Third-grader Mario stood up in front of the teacher and looked her threateningly in the eyes. His deep, heavy breathing matched the anger in his eyes. Without warning, he picked up his desk chair and threw it across the room.
Six years later, he is in my ninth-grade class – noble, respectful, a leader. When he is delegating tasks and organizing his classmates into groups in order to complete a class project, his natural charisma and positive energy shine through the room, inspiring his classmates to enthusiastically work together.
What happened to Mario in these six years? How did such a drastic change occur?
Importance of identifying leadership style
Mario had the benefit of attending a school with a clinical psychologist on staff, who diagnosed Mario with certain learning disabilities that had consistently frustrated Mario in his classes. When changes were made to assist him in the areas recommended by the psychologist, Mario made significant academic improvements within the year. In the following years, the psychologist and Mario's teachers worked with him to improve his social skills. Here lies the answer to Mario's most significant change: He was taught to develop his leadership style.
Leadership style is not a concept that is frequently used with children. This is unfortunate, because childhood and adolescent years are the most crucial time periods for developing personality and social skills that will be used for the rest of one's life.
Especially in Mario's case, discovering and developing his learning style was an essential part of becoming the leader he is now. His learning disabilities even to this day continue to frustrate him, and without other tools to build his self-esteem and maintain a positive attitude toward learning, he probably would not be in school today. According to studies by the National Center for Learning Disabilities, one-third of students with learning disabilities students have been retained in their grade, and those who repeat grades twice are almost 100 percent likely to drop out of school. For students with learning disabilities, finding other tools with which to gauge personal growth is essential to their academic and general well-being. For students without learning disabilities, having leadership tools at hand is just as necessary in order to achieve success later in life.
The earlier these tools are given to children, the sooner they can begin to work with them and grow into their particular type of leadership.
Leadership tools for children
Children do not have to be outgoing extroverts to be leaders, and they also do not have to be intellectual geniuses for leadership to occur. The following points are the leadership styles that can be seen early on in children:
-Desire to be pushed and challenged
-Critical reasoning skills
-Ability to see connections and relationships
-Ease of expression
-Flexibility and the ability to tolerate uncertainty
-Charisma, the ability to motivate others
-Planning and delegating, the ability to identify details needed to complete a plan
The many aspects of leadership can be seen in children as young as two years old, but how do we recognize these skills and help children to develop them?
Recognizing and implementing leadership styles with children
Part of helping children to identify and develop their unique leadership style requires help from the adults in their lives – family members, community members, religious leaders, educators, etc. As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child, and it also takes a village to encourage, and not discount, a child's particular style of leadership.
Especially as an educator, I have seen where implementing reward systems based on academic skills alone discourages children with otherwise high leadership potential. It takes creativity on the part of the community raising the child to create opportunities for the child to grow in a variety of facets. In my classrooms, I seek to develop tasks and that will require different types of skills to succeed. For example, students who have to produce a podcast may discover a love for verbal expression that they would not have identified in themselves by simply writing an essay. For parents, putting their children into varying extracurricular or community activities will give the child more chances to explore their style.
The most challenging part of implementing this development of a child's leadership style is to construct a reward system that will not discredit their skill. For parents, this may mean taking a nuanced view toward behavior patterns – yes, perhaps it is not the place of the child to solve adult problems, but should they be punished for giving their ideas and speaking their minds? Should a child be punished for exploding with creative energy? Setting behavioral boundaries is important, but it is also necessary to facilitate outlets for the children to put to good use their gifts.
For teachers, this may mean taking care to not punish creativity, while still stretching students to do tasks that are outside of their comfort zones. Mario in particular will often come to me with an alternative proposal for his project, so that it will be something that will hold his interest and will give him the chance to excel. I often tell him, "Yes, this is a great idea, but it needs to be a high quality effort on your part." I do not want him to do something simply because he already knows how to do it, instead of challenging himself to explore new talents and horizons.
Mario always exceeds my expectations.