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Strategies for Teaching Students Leadership Skills

There has been a flood of research pointing to the advantages of social and emotional learning (SEL) and its benefits for developing the whole child—and even specifically their academic skills and ability to make good choices. But what about its connection to leadership?

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), good SEL skills can be developed in schools and classrooms in a number of ways, including through leadership opportunities. That comes at a time when leaders in education and the business community don’t think we are doing enough to teach kids leadership lessons.

CASEL and other researchers have found that teaching leadership or providing opportunities for students to lead helps them with personal and social skills that are in demand. For instance, Entrepreneur magazine has offered details about the top leadership skills we need to teach children and Forbes magazine discussed top traits of leaders—and both very closely match those skills that groups like CASEL believe are the core competencies for SEL: things like self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

It also relates directly to the wide-ranging Partnership for 21st century learning mission, and its goals for life and career skills, which notes that the business community sees a need for teaching more leadership skills in schools.

So, here are some ways educators can offer leadership opportunities, knowing that they’ll also be a valuable part of SEL.

Put them in charge. Involve students in leadership opportunities in the classroom—from heading the discussion of a lesson to handing out papers. Experts say such opportunities should become part of the classroom procedures each day. It benefits the student with the assignment and peers who must work with a peer leader. Activities involving student leadership in the classroom may help students most when teachers (or, even, in a respectful way, other students) positively assess their handling of the responsibility. So a teacher might congratulate a student on their introduction to a lesson, but suggest they speak slower. Or, they might write a quick note home to tell a parent how a student either followed through on an assigned leadership task successfully—or without prompting took one on.

Show off yours. Talk to students about why you expect certain behavior (but not at that moment when the behavior is not under control) or how you organize your class as its leader. Explain how leadership works in your mind and how you would like to share it because good leaders do. Shared leadership, you can explain, demands responsibility. Look for an example of your leading responsibilities each day and point it out.

Provide some good examples. Regularly mix in discussions about good leadership—whether it’s a more detailed critique of why a famous leader succeeded or a talk about the leadership that their principal must show—or their parents or a coach. Look for examples among their favorites music, movie, or sports stars when they are showing good (or not so good) leadership behavior. Assign a search for one. For example, a story of a sports star getting his team to help a good cause or a musician who can incite a crowd (positively or negatively) with one comment. Talk about the quality of leadership in figures who loom large in your subject area.

Deliver leadership lessons. Explain what leadership is and why it is valuable as a life skill and in careers. Find good short lessons as warm-ups twice a month.

Get them invested in improving school culture. Find ways to get students to change school culture by being leaders. The most common are perhaps stopping bullying, raising environmental awareness, or promoting understanding of students from other cultures, but you can enlist students in small ways in your class to do their part in improving the culture of the school–behaving better and reporting on it in class or inviting a lonely student to join their group at lunch. Reward students who report a school-wide leadership role they took on. Have an announcement every day recognizing a leadership act.

Involve them in extracurricular activities too. Extracurricular activities allow students to lead and can be ignited for that purpose. Include more students in smaller groups, and encourage them to develop leadership in the group and then school generally through a club senate, where rotating members from various clubs serve, separate from the traditional student government. (It often attracts students who already possess these skills.) Individual teachers can start clubs for their specialties—history or math or tech clubs—or even groups related to a personal interest or one’s culture. One English teacher had a drumming club, one on African culture, and one a fly-fishing group. It is key then to give members leadership opportunities to run meetings or plan a project.

Give them space. When students are given leadership opportunities—and especially when they step up and take them on, give them freedom to struggle and even fail, but support them. Experts often note there is no better lesson than failure, but you can help break the fall or encourage the comeback.

Jim Paterson has been a newspaper and magazine editor and an award-winning writer for The Washington Post, USA Today Weekend, the Christian Science Monitor, Parents magazine, and a number of national and regional publications. During a break from writing he worked as a school counselor for seven years and quickly became head of a counseling department and "Counselor of the Year" in Montgomery County, Md. He now writes about education primarily. More about Jim at