Differentiating Student Leadership

By: Jeffrey Rothstein


Many of us have unwaveringly embraced the philosophy of differentiation. We differentiate instruction according to student readiness, interest, and preference. But what about the other parts of a young adolescent’s school experiences—the programs outside the classroom?

Topping the list of programs that continue to follow traditional models are middle school leadership programs. If we walk into the majority of independent middle schools in this country, we likely will find student government structures whereby each class votes students into office. These cabinets hold meetings with members to plan dances, fundraisers, and other events.

Certainly, the officers are getting a good taste of civic process and some basic leadership experience, but by differentiating student leadership programs, we can provide civic and leadership opportunities for more of our students.

We implemented a steering committee program at our PreK–8 school, so more students can get involved in community leadership initiatives based on projects that are interesting to them.

First, we encourage all students to share ideas for projects that are both fun and beneficial. After we determine that the projects fit with our school’s mission, we ask for volunteers from the grade level from which the idea evolved to form a steering committee. With the help of an adult project sponsor, this committee steers the project.

Within the steering committee, students choose their roles based on their strengths and interests. The experiences are meaningful because the projects are student-generated, student-led, and student-executed. Further, participation is voluntary, so students choose projects about which they are passionate and for which they have a particular acumen. As a result, students are able to lead in areas of choice and skill.

For example, nine sixth graders are working with the Red Cross and a local hospital on a blood drive. The students created subcommittees for digital media communication/advertising, in-house advertising, day-of logistics and communication with the Red Cross, and schedules/appointments. The subgroups work collaboratively to reach their goals.

By differentiating beyond the curriculum, all students have the opportunity to create and cultivate, lead and serve, and choose and execute in a community-minded way. We are developing creative, process-oriented, collaborative, and benevolent leaders.


Jeffrey Rothstein is director of grades 6–8 at Cliff Valley School in Atlanta, Georgia. Email: jrothstein@cliffvalleyschool.org. You can follow him at http://jeffreyrothstein.wordpress.com/
Copyright © 2013 Association for Middle Level Education

2 Comments
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2 comments on article "Differentiating Student Leadership"

The idea to provide differentiated leadership opportunities that extend beyond student government beginning at the middle school level (instead of waiting until high school or college) is a fantastic idea because not only does it allow students to begin cultivating skills that will make them good leaders, it gives them confidence from a young age to pursue matters that interest them and can benefit the community. Putting emphasis on something that is both fun and beneficial allows the students to have intrinsic motivation, which is another good characteristic to encourage from a young age. As someone who was always too shy to become involved in student government, I think having differentiated leadership opportunities is a great way to involve all students and develop critical leadership skills.

—Dana
9/28/2014 7:12 PM

Differentiating leadership roles outside the classroom is important; it is something that isn't the first thing I think about when it comes to differentiation. Like you mentioned though, doing it not just in the classroom, but outside of it as well is just as crucial for students to be a part of. When students are connected to their communities, they tend to learn more and understand that they can make a difference. I agree with what you are doing and I think it should be implemented at more schools.

—Kayla
9/29/2014 12:52 AM

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