Essential Leadership Skills for Youth

Empowering youths through experiential adventures! Many of my experiences as a program designer and lead facilitator at Empower Leadership since opening in 2009 has been in team building with youth and teen groups – ranging from 3rd and 4th graders to high school leadership organizations. To say my 11 years of adventuring with schools, camps, youth service bureaus, and other youth organizations has been a pure joy would be an understatement!

Since about my junior year in high school, I knew I wanted to be a teacher – in particular, a physical education teacher. My father was a tremendous role model for me and having spent time watching him teach and coach surely shaped my desire to do the same. Seeing the impact he had on high school students and athletes both in the gym as a physical educator and on the field as a football coach was inspiring; I wanted to be able to do the same! After graduating from Xavier High School, I moved on to Springfield College as a physical education major. My first year at Springfield College opened my eyes to the true role of physical educators – to help develop students in body, mind, and spirit through participation in activity while helping students build a foundation for healthy living through engaging activities beyond just competitive team sports.

I was first introduced to adventure education in physical education as a sophomore student during a “teaching methods” course. The course focused on teaching “soft-skills” (i.e. leadership, teamwork, problem solving, conflict resolution, etc.) through adventure based activities. The activities didn’t involve climbing or rafting, they were identified as “prop-initiatives”. Prop initiatives ranged from large group relationship development activities, trust building activities, and problem solving challenges – using a variety of equipment and working parameters to help participants build certain skills; for example, communication skills. The course taught us to learn about group dynamics then design an intentional learning environment that included (1) intended learning outcomes, (2) appropriately sequenced activities, and (3) debriefing conversations to “tie it all together”. This type of teaching and learning was very new to me; however, instead of shying away from it, I was absolutely enthralled by it! We had the opportunity to practice this experiential style of teaching and learning on fellow classmates first, then with real high schoolers from a school near Springfield College. What I loved most about the experiential style was that it focused less on physical attributes (i.e. how athletic someone is) and more on social attributes – leveling the playing field and creating a learning environment that was truly inclusive!

From the first day of our adventure education in physical education teaching methods course, I was hooked! I started to help our professor, Dr. Ted France, with some team building events he would lead and could not get enough. What a great side job as a college student! I continued to work alongside Dr. France as much as I could during my remaining 2 years at Springfield College and continued to implement experiential teaching and learning in my first two physical education teaching positions.

After a few years “in the field”, I had the opportunity to go back to Springfield College to work as Dr. France’s Graduate Assistant – helping him deliver the adventure education teaching methods class to our sophomore students and observing those students during their teaching lessons. Being on the “observation side” of the experiential model was eye-opening – being able to observe tangible actions that showed me students were learning to lead, communicate more effectively, and problem solve was inspiring!

The opportunity to join my great friend, Joe DeRing (Empower’s Founder) in 2009 was a no-brainer. My experiences learning to implement the experiential model of teaching and learning at Springfield College and while teaching in Springfield Schools served as the driving force for me to join Joe and his dream of empowering individuals and teams through adventure. Since 2009, I’ve had the pleasure of designing and leading experiential leadership programs for a wide variety of youth and teen groups at Empower. Some programs included our Emerge Ground Based Leadership Development and Team Building Activities, some our thrilling Zip Lining and Aerial Adventure Park experience, and some a combination of the two.

Over the past 11 years at Empower I’ve led over 1,500 experiential programs for over 100,000 participants and, while every group is unique, there have been a few common themes I’ve experienced; including:

  1. The soft skills (leadership, teamwork, communication, grit, collaboration, problem solving and conflict resolution, creative thinking, decision making, action planning, and goal setting) are not soft – they are ESSENTIAL. These skills are absolutely critical in our efforts to achieve in our life’s endeavors. While being sound in these skills will never guarantee success, our ability to lead, collaborate, and inspire ensures that we put our absolute best forward in settings.
  2. Leadership, teamwork, and the other essential skills ARE skills that can be learned. We are not born as great leaders or great problem solvers – we can learn to develop those skills much like we learn to read and write.
  3. To learn, youths and teens must be placed in INTENTIONALLY designed teaching and learning environments in which the outcomes focus on the development of a particular skill – not a test score or grade point average.
  4. Fear of Failure is REAL – youths have been trained to remain comfortable in all they do; shying away from moments of challenge in which failure may occur. Providing a safe and controlled environment for youths and teens to adventure out of their comfort zone and stretch themselves will help them recognize that responsible risk taking is essential to their growth!
  5. Youths and teens are hyper-focused on end results (grades, completion time, etc.) and less on the journey! This mind-set can make goal achievement very intimidating and the moments when we fall short of our goal (which of course happens in life) catastrophic.

Empower’s Youth Leadership programs are designed to provide youths and teens the safe environment to explore and develop their personal leadership greatness. Through engaging and exciting adventures, youths learn to:

  • Lead themselves (perseverance/grit) through challenge, adversity, fear, and temptation
  • Understand and appreciate the unique qualities of peers while inspiring and supporting teammates to be their best (empathy)
  • Evaluate risk in given situations and make healthy/responsible choices (decision making)
  • Collaborate, problem solve, and resolve conflict with others (teamwork)
  • Set challenging goals and a path to goal achievement (goal setting and action planning)
  • Embrace “responsible risk challenges” as opportunities for personal growth and development

There is nothing more rewarding than leading an experience for a group of youths or teens that helps them develop these essential skills. The development of leadership and team skills is of the utmost importance for youths and teens – such development will help them be there best in their schools courses, in social environments in and out of school, in athletics, and most importantly, throughout their lives!

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