Student Leadership Programs – 12 Tips You Might Find Useful

We believe that all of our students should have the opportunities to be leaders. Labelling a few as school leaders takes away the potential for others. I have been involved in upper primary school leadership programs for the last 5 years now and every year feels different. I view our leadership program as a constant work in progress. It’s important for our team to try new ideas and structures to see what works and what can be done better. Our school also has a Junior School Council Program involving class representatives across the school.

Our grade 6 leadership program works for our school. We have close to 100 grade 6 students involved- a large number. Our structure is that we have 10 leadership teams each with around 10-12 students. Each team has 2 captains that are selected based on an application made by students. Students meet in their leadership teams during class time once a week for 1 hour. I would like to share some tips below on setting up an effective, inclusive, student centred leadership program:

1. Make it fun and engaging and a program your students will want to take part in. As mentioned, we have 10 team leadership teams. They are digital learning, media, sport, student life, health and wellbeing, science and environment, green, arts, action and awareness and house teams. By creating teams that have a focus area, students are able to submit their preferences for the teams they most want to be in. This means they are engaged in their team projects and have something to offer the team.

2. Make your selection process clear to the students and parents. Depending on your school, leadership programs and positions can be a big deal. Many parents are keen for their child to have a position as it is good experience for high school, especially when applying for scholarships. Our school does have captains. I know some don’t. That’s a school choice. We are constantly telling our students that because they are in a leadership team, they are leaders. The captaincy positions are to help with organisation and facilitation as well as to allow some students to excel. Regardless of your structure, communicate the process to everyone involved well in advance. Keep it as transparent as possible. You will have parents and students want to know why their students weren’t chosen for a particular team or role. We tell our students the year before in orientation and the parents are informed at information evenings early in February when the year starts. Our selection process is in 4 stages: A written application, a team/hands on challenge, a speech to the cohort and a short interview. We keep scoring rubrics for all students as part of being transparent.

3. Pick your starting times carefully. We start our program in about Week 5 of first term. Some schools have the leaders chosen by the previous year. I don’t necessarily agree with this as it can rule out new students. Also, I think students need to time to settle in a new year, get their bearings, reassess their goals for the year, see what they are interested in etc. This also gives the new teaching team a chance to get to know the students and have some input into the best possible teams for them.

4. Involve specialist teachers and previous teachers in the selection process. If you are a school that has captains, get as much input as your can from people who know the students. Ask the specialist teachers as they often have a good picture of a whole cohort of students and speak with their previous teachers, too.

5. Have a ceremony to announce student teams. We make it a big deal. All students are named at our Grade 6 leadership assembly. And all students are presented with a badge. Minimal fuss is made of the captains- the team are announced first and I think that is really important. We invite the previous leaders from the year before to present the badges and we have a local politician talk about leadership along with the school council president.

6. Allow class time. Any good program won’t just happen. We allow 1 hour per week during class time for the students to meet in their teams. Each of the Grade 6 team (there are 4 of us) are given a few teams to mentor and all the students are mixed up and run meetings. We also have a captains meeting at recess where they report on the team’s progress and projects.

7. Model and teach leadership. Once our teams are chosen, we model leadership skills. We teach the students how to write and use an agenda, techniques on how to make sure all team members get a say, project management skills, how to write proposals and advocate for ideas, creative problem solving strategies etc. Reflection is also important. Students are constantly encouraged to share what challenges their teams are facing and ways they might address these.

8. Encourage teams to work together. We are constantly reminding teams that they need to hone in on each other’s skills. For example, the Sports teams may need the help of the Media team to publicise an event they are putting together. Or, the Digital learning team may be asked to edit and put together a video for the Green team. The possibilities are endless!

9. Projects should be authentic. Aim to keep the projects teams work on real, authentic and meeting the school’s needs. Encourage the students to meet with the principal who will be able to advise the students about events that are on during the year and what commitments the school already has. Students love fundraisers. It’s important not to have too many though. Students often think this is the only way to take action and make a difference. We limit our fundraisers to 4 per year (1 per term) asking for gold coin donations. We are constantly reminding students that making a difference comes in all shapes and sizes- starting conversations, raising awareness, changing minds……….

10. Student voice and choice. This is so important to us for the students to be engaged. They must own the program and direct where it goes with their own ideas and initiatives. Of course they will need guidance but they need to feel the ideas are coming from them.

11. Celebrate Achievements. At graduation in December, every single students makes a speech. Not long ones- that would be a long night with 100 students! But our students do share 3-4 sentences each. They present in their leadership teams and reflect on the team’s success, learnings, and achievements.

12. Allow for mistakes to happen. We’ve all heard the students with the biggest ideas in the world. As teachers perhaps we know they may not work. How do we know that? Probably we tried, and failed. When appropriate, we need to let our students experience this, too. Mistake making is great way to learn and really powerful for students. Ensure adequate time to reflect on the mistakes.

What do you do at your school? What makes an effective student leadership program?

Here are some of our projects:

Fluro Day- Students organised a Fluoro Day where the whole school wore bright colours to stand out, be yourself and be against bullying. They ran recess and lunchtime activites focussing on frienship and standing up for yourself.

Junior Sports- Our sports team are running a junior running club before school weekly. We have a really popular senior running club and many F-2 students want to join so the team are running an onsite version from 8:15-8:40.

Film Festival– Our Media team are organising a Tropfest style film festival. The theme will be PYP attitudes and is designed to be an engaging activity for students to work on over the holidays.

Science & Environment– They have been working on a school energy audit with our science technician.

Green Team– They have organised a school wide composting program and raised awareness in each class.

House Captains– We now have a stronger school house spirit. Normally this is reserved for 1 day- our athletics carnival. But students have worked hard with teachers to make it everyday. Students can receive house points for following school expectations in class and at recess and lunch. Weekly house winners are announced at assembly.

Digital Learning– Making their own digital citizenship videos and presentations to show to the Grade 3 and 4 students.



5 thoughts on “Student Leadership Programs – 12 Tips You Might Find Useful

  1. This is exciting Joel. It should be the norm though. Great to see you pushing this out there. One area I would like to see student leadership appearing is to have an authentic voice in school leadership, particularly in the areas of curriculum and pedagogy. Perhaps teachers presenting their thoughts on:
    1. What should be taught (of course there are requirements that must be met but there is also plenty of room for flexibility too) and
    2. How content could be taught, particularly in relation to how digital technologies can be utilised.

    We need more thinking like you discuss above!


      • Not really Joel. It happens in a patchy way – some schools doing some things, mostly project type activities. How good would it be though if students had a real say at a core level in how their learning was structured? As I said in my first comment, there are constraints, learning goals that must be met. Like you though, I do wonder though, that if those learning goal requirements were laid before students as not negotiable, what they would have to say to teachers as to how those goals might be achieved. I think they would come up with some cracking hot ideas we had never even thought about!


      • I don’t blame you for dreaming. Of course you’re right in saying there are core things that need to happen. Imagine if we invited students to our planning days or even involved them in the strategic plan writing! I think it’s quite telling too often when you ask kids what they want to learn or how they want to learn and they can’t answer. Perhaps tells us they can’t answer because they never get asked. We also need to coach them in how to say what they want.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Dreams are where real change begins. Someone, somewhere, sometime, lay on his or her back and watched a bird soaring and dreamed …

        Liked by 1 person

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