Empowered youth to community leaders

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The importance of youth leadership programming in elementary schools

Childhood is spent brimming with fascinations of the future – ideas of what infinite potential can amount to, ambitions of fulfilling some innate passion, and the mystery of what the years ahead hold. Some will take on leadership roles, becoming agents in their community. How can we set our students up for success, and ensure that they are able to grow into their full potential?

According to the U.S. Department of Education, youth development is a process that prepares young people to meet the challenges of adolescence and adulthood through a coordinated series of experiences that help them gain skills and competencies. Youth leadership gives students necessary experiences to enhance their ability to navigate their communities.

Leadership opportunities in elementary schools are especially rare.

Leadership opportunities are often deferred to older students or even adulthood, with the assumption that these skills will be naturally developed later in life. Prioritizing leadership opportunities during the formative years of childhood is the best time to enable efficacious leaders to emerge and for students to build upon competencies that will help them for the rest of their lives. 

Play can be a great equalizer

When children play, they have the opportunity to try on new skills and experience new ways of navigating situations in low pressure settings. Without the fear of failure, students are able to problem solve and grow into these skills. Unfortunately, leadership opportunities in elementary schools are especially rare. Playworks’ mission of improving the well-being of all children aims to specifically address this.

Increasing youth leadership opportunities lead to better academic and behavioral outcomes in students.

The benefits of youth leadership are bountiful, with emphasis in social and emotional learning. Students have the opportunity to define skills that will aid them later on in life. These include decision-making, critical thinking, relationship building, adaptability, and much more.

Not only are there numerous benefits for students, but there are gains for teachers as well. 

Students who take ownership of their experiences drive overall success in the classroom.

More confidence and motivation among students lead to increased self-efficacy, allowing them to better complete assignments, handle stress, and strengthen relationships. Academic success, in turn, flourishes, and peer to peer interactions become more productive. The distribution of student responsibility also provides teachers support with group management.

Kids need the opportunity to flourish 

Although the many benefits of leadership development are well documented and acknowledged, it cannot exist without the opportunity. Leadership opportunities must be provided to the student by the adult, which is where we as education professionals come in. Creating space in the curriculum for these opportunities is critical to enabling students to become effective and successful leaders. This could mean introducing classroom roles, delegating small responsibilities, or implementing a youth leadership program. Playworks is committed to youth leadership development and offers many resources, initiatives, and programs to facilitate it.

Youth leadership in your community

Playworks’ Junior Coach program offers elementary students in 4th and 5th grade the opportunity to be leaders for younger students on the playground. Junior Coaches facilitate games for students in grades K-3 and serve as playground leaders by sharing playground safety and engagement  responsibilities alongside recess staff. Implementing a program like this into the school curriculum is easy, and data shows that it is worth the investment. Last school year, 84% of students in the Junior Coach program nationwide experienced improvements in social and emotional development, leading to skill retention and greater preparation later in life.

The Junior Coach program begins with a series of training led by a Playworks Pro Trainer. These trainers travel from school to school delivering experiential learning experiences for both students and staff. Staff learn about the importance of leadership development opportunities. Students learn about the expectations and responsibilities of being a Junior Coach. This includes lessons on equipment management, game facilitation, and conflict resolution on the playground.

It is easy to implement and sustain

Our trainers see how the program is received first-hand. Teachers are very receptive to the program, with some telling me that it is easy to implement and more effective than previous programs, in that students are actually excited to participate. Students are eager to take ownership of their newfound responsibility and their experiences on the playground. Younger students are engaged in more play, and enjoy having a peer mentor with them on the playground.

After the training, it is up to the school administration and staff to sustain the program. Incentive programs are often helpful in keeping students accountable and motivated. Once a consistent routine is established, the program is easily managed. Teachers and staff have testified to how easy the program is to maintain, telling me that the students make the most of the experience. Our trainers see that these programs are very effective and continuously upheld.

Both staff and students alike have found great success in the Junior Coach program. Students are excited to take on a leadership role, and staff found the program to be just as easy to implement. More students are engaged in physical activity during recess and Junior Coaches feel empowered to positively influence the school and playground, thereby improving recess climate.

Empower your students today!

We must nurture youth leadership and give students the opportunity to discover their superpowers. Giving young students a head start to develop these important life skills will give them the confidence and ability to walk into their full potential. If you are thinking about implementing a youth leadership program, and are interested in the Playworks Junior Coach program, please reach out to Ellen Jenks at ellen.jenks@playworks.org.


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