Did you know that there’s a student leadership program boom in primary schools?

It’s so smart student leadership incorporates many positive factors that schools work so hard to produce. Factors such as

  • student agency,
  • student voice,
  • a positive and safe school culture,
  • character development and
  • respectful behaviour

All these are covered under the student leadership umbrella.

But not all leadership programs are equal.

I still see in my travels around schools that some students are elected leaders with little preparation for leadership and what that entails.

Some schools I visit bring in outside speakers at the start of the school year to give their senior students an entertaining pep-talk.  Either that, or they attend a conference, to receive a leadership rev-up.

Fun? Yes.

Easy to teachers? Yes.

Effective in the long-term? No.

Hopefully, this is the main stay of student leadership development in your school.

You can develop leadership in students in many ways, but the following eight strategies are stand outs for schools that want to develop a deep culture of student leadership and provide a student leadership program that rocks.

Creating a positive culture is by far, is the long, short cut to real student leadership success. It’s the best way to save teacher time and energy.


1. Start leadership young.

If we leave it to secondary schools to develop kids’ leadership potential, then we’re way too late. That barn door is shut for most kids when they reach the teen years.

The optimum developmental stage for leadership development is in late childhood, when kids are trying to answer two fundamental questions:

  1. “What can I do? (What am I capable of?”)
  2. “How do I fit into the different groups around me-my family, school, peer groups, community?”

The first question focuses on personal competency and capability. The second question focuses on voice and agency (how a student can impact others). Both are important leadership questions.

The early primary school years offer the opportunity to nurture leadership capabilities such as communication, character, and organisational skills.

But developmentally, upper primary school age is the ideal stage to go deep into student leadership in more intentional and formal ways.


2. Use a reputable leadership framework.

Ever scratched your head, thinking there’s got to be a better way to……(teach kids, run an education department, organise a holiday) but don’t know where to start?

If so, you’ve probably lacked a framework to work within.

A framework provides direction, stops you wasting valuable time and resources. It also removes anxiety.

Student leadership is best developed using a reputable framework that you can wrap your leadership lessons and activities around.

This saves time and ensures that everyone in a school or department is on the same leadership page.


3. Develop the language of leadership.

Big ideas are communicated through language.

Yes, the words you choose, use and re use with students make a huge difference to how they see themselves.

It’s imperative to incorporate the language of leadership into your interactions with kids if you want to them to understand the many nuances of leadership.

For instance, if delegation is a concept you wish to promote use phrases such as- “Share the jobs around”, “Divide the tasks up” and “Leave something for others to do”.

Start with 10 leadership terms that promote core leadership concepts and build from there. My Free Language of Student Leadership Guide will get you started. You can access it here.

4. Use projects for rapid growth.

Explicit teaching is part of student leadership development. Students need to know the basics of leadership- what leadership is; what leaders do and what they don’t do. They also need their leadership capabilities and skills to be identified and developed.

The use of student-lead projects is where the real action happens. It’s where skills are developed, teamwork is practised, and problems are solved.

Projects should be varied to cater for different interests and strengths. They can be short-term or long-term. They can be related to existing curriculum or involving service, entrepreneurship, and other real-life skills.

Start by asking students to nominate projects they’d like to be involved in. Let them develop organically and see where they lead.


5. Create leadership traditions.

One of the biggest disappointments students expressed about the COVID lockdown years was that they missed many highly anticipated events such as playing sport, celebrations, and other traditions only available to students in the senior years.

Traditions are important in school. They indicate certainty, create traction, and help form culture.

Student leadership has its own traditions. The elections. The speeches. The celebrations. The induction program. The mentoring. The regular support meetings. The projects or leadership tasks undertaken by student leaders.

Established traditions are a sign of program maturity.

You feel confident enough in the program that you can say we do this, this, and this at these times.

It’s smart to document your traditions to ensure that they are protected rather than rejected without due diligence. Then make sure your key traditions form part of your regular student leadership program.


6. Be charter smart.

The very best leaders are emotionally intelligent. Not only can they ‘read a room’ but they have a handle on their own emotions too. Emotional regulation is their strong point.

They can stay calm in a crisis and not allow anger to get the better of them at the drop of a hat. That takes some doing, I know.

My time spent at the Yale Centre for Emotional Intelligence and in schools in the Manhattan area of New York showed me that emotional intelligence can be developed from an early age.

The best way to develop emotional regulation in primary schools is using an Emotional Intelligence Class Charter.

The Charter supplements class rules and in many cases makes the notion of class rules redundant.  It breathes life into emotional intelligence helping kids build awareness of their own emotional drivers and the feelings that others display.

Emotional Intelligence forms part of the Young Leaders Program Framework and the Emotional Intelligence Charter is a key part of the Young Leaders Program.


7. Create 360° mentoring.

Mentoring is the fast track to leadership excellence.  Look for opportunities for prospective leaders to be mentored prior to being a leader as well as during their leadership tenure.

One mentor can make a world of difference. The mentor can be an adult, secondary school student or another primary school student leader.

Towards the end of the tenure provide opportunities for them to mentor the next group of prospective leaders.

(NB: The Young Leaders Program includes a mentoring section that teaches the skills of mentoring to students. Learn more here.)


8. Close the loop.

A loop is strong, powerful, and durable.

Tie a loop in rope and you’ve created something different.

The same features are found when you close the student leadership loop each year.

Close the leadership loop in your school by making sure a student’s year of leadership finishes with a hand over to next year’s leader, a reflection about their legacy and a recognition of their achievements as leader.

Put processes in place that reflect the same energy at the end of the student’s leadership term as is evident at the start of their term.

And finally

Not all leadership programs are the same. Some are far more effective than others, particularly from a long-term viewpoint.

The best programs are in-school and:

  1. Develop leadership early by maximising the primary school years.
  2. Use a leadership framework for sustained and school-wide excellence.
  3. Develop proprietary language to build an understanding of leadership.
  4. Use projects for real-life leadership experience.
  5. Create traditions as the cornerstone of a safe, positive school leadership culture.
  6. Incorporate tools to build student emotional intelligence.
  7. Use mentoring to fast-track student leadership development and maximise support.
  8. Make leadership memorable by closing the leadership loop.

Want more great leadership ideas?

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