in many capacities. School districts, local governments, and nonprofits can amplify youth voice and community engagement through councils that can be mutually beneficial for students and organizations alike.

University of Michigan Health’s Adolescent Health Initiative and its Youth Advisory Coalition of Youth Advisory Councils recommend that a successful council be led by youth; have consistent, structured meetings; participate in community-building activities; offer a safe space for youth; and plan, implement, and reflect on meaningful projects. Their brief, “Creating and Sustaining a Thriving Youth Advisory Council,” lays out key steps in developing youth councils, as well as barriers to effectiveness. When implemented appropriately, youth advisory councils can be valuable platforms for students to grow as leaders.

10. Extracurricular activities. Sports, in-school and out-of-school clubs, and community service play critical roles in development. Research shows these activities can help students identify their strengths, grow as individuals, and see leadership as a positive experience.

Extracurricular activities can provide the ideal format to build the social processes involved in leadership. The adults involved should be effectively trained to guide students toward leadership, whether it be with the school orchestra, art club, swim team, or Scouting.

All children have the potential to be leaders, but the skills needed come from targeted training and ample experiences. “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself,” Jack Welch, former chair and CEO of General Electric, once said. Educators have a responsibility to plant the seeds of leadership and watch their students grow.

Susan Doherty is coordinator of member awards and student programs for NAESP.