Middle school, with all of the changes that accompany those formative years, sets the stage for emerging leaders to do just that—lead. And a school’s social and emotional climate can in part be measured by the opportunities that exist for students to lead positively and have their voices heard. Many schools have a student government or leadership group, but at times, that becomes a club that primarily coordinates adult-initiated events.
Ideally, student leadership groups prioritize student voice and support the natural energy and creativity that arise when students have an opportunity to be heard and trusted to make a difference. Developmentally, middle school students are finding their voices and exploring their own ideals, and when they’re given an opportunity to advocate and lead positively, their peers will follow, which contributes to a positive school culture and climate.
At my school, a leadership group was created in 2013 with just eight students who were unsure of how to go about building a student leadership group. We held a leadership workshop and allowed space for awkward silences as they learned how to use their voices and share their ideas. We watched the sparks of what would evolve into our Student Leadership Coalition (SLC).
Today, nearly 30 percent of our students participate in the SLC, and it has become a place where everyone belongs and has a voice. We asked our student leaders to share what makes the SLC so impactful at our school, and they summarized five tips for creating a leadership group that makes a difference.
1. Formalize the Recruitment Process and Promote Inclusivity
An SLC member recommended, “Find a group of kids who are passionate about leading. Passion sparks passion, so having those few kids can lead to many more excited future members.” Being a leader is more than just signing up for a club. Make sure that the application process encourages students to highlight their leadership and how their individual strengths can contribute to a collective impact. Asking participants to complete an application and adhere to a deadline also attracts students who are joining the group for the right reasons and is a crucial first step in personal accountability.
In our experience, we learned early on that inclusivity for all applicants sets the expectation that all are welcome. Ideally, ask interested students to create the application, and focus on questions that they feel are important to the group’s purpose.
2. Keep Student Voice as the Top Priority
Another SLC member shared, “My favorite part of being in SLC is that it’s almost entirely student run. Teachers are there for supervision, obviously, but the meetings are run by the officers and students.”
Student leadership groups will likely attract students who want to have a voice, so encourage them to use it by having them develop meeting agendas and plan various events. They’ll also learn a lot through the implementation process. Staff who oversee this group should be prepared to take a back seat and act as a support system rather than direct events.
Also, avoid telling students to carry out plans that staff or administration would like to see happen, and ask students to take the lead on naming their group, communicating with staff, and creating a meeting structure. It’s pretty amazing to see what students can do collectively when given the trust and freedom to lead.
3. Ask Students to Develop Individual and Collective Expectations
“Be an upstander.” “Make things happen.” “Make everyone feel like a star.” “Help people come out of their shells.” “Listen to people—everyone has ideas to share.” “Help others as much as possible.” These are some excerpts of our Code of Conduct. Our SLC group kicks off each year with a leadership summit before school starts, where the students answer the prompt, “What is a leader?” to develop a collective agreement.
Students decided that if members repeatedly violate the code of conduct, they will be asked to take a break from the group, reflect on their personal actions, and how they can be a leader both in and out of SLC activities. Our SLC president shared, “I think we inspire a lot of kids outside our group to be better leaders, and we inspire kids to be better and do better.”
4. Develop Clearly Defined Roles and a Process for Selecting Officers
While membership in SLC is open to all middle school students, SLC members have decided that officer positions should be voted upon by the group. Officers include a president, vice president, treasurer, secretary, and communications manager. Students prepare speeches and run for office, and I’ve witnessed a tremendous amount of positive sportsmanship during the voting process.
The expectation of inclusivity is fulfilled; officers congratulate their opponents and respect the fact that they had the courage to step up and attempt to win a position. Any student who runs for an officer position is considered an alternate and may be called upon to help in the absence of an officer.
5. Have Fun
As another SLC member said, “Finally, have fun! If it’s not fun, students won’t join.” Allow students to plan activities, and avoid asking them to just carry out plans that have been handed to them. Challenge student leaders to create social opportunities that include all students in your school, not just students who belong to the club. Our school is a K–8 building, so the SLC members often participate in mentoring our younger students or create activities that bring everyone together.
Last year, our students planned a “Fun in the Sun” event, in which they led games after school with younger students. This year, our fifth- and sixth-grade SLC members volunteered at the book fair to help the kindergarten students navigate their book choices.
Our group has hosted luncheons for senior citizens, planned themed dances, and implemented fundraising events to benefit nonprofit organizations that the students chose. Fun and participation is the common theme in all of those events. One SLC member stated, “SLC causes our community to come together.”
Student leadership groups that truly reflect and celebrate student voices can positively impact the climate in your school. A group designed and led by student leaders fosters inclusivity and accountability and makes it cool to be kind. Kindness is at the center of what SLC members believe, practice, and model. Leading with kindness has an intangible and powerful impact on a school and community.