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Young children in early childhood programs benefit from learning and practicing leadership skills in the classroom. Leadership abilities can help improve their social relationships, their connection to their class community and sense of belonging, and their feelings of mastery and self-worth. Mistakes are embraced as part of the learning process.

Teachers can also benefit from allowing children chances for leadership in the classroom. Educators spend less time directing every action and choice and have more capacity for meaningful engagement with children.  In this way, promoting student leadership in a classroom can be a win-win situation.  

This tool kit will provide information on three helpful strategies for promoting child leadership in the classroom. 

Promote Citizenship

All of us belong to communities at many levels, and we can think of ourselves as citizens in each of those settings. Adults may be citizens of their home, neighborhood, municipality, state, country, and planet. Other important settings include workplaces, religious organizations, or athletic and recreational clubs.

For young children, most of their time is probably spent in their home and in their classroom. Children have the opportunity to demonstrate good citizen behavior in these settings, by taking care of the people, spaces, and living and non-living things that they encounter on a daily basis. Good citizenship can be demonstrated through words and actions.

There are many ways that children can take care of the classroom environment.

Taking time to teach these chores and responsibilities, and then allowing time each day for children to complete them, promotes citizenship. Over time, children will start to develop an understanding of how these actions benefit their classroom community and may complete them without being asked. For example, a child who knows that the floor needs to be swept at the end of every day may also recognize a mess under a table after an art activity and choose to sweep it up right away

Encourage Peer Supports

Young children can develop their own leadership skills, and benefit from the leadership of their classmates, when teachers foster an environment that values peer supports. For example, one child may have lots of experience with technology devices like tablets or digital cameras. They can assist friends who are having difficulty. Certain children might have expertise with fine motor tasks such a zipping coats or opening milk cartons. Others may have skills in counting how many friends need snack, moving heavy items down the hallway on a cart or wagon, or quickly sorting manipulatives into their correct bins at clean up time. The possibilities are endless!

Teachers can encourage peer supports by creating an “expert” chart, where children write (with adult help) their strengths next to their name and/or picture. During morning meeting, teachers can remind children to “ask a peer expert” rather than a teacher when they need help, when it makes sense. While the class is busy working, teachers can provide affirmations when they notice peers helping one another. “What a great idea to ask your friend to help you count the snacks and carry them over to the table!”

As teachers encourage children to identify their own skills and to recognize the skills of their peers, it is important to remember that all children can be leaders at certain times and followers at others. Who’s the Leader? provides great suggestions for involving everyone in leadership roles.

Children with disabilities have sometimes been viewed as a the “helped” person in a peer support arrangement, but they can often be the helper. In fact, their disability may be linked to their special knowledge. For example, a child with cerebral palsy who often uses the interactive white board can then teach friends with less experience how to use it more effectively. A child who receives speech therapy may also know some sign language to teach friends. A child with autism who has a special interest in trains can provide some expert information before the upcoming field trip to the train museum.

Emphasize Shared Decision-Making

People in all types of communities appreciate leaders who involve them in decision-making. For example, children in a family unit feel valued when they can offer suggestions about what to have for dinner or where to go on a vacation. Children in a classroom feel valued when they can help determine the next topic of investigation or select a park for a class outing.

With that in mind, children who learn to make decisions with their peers are well on their way to becoming leaders. Some shared decisions can be reached through informal conversations and negotiations. For example, if the classroom receives a new board game that everyone wants to play, children can work together to develop a fair system that allows everyone a turn.

Other shared decisions can be made through the more formalized process of voting. Teachers can create first voting experiences that are concrete, immediate, and simple for children to understand. For example, “Stand on this side of the room if you want us to have cheese crackers for snack, and on that side if you want us to have graham crackers. We’ll see which side has more votes and then we’ll serve that snack.” Let’s Vote! Talking to Children About Voting is a great video for introducing the benefits and uses of voting to children.

As children become more familiar with voting, teachers can discuss its role in the American democratic process. It’s Time to for All of US of Vote: Exploring the Democratic Process with Young Children provides some excellent ideas for teachers. This kind of understanding can help show children the similarities between leadership in the classroom and leadership in society outside their school.

IEL Resources

Web Resources


Williams, C. & Ostrosky, M. M. (2023). Developing leadership skills in oneself and families: Four activities for early interventionists. In DEC Recommended Practices Monograph on Leadership. Division for Early Childhood.

About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Child Care Center
  • Preschool Program

Intended audience(s):
  • Teachers / Service providers

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Reviewed: 2024