As educators we are aware of the challenges and pressures faced by our students, and reported rising levels of anxiety. High academic expectations, adverse online experiences and fears about the future of our planet are often quoted in the media as contributing to the concerns of young people. Young people themselves report that coping with stress, study problems, mental health and body image are the areas that cause them most concern. (Mission Australia Youth Survey Report 2018).
Is it wise and helpful then, to add to our expectations of students that they also take on leadership roles? Isn’t this just adding more pressure?
Conceptualising and facilitating student leadership in a purposeful way can ensure that it provides students with practical skills and agency, as well as the potential to enhance both wellbeing and academic outcomes.
A recent article published by the Alliance of Girls Schools Australasia, highlights the significance of intrinsic motivation in a world where ‘learners are required to independently access and process copious amounts of information’. Schools’ growing emphasis on the development of critical thinking, creativity and collaborative approaches means that individuals require increasing levels of self-awareness also, so that students can be mindful of their personal strengths and values so they can actively and purposefully engage these in their learning.
The article also references research which indicates ‘that students who are intrinsically motivated to learn have higher academic performance and complete more years of education than students who are not intrinsically driven’. The benefits to behaviour, learning and achievement of intrinsic motivation, as opposed to external rewards, have been proven in numerous studies over the years.
Experiences of student leadership that are purposeful and involve positive connections with teachers and peers can contribute to the intrinsic motivation needed to support effective learning and wellbeing. Self-determination theory posits that autonomy, competence and relatedness sustain intrinsic motivation. These can arise from student leadership when it is supported by appropriate training, ongoing support and feedback, and involves young people working collaboratively to solve authentic problems and create positive connections.
Educators are continuing to look for authentic opportunities for student agency and voice in learning processes, as exemplified in 2018’s Through Growth to Achievement report. Likewise, schools across Australia, led particularly by Victoria, are responding to the need to provide meaningful outlets and support for young people to be heard and to participate actively in ensuring their safety and wellbeing. Developing and sustaining leadership programs that equip students with both the skills to express themselves, and the mechanisms to make a difference to their communities can contribute powerfully to students’ autonomy, competence and relatedness, and hence the quality of their motivation.
There is currently a plethora of resources and programs available for schools to choose from in order to support their students’ positive behaviour and wellbeing. For various developmental reasons, the impact of universal programs on adolescents has been found to be less effective than at other ages. A recent paper by Yeager, Dahl and Dweck proposes that is due to the increased sensitivity of adolescents to the need for respect and status.
There is an opportunity and a distinct advantage for schools to be strategic about student leadership: to find ways to ensure that the structure and content of leadership programs and activities enable young people to experience the respect of their peers, and an appropriate sense of status as a result. In so doing, it may be possible that the effectiveness of behaviour and wellbeing programs for adolescents is enhanced.
The experience of supported and skilled leadership, rather than simply adding to students’ concerns and commitments, can potentially contribute strongly to young people’s flourishing. Peer Support Australia have developed a Student Representative Council Workshop to support teachers to optimise authentic student engagement in, and leadership of such structures. The Peer Support program also enables rewarding leadership experiences which can contribute to students’ intrinsic motivation and positive behaviour through the respect that leaders experience from their groups and the sense of competence and relatedness that their involvement provides.