One of the best ways to give our students chances to develop leadership skills is through service learning. Real-world projects are perfect for practicing real-world leadership skills, but we also know that getting our students out into the community to complete projects isn’t always possible. With that in mind, we’re sharing how one organization is working to develop youth leadership skills as well as 10 ways you can use service learning strategies to build leadership skills in the classroom as well as during service learning projects.
Youth Service America (YSA) works globally to build leadership skills in kids, teens, and young adults through service work, and their new initiative aims to spur this leadership, all while also connecting them to their community and local advocacy. YSA’s current goal is a big one: The 50 by 250 campaign, supported by the Allstate Foundation, aims to get 50 percent of the nation’s youth to participate in volunteering, voting, and becoming civically engaged by America’s 250th anniversary on July 4, 2026. Learn more about how your students can get involved by visiting the 50 by 250 campaign website.
1. Build the skills: Delegation and time management
In the classroom: Create small leadership roles in the classroom for all your students using a job board or something similar. Even small jobs, like handing out papers or reporting attendance, are good places to start to build delegation and time-management skills. Rotate through jobs so that each student can experience the varying roles and their differing importance. Get creative with roles that highlight different skills—like a classroom playlist creator—so that students can practice being open-minded and flexible.
During service learning projects: By giving students opportunities to develop these skills in class, they’ll be better prepared to tackle all the bigger tasks they’ll be faced with in a service learning project. The ability to look at a large assignment or project and break it into smaller, more manageable chunks is something that all students will benefit from practicing. If they’re already pros, challenge them to define those tasks without your help, delegate the jobs appropriately, and decide for themselves what successfully finishing the job looks like.
2. Build the skill: Goal setting
In the classroom: Watershed Schoolin Boulder, Colorado, helps students learn the importance of setting goals by starting service learning early. By sixth grade, their students are practicing setting small goals and working toward them as a team. “We focus on slowly layering skills and experience in service work throughout middle school and high school,” says Teddy Lyman, the assistant dean of students and science educator. Think about ways you could do this in your own classroom. Could you start the year by asking the students to set a small, achievable goal? After they reach it, could they reflect on how they accomplished that goal and set a new one? By building on each success, we teach students how goal setting helps them achieve bigger and better things.
During service learning projects: Be on the lookout for service learning projects for your grade level as well as how you might be able to create smaller projects for younger grades and more complex ones for older students. Talk to your principal or department head about bringing service learning into each grade level. While it may be easier to imagine older students doing service learning, even our youngest students can benefit from how service learning builds leadership skills.
3. Build the skill: Problem-solving
In the classroom: Young people are often energized by the opportunity to “change the world.” But facing all the tasks and problems large-scale service learning projects might bring can be daunting. To help with this, give students the opportunity to build the vital leadership skill of problem-solving on a smaller, more manageable scale. Before taking their service projects into the community, get your students invested in making changes within the school first. What are they most concerned about? Where do they want to see change? As they tackle more manageable problems close to home, they’ll develop the skills they need to get out there and change their communities—and maybe even the world.
During service learning projects: By starting the foundation of inquiry and advocacy within the school, students will build the problem-solving skills needed to tackle larger problems. They’ll have their experiences within their school to fall back on when planning larger projects within their communities.
4. & 5. Build the skills: Reliability and trustworthiness
In the classroom: Effective leaders are trustworthy and reliable. Understanding credible and accurate sources is a great way to use a common lesson to highlight these skills. Start with lesson plans that explain what digital literacy is and why it matters, like those by Learning for Justice. Discuss how being credible and reliable isn’t just important for a website but for people too.
During service learning projects: Once the students have garnered an understanding for reliable sources and the best ways to do research, those skills can easily translate to their service learning project as they collect data and investigate certain causes. Assign a team or a few students as the Digital Resource Team—the go-to kids that other students can work with to find reliable sources and ask any research questions. This is a great way to highlight that sometimes a leader isn’t the person shouting the loudest from the front, it is the person you know will have an answer you can count on.
6. Build the skill: Taking on / giving up responsibility
In the classroom: It sounds simple, but giving responsibility to our students can be scary and frustrating. What if they don’t rise to the challenge? What if they fail? These questions highlight exactly why we need to be giving our students these opportunities now, in the safe environment of our classrooms, before they experience taking on responsibilities and failing in the real world. Allow students to make choices about their own learning whenever possible. These little acts of ownership build upon each other. And be conscious of building in moments where students can “fail safely.” Maybe it’s allowing for a classroom discussion to go silent without jumping in with a new question. Or having small groups compose various lesson plans for a chosen topic while you monitor from the sidelines.
During service learning projects: As a teacher, this might be more difficult for you than the students. When working with students on a service learning project, make sure to leave plenty of room for them to step up and make key decisions. Offer your direct knowledge when it’s absolutely necessary, but also allow for the students to face the real-world challenges and overcome them. Help them prepare with great resources like YSA’s Semester of Service Toolkit. It provides overviews and timelines for helping students as they complete a service learning project, starting with investigation, planning and preparation, action, demonstration, and then reflection.
7. Build the skill: Identifying strengths in others
In the classroom: Not every student wants to be the main speaker in a presentation, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have valuable strengths to offer. Model the important leadership skill of being able to recognize group members’ talents by letting each of your students shine. Maybe the quieter student is awesome at communicating what you did yesterday in class to students who were absent. Recognize that skill and celebrate it. Have a student who can always lighten the mood with a joke or their sunny disposition? Make sure to call it out as a positive. Good leaders make everyone on their team feel appreciated and seen.
During service learning projects: Encourage students to praise one another and use one another’s talents. A leader doesn’t bulldoze their teammates or stand around while everyone else works. When large tasks are being broken into smaller jobs, ask your students who is doing each job and why that job is right for them. This will give them time to practice identifying one another’s strengths and how to best use them to accomplish their goals.
8. Build the skill: Active listening
In the classroom: Good leaders listen to their teams. Dedicate time weekly to listen to what students care about in their world, and don’t minimize their voices. Even if a classroom cause may seem trivial to you, use that as an opportunity for the students to pitch why a change is necessary.
During service learning projects: We can all easily slip into an argumentative mode if we get resistance or a flat-out no for something we want. By practicing listening, pitching, and negotiating in the classroom, students can tailor their presenting skills to the project’s stakeholders and, ideally, work their way to an agreed-upon idea that both benefits the community and is something the students are passionate about.
9. Build the skill: Empathy
In the classroom: Role-playing can be a great way for students of all ages to practice seeing the world through a variety of perspectives. This builds the crucial leadership skill of empathy, the ability to understand the feelings of another person. Have the students pair up and tell a story to another classmate. Instruct the listeners to be attentive or inattentive and then switch roles. As a class, reflect on how each type of listener made the speaker feel. Have students role-play what a good leader looks like compared to an ineffective leader. As a class, decide what skills are most important.
During service learning projects: Encourage students to meet as a team often to reflect on how things are going and to voice praise or concern. Check in often with every member of the project team to see how they are feeling about both their role and others. Think about where you as a teacher can help, but also where peer-to-peer support can take the lead.
10. Build the skill: Giving (and receiving) feedback
In the classroom: Giving feedback is something every teacher is very familiar with. We all have tried numerous methods for communicating what students have done well and the areas they still need to work on. We can help our students build this important leadership skill by making our feedback choices obvious. Explain to your students how they’ll be assessed and why. Share rubrics and take the time to walk through them during class. Additionally, give students numerous opportunities to provide feedback, both to their fellow classmates and to you. Model how to do this appropriately and effectively so that they see how useful good feedback can be.
During service learning projects: Begin with the end in mind as you start to plan a service learning project. Work with your students to discuss what success and failure might look like and how they’ll evaluate their victories and struggles. A community member might not give them the response or outcome they were hoping for, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the conversation was a failure. Did your students reach out to the community member in a polite, appropriate way? Did they express their views clearly and were their statements correct and supported with evidence? Even if the outcome wasn’t what they wanted, there are still many reasons to celebrate the learning that took place throughout that experience. As you and your students work through the day-to-day tasks of a service learning project, be sure to include time for them to reflect and discuss their progress.