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Written by: Rashaad Young and Crystal Williams, Ed.M.

All students, including those who are young or have disabilities, can engage in leadership activities, beginning in early childhood. Qualities such as determination, passion, and accountability may not come easily to all children. Therefore, it is necessary for teachers to intentionally plan for leadership opportunities, label students’ leadership strengths, and scaffold each child’s leadership ability.  When planning leadership opportunities, teachers can identify multiple roles that allow children to exhibit leadership skills. For example, in group projects, several leadership roles can be emphasized such as facilitator, notetaker, reporter, and timekeeper. To label leadership skills, teachers can point out what leadership qualities students are exhibiting, such as an early childhood teacher saying, “Geoff, you came right away to line up when I blew the whistle so we can go inside for story time. That is being a good leader.” Finally, to scaffold leadership skills, teachers need to build off students’ strengths and interests, such as using books to teach about leadership for students who love to read or inviting students with a lot of energy to act out skits that demonstrate their leadership skills.

Teaching students how to provide peer support and encouraging them to do so is another way to foster leadership skills. When students need support to do something, they typically seek out an adult for assistance. However, there may only be one adult in a classroom or a high child to adult ratio, making it necessary for students to seek out the support of other students (e.g., to help with tying shoes, opening a container, finding a pencil, reading directions). When students view their peers as “experts” on certain topics or skills (e.g., technology, sounding out words), this can develop leadership qualities and build community.

Teachers also can help students develop leadership skills by providing them with opportunities to engage in shared decision-making. Classroom rules and the arrangement of the classroom (e.g., where/how students sit, what is displayed on the walls, what sign to use to signal “quiet down”) should have both teacher and student input. Teachers can facilitate discussions about the classroom rules and arrangement, ask students to vote on their favorite ideas, and/or let each student make one contribution to the rules and arrangement of the classroom. This shared input demonstrates to children that their opinion matters even if their individual suggestion or idea is not implemented. When students participate in shared decision-making, they feel a sense of pride and become more engaged in their community.

You can find links to helpful tip sheets and resources in this document.

Content based on this article:

Dorsey, E., Danner, N., Ostrosky, M. M., & Lewis, A. (accepted). Learning, practicing, and exhibiting leadership: Helping young children develop as classroom leaders. Young Children.

Image Credit:, CCO