How to Identify Leadership Characteristics in Children
By Karon LeCompte, PH.D – contributing writer
“That child is a natural leader.” That’s something you might have heard, or maybe you’ve even said it. But is it true?
Q: Are there children who are “natural born” leaders?
A: Leadership is a lifelong pursuit. Certainly, one can argue that people are born with characteristics that leverage them towards leadership positions. In reality, student leaders are developing leaders who hone their leadership abilities and influence of others by actively participating in various community projects that enhance the quality of life for groups of people.
What are some characteristics of student leadership?
A: Characteristics of leadership in students are in three broad areas: developmental skills, environmental factors and a commitment to action. Student leaders enter opportunities for developing leadership characteristics at various points in their lives, depending upon the environment and adult mentors.
Q: At what age do these characteristics typically emerge?
A: Leadership involves changes over time depending on your life experiences. Therefore, there is not one definitive age that leadership characteristics appear. Becoming a leader is a developmental process that requires people to create and interpret their life experiences. Educators call this process constructivism. Constructivism implies that youth who develop leadership potential are those who integrate previous knowledge and skills into new ways of understanding the world (and people) around them. The bottom line is that leadership development is individual. It depends on personality, life stage, family dynamics and educational experiences.
Q: When and how do parents and teachers typically first see these characteristics emerge?
A: Child development theories offer solid connections for parents and educators to see the potential for leadership development in students. Research shows that there are three learning skills that translate into skills for developing student leaders – multitasking, coordinating different senses and developing competency.
Q: Explain multitasking as a leadership skill in students.
A: Leaders must simultaneously think about goal attainment and the issue there are trying to solve; they reflect on the people involved. They balance the task that needs to be completed within a timeframe. Student leaders think about the vision of the group while focusing on immediate tasks.
Q: What does it mean to “coordinate different senses,” and what does that look like at various stages?
A: Developing student leaders watch the dynamics of people around them. They have a keen sense of who is positive and who is negative about a given situation. They are also thinking about ways to understand perspectives and find the means to connect positively to everyone in their group.
Q: And competency?
A: Children have good feelings about themselves when they can do something well. Gifted children, in particular, feel elated when they are allowed to continue improving a skill that they do well. Young leaders need to learn to be reflective leaders. They need opportunities to reflect on their leadership style and identify skills that are strong for them and those they can improve, and more importantly, how they will develop their leadership skills.
Q: What are some appropriate beginner roles for student leaders?
A: Perhaps the most suitable beginner role for student leaders is becoming informed about the community around them. Young students can identify the best and worst attributes of their community. Encourage them to think of ways they could improve their community. Inviting young leaders to form groups to improve their community gives them empowerment, which, in turn, helps them realize that they have a voice and potential to lead others.
Researching viable ways to improve their community gives young leaders skills in communication and relationships. They can learn who the adult community leaders are and find ways to make connections with the help of teachers and parents.
Q: In your experience, what are some of the most effective methods for teachers to teach leadership?
A: Leadership is not taught from a book. Although an understanding of leadership theories is a worthwhile endeavor, leadership is developed through experience. In classrooms, teachers can form leadership teams that investigate communities through a process known as “action civics,” which combines learning and practice. Active citizens not only understand how the Constitution and our government work but also their role as informed and active participants.
Q: Are there challenges to identifying students and teaching them leadership skills?
A: Students learn leadership through doing leadership. In this era of standardized testing it is not easy for teachers to find the time or resources for teaching leadership. However, teachers do have many resources, both in the community and within parents, to provide experiences of students to enter leadership development opportunities.
For example, student councils, community fundraisers and parent partnerships provide rich opportunities for students to communicate, plan, advocate and reflect on their leadership development.
Q: What is iEngage?
A: Baylor offers iEngage, which is a summer civics institute directed by myself and my colleague, Brooke Blevins. It offers the opportunity for students in sixth through 10th grades to develop leadership skills in our political and civic arenas. Student leaders can learn to speak up, speak out and advocate for healthy communities. Young student leaders will grow and enhance their leadership personalities. Soon, as college students, opportunities will be open for them to hone their skills and take on greater responsibilities as collegiate leaders.
ABOUT KARON LeCOMPTE, Ph.D.
Karon LeCompte, Ph.D., is an associate professor of curriculum and instruction with an emphasis in social studies education in Baylor University’s School of Education. Her research interests include civics education, technology and teacher preparation. She works with teacher education candidates and Texas teachers on civics education and law-related education and teaches classes in elementary social studies methods. LeCompte serves as co-principal investigator on $162,000 in grant funds for civics education and research. She serves as Faculty-in-Residence for Baylor’s LEAD Living and Learning Community and her teaching interests are in social studies education and leadership theory. She has authored or co-authored over 25 book chapters and articles on topics related to civics education and leadership.