Skip to main content
Service LearningStudent leadership

Principles for Effective Student Leadership

By January 14, 2020March 25th, 2021No Comments

Over the past several years, schools have been transforming their curriculums in order to be more integrated using conceptual inquiry to improve student learning. One of the many benefits of conceptual inquiry is that it is connected and when implemented effectively it facilitates transformational leadership development with students. In an integrated service learning curriculum, students are provided with opportunities to develop their leadership skills and traits with knowledge and  practice of how to be a ‘good to great’ leader. Providing students with leadership experience gives them the ability to collaborate, communicate, problem-solve, build relationships, think critically and outside the box, by allowing them to learn to adapt to changing and challenging situations.  This helps by preparing them for the world outside of the classroom.

What do we mean when we talk about leadership and leaders?

Leadership is understood as a change-oriented process of visioning, networking and building relationships. It is the subtle process of mutual influence; fusing thought, feeling and action, to produce a cooperative effort in the service of purposes and values embraced by both the leader and the led[1].

Effective leaders can articulate a vision, set standards for performance and create focus and direction. They are known to think long term, think inside and outside the box. They emphasize vision and renewal. Each of these are vital elements for adapting to change[2].

In a school community context, leaders can communicate effectively,  are self-efficient and have self-confidence. They believe in what they do, have compassion and empathy for others, see themselves as part of a whole and can adapt to any challenge that might come their way. We expect this of our leadership administration, and we should also expect this of our student leaders. Student leaders need opportunities to FAIL- this is the First Attempt In Learning – How to be a good leader. 

“Leadership is a choice, not a position.” Stephen Covey

Our role is to support students and leaders in this learning journey, to learn from mistakes for continuous improvement. Students need to know that we are there to support them in this learning journey or they will not take a risk and put themselves out in front to lead with passion and enthusiasm. 

What principles facilitate student leadership development in schools?

In a school community, leaders are developed through a series of opportunities that allow students to practice their leadership skills. These opportunities are facilitated through an integrated curriculum that includes experiential service-learning. As a service learning leader, students have real responsibilities, real world and local community problems and challenges, real authentic learning that is meaningful. This experience builds; positive communities, culture, passion, grit, and intrinsic motivation to continue long after school has finished.

This type of student leadership experience can transform how a student sees themselves, how they interact with others, and how they react and adapt to changing situations, opportunities or challenges. Learner agency is developed through these opportunities by being able to lead and mentor others which also is about laying the foundations of a culture of leadership by building leadership capacity.

Student leadership and mentorship training needs to be offered each year for students to understand the skills and traits of transformational leadership. Self reflection, goal setting are critical to growth and are key elements of essential training for students.

student leadership

Leadership experience, agency and efficacy is focused on developing the following principles in students:

  • The principle of selfawareness, personal vision and responsibility

    This principle primarily talks to proactivity and is aimed at changing the way in which a student reacts to a situation. When the student is self-aware, they can accept responsibility for their actions. This means that they do not blame and accuse others when something goes wrong. They work continuously within their circle of influence and change and develop themselves to work effectively with others[3].

  • The principle of leadership and mission

    Students are encouraged to focus more on people than on things, on the long term rather than the short term, on developing relationships rather than on equipment, on values and principles rather than on activities, on mission, purpose and direction rather than on methods, techniques and speed[4]. Students are encouraged to look at the situation as a whole and combine the theory being learnt in the classroom with real-world applications.

  • The principle of managing time and priorities around roles and goals

    Students are taught to prioritize and identify key roles and goals by coming up with an action plan to get what they need to get done. This helps the students become more effective in managing their tasks, their teams, allowing for less stress and more timely effort[5].

  • The principle of seeking mutual benefit

    This refers to thinking in a win-win frame of mind, helping to cultivate the genuine desire to see both teams win, succeed and benefit from the outcome or experience[6].

  • The principle of empathetic communication

    This refers to the ability of students to genuinely understand another deeply before being understood in return. Through empathetic communication, they gain a clear understanding of others’ needs, ideas and basic paradigms[7]. This creates more understanding and facilitates critical thinking and problem-solving.

  • The principle of creative cooperation

    In short, leadership development facilitates teamwork. It aims to empower and support all involved. It promotes an environment based on trust and open communication where students can work interdependently, generate creativity, improvement and innovation, which would not happen if they were working in isolation[8].

  • The principle of continuous improvement

    All people have four needs or characteristics, these are physical or economic, intellectual or psychological, social or emotional and spiritual or holistic. Developing within human beings is consistent commitment and continued performance in refining and expanding their abilities. It is necessary to continue to challenge students in the leadership development space to allow them to continuously improve[9].

What are the benefits of student leadership in and out of the classroom?

By fostering an environment where students are given leadership experience opportunities, you are ultimately developing students who:

  •  Are more involved in the school, local, international and classroom community
  • Take ownership of their learning, roles, responsibilities, and building leadership 
  • Positively manage themselves and encourage their peers by ‘walking the talk’
  • Collaborate and communicate by working effectively with others and embracing everyone for diversity, and equity
  •  Manage conflict effectively through coaching and mentoring 

These benefits ultimately help to transform students into being responsible global citizens who are invested in the world around them and who want to make a change for the better. By developing student leadership in and out of the school community, we are creating leaders of the future – now. Leaders who understand the world around them and their place in it, leaders who take an active role in the community and who work to make the world more equal, fair and sustainable for all. The kind of leader we all want to see, hear, and be.


1,2,3 Bolman, L.G & Deal, T,E. (2003). Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice and Leadership. United States of America, Jossey-Bass.

3,5,6,7,8,9  Covey, S. R. (1991). Principle -Centered Leadership. United States of America, Summit Books.

Tara Barton

Tara brings passion and a deep understanding of service learning, rooted in years of experience, to her training. Her training builds bridges from theory to implementation while generously sharing her resources and knowledge to ensure our success. Tara works with the whole school (administration, teachers, students, and SL leaders) to build a sustainable program that is embedded in the curriculum and tied to the mission. She energized a faculty on a Friday afternoon, no easy feat, leaving them with a desire to learn more about SL and to become more involved. I cannot recommend Tara highly enough.

Leave a Reply