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Albert Einstein, Mother Teresa, Steve Jobs: Unlike child prodigies, none of these leaders articulated their visions, ideas or abilities when they were young. Though certainly born with gifts, they had to learn leadership skills along the way. Your young, enterprising children can learn these same skills, and you can give them a hand.
In the toddler years, a child will start developing cognitive, emotional and social skills, so it’s important to focus on skills such as logical reasoning, problem solving and communicating.
Children as young as 24 months have demonstrated inferential abilities similar to those of pre-schoolers, well before they have the physical ability to perform tasks. For example, they might understand that a flip of a switch will turn on the light, even though they have not practised this themselves. Then, they will move on to personal problem-solving skills in play. They will find ways to interact with new toys through trial-and-error and making comparisons with previous experiences. These milestones go hand-in-hand with language development, because we need to verbalise our problems in order to get help from others.
There are lots of fun activities that cultivate leadership skills in pre-schoolers. The key is to reinforce bite-sized achievements in an entertaining way. Here are two to get you started:
• Team story-building. Start a story with an interesting challenge, such as an ant getting lost in a big forest and not being able to find its way home. Guide the children as they come up with a “solution”, and introduce new ideas for the story from time to time. At the end, retell the story in brief and review their individual and group accomplishments.
• Scavenger hunt. Place various items of interest around the house. Kids can ask you any questions so long as the answer doesn’t directly reveal the location. Once they have found the items, they hide them somewhere else and you take a turn trying to find them.
In this game, the key to winning the first round is asking the right questions, which is a fundamental skill in critical thinking. Kids will also learn to communicate effectively, since the goal in the second part of the game is to answer questions without giving information away.
A questioning mind
Children learn how to read and write in primary school, but the point isn’t just about being literate, but about understanding things and expanding their horizons on their own. This is a key foundation skill for all leaders. Confident students are always keen to share with their peers and parents, and they take pride in helping others hone these newfound skills. The same applies in the adult world with charismatic, passionate leaders.
In play and at school, children need to be exposed to critical thinking in a purposeful and gradual manner if they are to become successful leaders. They begin by asking meaningful questions – “Why is broccoli good for you?” Resist the temptation to give a straight answer, because an inquisitive mind cannot live on facts alone. Walk them through the process of finding an answer on their own: read, talk to an expert or search the internet. Once they have had a taste of self-accomplishment, they will be more confident the next time a problem comes up.
Allow unguided play
Once you have set the basic rules, such as taking turns, give children the freedom to explore playing with others unguided. Sometimes it pays to sit back and observe. Try to let them be unless there are safety concerns, and you will be amazed at ways children work out differences spontaneously. People of every age are hardwired to solve problems, form teams and socialise, and playing gives children much-needed practice. Kids will learn even more if parents “debrief” them afterwards, noting the issues they faced during the session and ways to solve them. In time, they will become more reflective and aware of their behavioural choices.
Enjoy the journey
Upper primary school students are generally ready for hands-on leadership exercises. But often the prospect of working in a team with shared expectations makes us obsessed with the end-product at the expense of the learning process.
As leadership coaches, parents need to emphasise that the experience matters. Begin by showing respect and confidence in their ability. Offer suggestions, alternative perspectives and personal experiences as they tackle their challenges, while making sure that they discover the ultimate answers on their own.
Repeat time and again what their learning goals are when it comes to leadership skills. Review what they have already practised and what their next steps should be. These higher-order skills need to be spelled out to younger children so they can understand precisely what the requirements are. “Can you find other ways of solving this? How do you work together? What do you do when you have different opinions?”
The phrase “leadership in children” might have a woolly ring to it. But kids are already encountering these very skills in their daily lives. Many education ministries in the developed world infuse leadership instruction into their national curricula, and Hong Kong is moving in this direction, too. The International Baccalaureate (IB) programme and the reformed New Senior Secondary (NSS) programme explicitly demand capabilities such as critical thinking, problem solving and communication skills.
The good news is these skills are coachable. But there is no such thing as a covert leadership education that we can somehow slip to the kids, because it takes conscious effort, clear purpose and a strong hand to nurture these capacities to their fullest potential. Give your child a head start today.
Key leadership skills for kids
Logical reasoning helps you make sense of things and support them with facts. “Water comes out when you turn on the tap.”
- Critical thinking addresses questions with incomplete information systematically to come up with potential solutions. “Now, where does the water really come from?”
- Creative problem-solving provides unique ideas that tackle complex problems. “There isn’t any water coming out of the tap. What do we do?”
- Decision-making helps determine courses of action. “Let’s play another game.”
- Communication skills allow listening, understanding and articulating ideas to others. “I have this idea for a new game. Please, hear me out.”
- Social skills inspire and motivate people to achieve goals. “So, is everyone joining in?”
Jason Pak is a pioneer in the development of children’s leadership and critical thinking. He is the founder of Future Leaders Academy, Hong Kong’s first leadership and critical thinking school for children. Learn more at www.futureleaders.com.hk.