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Leadership for Digital Natives
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for Digital Natives:

Old School Skills for New School Students

By Mariam MacGregor


Over the past ten years, the growth of technology in the lives of kids and teens can be visualized as an exponentially rocketing graph. And it’s no secret that students in typical American classrooms are highly connected with, through, and to technology. Starting in kindergarten, most students can expect to have access to school-issued tablets and smart boards, BYOD (bring your own device) days, global connections via Skype, and engaging in learning using Kahoot!, PopcornMaker, Animoto, YouTube, Prezi or the “old” stand-by, Power Point.

Despite the increase in using high tech resources and the cool, collaborative learning opportunities that accompany them, allocating time to teach leadership skills to navigate real life with real people continues to decline. And although a decade-long study of the digital lives of teens conducted by Pew Research Center indicates that teenagers’ social lives are thriving online (, teen leaders repeatedly tell me they feel unprepared to lead in ways they a) want to, and b) are expected to by adults in real life circumstances.

It’s likely that the young people you work with fit this profile and shared perspective. Here are some ideas to cultivate stronger student leadership skills that are easy to integrate into the daily lives–in school and out–of kids and teens:

 Use Leadership Language

As the adult leader in a classroom or at home, commit to using a “leadership language” throughout the day as the first step to elevate leadership behaviors in your setting. For example, use “conscientious” rather than “nice” when describing student behavior toward one another. Or recognizing student decisions and classroom interactions as “independent” and “confident” and “well thought out” in place of hollow compliments such as “nice job” or “great” or “good work.” No matter their age, when students do something that demonstrates leadership, acknowledge it as such—“You approached (or handled) that situation as a leader”—especially when they resolve a tricky social situation that way! The simple and obvious change of choosing words associated with leadership actually models leadership and affects classroom culture, with a bonus outcome of improving kids’ vocabularies.

Encourage Relevant, Meaningful Youth Leadership Opportunities

Participating in organized or positional leadership roles like student council or leading an athletic team is not in every student’s wheelhouse. But students attending school sit in classrooms daily, creating organic opportunities for them to lead every day. Asking students to facilitate labs or teach topics to the class are examples of those opportunities. Putting kids at the front of the classroom requires them to maintain eye contact with their audience, speak clearly, organize their thoughts, and authentically lead their peers through the lesson. Even first graders can teach math problems and spelling words. In upper grades, students can work together or individually to create lesson plans on topics before teaching the topic to the rest of the class. The learning—and leading—become intense and personal because every student has an opportunity and a leadership expectation to teach. Unforgettable leadership skills are developed because students fear having their peers complain about them the way they complain about their teachers if the lesson is a bust! Plus, you’re able to lighten your load in a way that’s rewarding and meaningful to everyone (and maybe earn some much needed appreciation from students who think teaching is easy).

Endorse Hard Work, Resourcefulness and Critical Thinking

Sadly, for many students, school today consists of following directions, complying, conforming and filling in bubbles. While these approaches may seem like efficient methods to get a lot done in the school day, students are losing ground when it comes to being able to infer, deduce and think critically. They are learning the inaccurate lesson that every question has a right or wrong answer when in fact, more answers to questions in life fall somewhere in the middle (or somewhere else on the spectrum).

Build leadership skills such as problem solving, decision-making and resourcefulness by tying content to real-life examples. For example, when kids ask for help too soon or want to give up when facing a challenging problem (in any topic), suggest this: “Imagine you’re caught in a trap and you’re the only one who can get you out. What are you going to do?” Suddenly, the problem becomes relevant to real life (well, okay, not many of us will be stuck in a trap, but the visual is helpful) because the student must rely on his or her resources and critical thinking to survive.

In a math class, ask students to design or remodel their own bedrooms (or something else that’s relevant to them), labeling each part of their room with a math problem (such as area, perimeter, angles, or cost estimates) that would provide a contractor with the information needed to design or modify that part of their room correctly. The leadership learning is subtle here, because people often overlook the relationship of developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills to being a leader. More obvious is the use of writing prompts that revolve around leadership topics such as quotes from contemporary leaders, mentors and role models, starting first with having students identify how someone earns the distinction of being a leader in their eyes.

Inspire Hands-On Interaction

It doesn’t take rocket science for us all to realize that the information we retain best is from situations and experiences where we are first hand participants. The same is true for lessons taught in school. Students learn leadership skills every time project-based and experiential learning is used to teach content. When students rely on one another to complete intertwined tasks, communicate what each individual in a group knows and negotiate to accomplish project goals, they are using leadership skills in authentic ways.

Incorporate Film

In general kids and teens love watching and talking about movies with their peers. Fortunately movies are also engaging tools for introducing and discussing leadership concepts. There are dozens of movies–both classic and contemporary–with strong leadership themes. Movies that fall into the “classic” category with older release dates may require a bit of set-up for your audience in order for their timeless relevance and application for teaching and discussing leadership to rise above the groans about terrible special effects, cheesy outfits and sometimes awkward dialogue.

Younger grades often use films to fill recess during inclement weather. In this era of limited instructional minutes, movies are not my first choice of how to use that time, but if your school uses films in this way, choose to select films with leadership themes. Rather than selecting the most current releases, which every kid has seen multiple times (think Frozen), choose from the many G- and gentle PG-rated films that introduce leadership themes and lessons (think Dreamer and A Bug’s Life). When time limits kids from seeing the entire film during that recess period, choose an excerpt, and take 5-10 minutes prior to launching into your next lesson to comment on the leadership ideas kids just watched.

Regularly peruse the Internet Movie Database ( and Common Sense Media for new ideas. Remember, every audience is different. With this in mind, choose movies that are appropriate for your group and always watch movies or video clips to the very end prior to using them in your program.

Teach the Basics: Written Correspondence, Manners and Etiquette

That’s right. The majority of students have not been taught these timeless and necessary skills. Yet something that will never change is that first impressions and ongoing reputations matter. Capable leaders must learn how to write and communicate effectively, how to shake hands properly, how to carry on interesting conversations, and how to treat others respectfully. With the bulk of communication to and from digital natives occurring online, gone are the days of handwriting lessons, learning how to write a formal letter, and even learning how to address an envelope. But in the real world, teens and young adults must be able to craft and submit letters with proper headings, layout, content, and of course, appropriate words and correct spelling.

Digital natives increasingly receive college acceptance letters through email or by logging into an online portal. This shift has removed the personal and emotional response teens used to have when opening the envelope addressed to them from schools to which they’d applied. In turn, it reduces their belief that knowing how to write and address letters is necessary. If you teach ELA, incorporate a few lessons on writing for formal occasions such as a cover letter, a letter to the editor, a letter of recommendation for a peer, or steps to filling out various paper and online applications (for jobs, college, or nomination forms for student-run boards). Good leaders need to know how to write professional, thoughtful thank you notes and other letters by hand or keyboard. The quality of their leadership skills is often measured by demonstrating these skills.

Internet Communication, Writing and Cyber-Manners

Communication skills don’t end with letter writing and hand-shaking. Digital natives must learn the fundamental truths about corresponding via email and social media. Lesson number one: be careful what you write or post because it does.not.go.away. As teens are quickly learning, one’s digital footprint starts the minute one opens an Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Kik, or Tumblr account, or posts comments in online forums. Every online interaction is elemental to a teen’s leadership image and personal brand. That’s right–personal brand–a phrase previously reserved for marketing companies and advertising firms is now being taught to contemporary teens as they navigate the dynamic online world.

 It may feel overwhelming to find time to teach leadership skills during the day while trying to meet the conflicting demands in education. But with the right resources and attitude, infusing timeless leadership lessons into existing class plans or family conversations can become a natural part of the daily experience of every student.

Mariam MacGregor is author of the award-winning Building Everyday Leadership curriculum, which includes age-specific materials for grades K-6 and grades 7-12; Teambuilding with Teens, and Everyday Leadership discussion & writing prompt cards. In addition to consulting, she works in the Professional Development Center at the Neeley School of Business at TCU. Reach her at


(Type: Article)

(User Group: Administration, Parents, Teachers)

(Grade: Lower, Middle, Upper)

(Subject: Leadership for Digital Natives)


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