How to Identify Leadership Characteristics in Children

July 24, 2017
Karon LeCompte

Baylor University's Karon LeCompte, Ph.D., associate professor of curriculum and instruction and an expert on civics education and leadership theory, discusses the importance of investing in student leaders and how parents and teachers can identify leadership characteristics in their children. (Baylor University School of Education)

Baylor University civics education and leadership expert shares tips to identify, invest in and engage student leaders

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WACO, Texas (July 24, 2017) – “That child is a natural leader.”

That’s something you might have heard, or maybe you’ve even said it. But is it true?

In the following Q&A, Baylor University’s Karon LeCompte, Ph.D., associate professor of curriculum and instruction and an expert on civics education and leadership theory, discusses the importance of investing in student leaders and how parents and teachers can identify leadership characteristics in their children.

LeCompte co-directs Baylor’s iEngage Summer Civics Institute (July 31-Aug. 4), a five-day program that helps students learn how to make a difference in their neighborhoods, schools and communities.

"Authentic leaders with experiences that manifest characteristics of extensive skills and high moral values will be on the front stage of our democracy,” she said. “They are the future. It is our responsibility to give them the best gifts that we can – our attention and faith in their ability to lead.

Q: Are there children who are “natural born” leaders?

A: Leadership is a lifelong pursuit. Certainly, one can argue that people are born with characteristics that leverage them towards leadership positions. In reality, student leaders are developing leaders who hone their leadership abilities and influence of others by actively participating in various community projects that enhance the quality of life for groups of people.

Q: What are some characteristics of student leadership?

A: Characteristics of leadership in students are in three broad areas: developmental skills, environmental factors and a commitment to action. Student leaders enter opportunities for developing leadership characteristics at various points in their lives, depending upon the environment and adult mentors.

Q: At what age do these characteristics typically emerge?

A: Leadership involves changes over time depending on your life experiences. Therefore, there is not one definitive age that leadership characteristics appear. Becoming a leader is a developmental process that requires people to create and interpret their life experiences. Educators call this process constructivism. Constructivism implies that youth who develop leadership potential are those who integrate previous knowledge and skills into new ways of understanding the world (and people) around them. The bottom line is that leadership development is individual. It depends on personality, life stage, family dynamics and educational experiences.

Q: When and how do parents and teachers typically first see these characteristics emerge?

A: Child development theories offer solid connections for parents and educators to see the potential for leadership development in students. Research shows that there are three learning skills that translate into skills for developing student leaders – multitasking, coordinating different senses and developing competency.

Q: Explain multitasking as a leadership skill in students.

A: Leaders must simultaneously think about goal attainment and the issue there are trying to solve; they reflect on the people involved. They balance the task that needs to be completed within a timeframe. Student leaders think about the vision of the group while focusing on immediate tasks.

Q: What does it mean to “coordinate different senses,” and what does that look like at various stages?

A: Developing student leaders watch the dynamics of people around them. They have a keen sense of who is positive and who is negative about a given situation. They are also thinking about ways to understand perspectives and find the means to connect positively to everyone in their group.

Q: And competency?

A: Children have good feelings about themselves when they can do something well. Gifted children, in particular, feel elated when they are allowed to continue improving a skill that they do well. Young leaders need to learn to be reflective leaders. They need opportunities to reflect on their leadership style and identify skills that are strong for them and those they can improve, and more importantly, how they will develop their leadership skills.

Q: What are some appropriate beginner roles for student leaders?

A: Perhaps the most suitable beginner role for student leaders is becoming informed about the community around them. Young students can identify the best and worst attributes of their community. Encourage them to think of ways they could improve their community. Inviting young leaders to form groups to improve their community gives them empowerment, which, in turn, helps them realize that they have a voice and potential to lead others.

Researching viable ways to improve their community gives young leaders skills in communication and relationships. They can learn who the adult community leaders are and find ways to make connections with the help of teachers and parents.

Q: In your experience, what are some of the most effective methods for teachers to teach leadership?

A: Leadership is not taught from a book. Although an understanding of leadership theories is a worthwhile endeavor, leadership is developed through experience. In classrooms, teachers can form leadership teams that investigate communities through a process known as “action civics,” which combines learning and practice. Active citizens not only understand how the Constitution and our government work but also their role as informed and active participants. 

Q: Are there challenges to identifying students and teaching them leadership skills?

A: Students learn leadership through doing leadership. In this era of standardized testing it is not easy for teachers to find the time or resources for teaching leadership. However, teachers do have many resources, both in the community and within parents, to provide experiences of students to enter leadership development opportunities. 

For example, student councils, community fundraisers and parent partnerships provide rich opportunities for students to communicate, plan, advocate and reflect on their leadership development.

Q: What is iEngage?

A: Baylor offers iEngage, which is a summer civics institute directed by myself and my colleague, Brooke Blevins. It offers the opportunity for students in sixth through 10th grades to develop leadership skills in our political and civic arenas. Student leaders can learn to speak up, speak out and advocate for healthy communities. Young student leaders will grow and enhance their leadership personalities. Soon, as college students, opportunities will be open for them to hone their skills and take on greater responsibilities as collegiate leaders.


Karon LeCompte, Ph.D., is an associate professor of curriculum and instruction with an emphasis in social studies education in Baylor University’s School of Education. Her research interests include civics education, technology and teacher preparation. She works with teacher education candidates and Texas teachers on civics education and law-related education and teaches classes in elementary social studies methods. LeCompte serves as co-principal investigator on $162,000 in grant funds for civics education and research. She serves as Faculty-in-Residence for Baylor’s LEAD Living and Learning Community and her teaching interests are in social studies education and leadership theory. She has authored or co-authored over 25 book chapters and articles on topics related to civics education and leadership.


iEngage Summer Civics Institute is a five-day civics day camp designed to help students learn how to make a difference in their neighborhoods, schools and communities. Participants build important leadership skills through interactions with local civic leaders, simulations and action civics. Activities for students include spending time at the Baylor Law School learning about the legal process, participating in a mock trial presided over by a local judge, visiting with other local and state officials, researching local community issues, playing iCivics games, and engaging in action civics. During the institute students create an advocacy project and website for a community issue they research and discuss. The institute culminates as students share their service-learning projects with family and community members.


Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 16,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.


Founded in 1919, Baylor School of Education ranks among the nation’s top 20 education schools located at private universities. The School’s research portfolio complements its long-standing commitment to excellence in teaching and student mentoring. Baylor’s undergraduate program in teacher education has earned national distinction for innovative partnerships with local schools that provide future teachers deep clinical preparation, while graduate programs culminating in both the Ed.D. and Ph.D. prepare outstanding leaders, teachers and clinicians through an intentional blend of theory and practice.