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Instructional Practices

How to Teach Leadership Skills to Middle and High School Students

4 Min Read
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Student leaders can feel like they are natural born. However, the truth is that students can benefit from guidance that will help them to develop the skills they need to become great student leaders.

How Can You Develop Leadership Skills in Students?

There are many skills that are helpful when a student wants to become a leader. Some of these skills include being:

  • Goal oriented
  • Honest
  • Hardworking
  • Willing to serve others
  • A good listener
  • A good communicator
  • A good decision-maker
  • Encouraging
  • Positive
  • Responsible

Strategies for Teaching Leadership Skills in the Classroom

One of the best all-encompassing ways of teaching leadership skills is through group projects. You can either assign one leader to each group for the duration of that project (making sure to change leaders for each new project) or assign a different leader for each element of it.

For example, one student could be the research leader, another the report leader, someone else the visual presentation leader, and so on. Each leader would be responsible for guiding the rest of the group in establishing a concrete goal and delegating certain responsibilities. They would need to:

  • Work hard
  • Listen to the others
  • Communicate their desires
  • Make the final decisions
  • Encourage the others in their tasks
  • Maintain a positive attitude; and
  • Take responsibility for the outcome of the project.

They would also need to serve the group in taking care of whatever work was left unfinished and act with honesty and integrity throughout.

Besides group projects, there are other methods of teaching about leadrship. Below is a list of some of the other ways you can teach these skills.

1. Making Goals

At the beginning of the year, you can guide the class in establishing classroom and individual goals. Post common goals somewhere in the classroom, and do periodic check-ins to see how the class is doing in terms of meeting those goals (you can, and should, do these check-ins with personal milestones as well).

2. Honesty

Literature and history are great places to talk about honesty. Select a particularly notable character or historical figures, and explore their life and the decisions they made. Discuss which of this person’s actions were honest and which (if any) weren’t. What were the outcomes of those actions? And more importantly, what we can we learn from that person’s experience as a leader?

3. Hard work and perseverance

Set realistic goals and encourage your students when they get tired or fail. Athletic activities and competitive learning games present great opportunities for practicing the skill of perseverance. Perhaps you could also briefly discuss the disappointment of losing and how you can learn from that experience.

4. Service

The first element of serving is seeing — students need to learn to see problems before they can be of service in solving those problems. You could, for example, discuss problems in the classroom, school, and community and bring these to your students’ attention. Then, you could encourage the class to brainstorm ideas for addressing those issues.

To practice service on a more daily basis, you can also assign classroom jobs or roles to help students gain hands-on experience with serving at least their own classroom “community.”

5. Listening

Listening is not nearly as easy as it sounds. Watch any kind of political debate and you can see the difficulty that adults have with this skill. So why not teach it through structured debates.

For younger kids, have them debate which animal is the best, who is the best superhero, what is the best superpower, etc. From these lighthearted debates, you could gradually work your way up to more serious questions, such as whether it’s better to save your money or to spend it and enjoy the immediate results, or whether you should step in to help someone in trouble or run to get an adult.

6. Communicating

Classroom presentations are a great way to help students gain confidence in speaking to a group of students and sharing their ideas. Alternatively, you can incorporate play in your classroom to teach students these skills.

7. Decision-making

Provide opportunities for the students to have choices and make decisions (but make sure you pre-select and pre-approve any pitches). These choices can include setting classroom rules, deciding on lesson activities, setting free time activities, etc.

Most importantly, be sure to guide your students in evaluating the costs and benefits of each option before they make their decisions.

8. Encouraging

Have your students make a list of the strengths and positive qualities they see in their classmates and provide time for those strengths to be communicated. Have the students list something they aren’t good at (and want to get better at) and discuss (individually or as a small group) how they can improve.

9. Thinking positively

Discuss the power of positive thinking. Demonstrate a positive attitude and a negative attitude — what are the outcomes of each? You can also look at key people in literature and throughout history (eg., Thomas Edison) and discuss the role that positive thinking played in their accomplishments as leaders.

10. Taking responsibility

Model responsibility in your class. When you make a mistake, own up to it. Discuss the personal empowerment of taking responsibility instead of passing the blame onto someone else — it allows you to focus more on what you have control over instead of feeling like a victim who has no control. Find a way to affirm or reward students for taking responsibility for their actions.

Who can be a leader?

To some, leadership seems to come easily and naturally. But this in itself does not make them good leaders. Good, effective leadership is a skill that can be learned, practiced, and improved upon. It is crucial that we provide what training we can to prepare our students for leadership roles — to prepare them to be good, effective leaders that will take others in a positive direction.

Our world needs good, effective leaders. And with guidance our students have the potential to meet that need.

This article was adapted from a blog post initially developed by the education technology company Classcraft, which was acquired by HMH in 2023. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


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