Teaching Today’s Students to Be the Leaders of Tomorrow

A rigorous social and emotional learning program helps students tackle community challenges

As national conversations about immigration, cybersecurity, under-employment, artificial intelligence, and the rapid transformation of our workplace are debated, a daunting question looms: how are we going to prepare the next generation to tackle these critical challenges and incredible opportunities? Ensuring students excel academically is part of the equation, but another important part of that equation is ensuring students are prepared and ready to be the leaders who will address the issues that will face our nation.

When you unpack the skills needed by leaders, they include knowledge of their field or subject area but, as important, most successful leaders are self-aware, effective communicators, problem solvers, collaborative, and able to persevere in the face of obstacles. For the past several years, these skills have taken on greater agency in states, districts, and schools as social and emotional learning (SEL). The debate is not about whether they should be taught but rather where and how.

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), students who participated in evidence-based SEL programs showed an 11 percent gain in academic achievement. These same students stay in school longer, make healthier life choices, and are more likely to be civically engaged.

Leadership training is a powerful instructional strategy to engage students in authentic and experiential activities where they can both learn and apply SEL skills. Most schools already provide student leadership opportunities in co-curricular and extra-curricular organizations that have leadership as part of their charge. Student members serve as officers, participate in individual and team events, and design and implement community outreach projects and other related activities. All of these activities develop problem-solving, team building, communication, and other SEL skills. Other similar leadership opportunities are available through summer camps and community outreach programs offered by organizations such as Boys and Girls Clubs of America, 4-H Clubs, Boy Scouts, and Girl Scouts.

Core beliefs of these organizations are that all members are potential leaders and that authentic experiences and opportunities can help them discover the essential skills needed to succeed in this capacity. The challenge is that there is little consistency across these efforts in terms of quality or depth of instruction. The result is that students only have access to leadership development if they are in the right school, club, or community organization.

At the same time, states, districts, and schools are identifying strategies to accelerate their efforts to embed SEL skills across programs to improve student success. Eight states have SEL competencies as part of their state standards and 16 more states include SEL in their state guidelines. The Chicago school district has a separate SEL office to provide resources and supports to its educators.

The New York City Student Success Network is partnering with more than 50 schools and community organizations to collect data to measure the impact of SEL competencies on student outcomes. However, it takes a vision and a commitment to engage and bring together all stakeholders in and out of school to develop a clearly articulated framework for SEL implementation. Many schools still view academics and SEL as two separate tracks. While educators will state that they do, in fact, include SEL within their programs, its implementation is fragmented and not clearly defined.

Over the past year, I have had the opportunity to work with the Lead4Change Student Leadership Program, a youth leadership program for middle and high school students. Students complete activities designed to help them learn about team building, problem-solving, and planning, and through the lessons, complete a service project. The free, turnkey curriculum is designed for educators in middle and high school and has been used by more than 1.5 million students since 2012. Currently, more than 8,500 are members of the Lead4Change community. The lessons empower students to lead, create, and implement team projects designed to meet a need in their school or local community.

Lead4Change student participants benefit from the ability to focus their leadership projects on an issue that impacts them on a personal level. After the mass shooting in Parkland, FL, students at Miami’s Design and Architecture Senior High (DASH) spearheaded an initiative to address mental health in their community. Students created signs with mental health hotlines that were posted in each bathroom stall in the Miami-Dade County Public School District. Through the ingenuity and sheer persistence that DASH students demonstrated, they were able to take tangible steps towards addressing mental health issues, with more than 44,400 of these signs posted within the district.

As we prepare students for future ventures to tackle global challenges, we must adopt a rigorous social and emotional learning program in the classroom. With a robust SEL curriculum, students will be prepared to lead future generations and solve our most complex problems.

For more information, or to start Lead4Change in your school, go to Lead4Change.org and Request Information or Register for Free