A sea of initialed black circles and a sole visible smiling face fill a screen during a rainy Monday morning. The cheerful soul excitedly asks what the faces on the other side of those circles did over the weekend. After a few moments of lull, a microphone unmutes and humbly shares that she helped her mom over the weekend bring masks to a local homeless shelter. After a follow-up inquiry, she reveals that she and her mom enjoy to sew and they had discussed an opportunity to help those in need. The rest of the circles on the screen remain quiet, but you can see from the smile on the face of the only video image that pride was beaming high.
Since March 13, 2020 teachers, parents, and students have navigated a virtual world that has dictated patience, understanding, and innovation. What lies deepest beneath moments of confusion and frustration, however, is opportunity. Many students have risen above ordinary expectations to provide exemplars of young leadership in the most pressing of times. From students like the aforementioned making masks for those in need to those who have spoken up against hate and violence that has intensified during the pandemic, young leaders are finding opportunity in tribulation to still positively impact their community.
When kids lead, the world watches. It is uncommon, admittedly, to expect children to be influential leaders, but we see it time and again. Take Chelsea’s Charity, started by ten-year-old Chelsea, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization devoted to providing art supplies and art lessons to children. Despite her young age, Chelsea has provided thousands of art supplies and has appeared on CNN, NBC, and Time for Kids to share her passion. As Chelsea revealed during my opportunity to talk to her, the key ingredient to a successful young leader is the love, support, and guidance of a caring adult.
This past spring and summer, Todd Nesloney, my co-author of our book When Kids Lead, and I interviewed over a dozen young leaders from around the country to learn about the incredible work they were doing in their community and beyond. We inserted a similar question into each interview, asking “What helped you get to where you are today?” Without fail, each and every interviewee responded in line: confidence. Many elaborated to explain how there was a parent, a teacher, or a mentor whose simple encouraging words or helpful push provided the sought-after assurance to pursue their dream or passion.
So even in a pandemic, as we are on the other side of a screen or six feet apart from our students, what can we do to encourage student leadership? Here are four tips:
- Assuring words: This impersonates the message above, but cannot be understated. Simple phrases like “I believe in you” and “You can do this” mean so much and might be what the young leader is waiting to hear.
- Ask questions: Big dreams sometimes need to be flushed out. Instead of telling a child what to do or explaining that something simply won’t work, ask questions to guide their thinking. In the teaching world we call this scaffolding. Get them to the point where they are critically thinking about potential hurdles or challenges that they will need to tackle.
- Celebrate failure: For every victory our young leaders have, there will be disappointment. Oftentimes, this comes in the form of a dream bursting or a pathway stopped. And for a kid, it stings. Be supportive, be comforting, but use difficult times as reflective opportunity to do even better. Most importantly, let them fail. It is tempting to swoop in at the first sense of breakdown to make the save, but allowing kids to learn to fail can be the greatest lesson one can teach.
- Encourage further learning: When you discover a passion held by a child, provide them with mentor texts and videos that can empower and guide their path. There is so much to be learned out there, and access to information is at our fingertips. Look for Ted Talks, instructional how to videos, and inspirational books that may refine a child’s thinking about their passion.
In my 18 years in education now, I have been blessed to watch my students speak on stages, organize events, write powerful essays, start businesses, and dream in a way that only kids can dream. If you have the chance, be the adult in a child’s life who uplifts and supports them in becoming a young leader.