Personalizing the Leadership Experience

Experts increasingly suggest that educators should explore the ways that each specific student learns, and provide personalized instruction and opportunities. Doing so can not only help students individually, but can strengthen school groups like student council as different students work together.

Amanda Pinson, who has been a student council adviser for 10 years at Crescent High School in Iva, SC, says that often the students who get individualized assistance thrive, and they become leaders in a variety of ways—among their peers or friends, in other groups or, eventually, in the future in school or careers.

“I think advisers can accommodate various learning styles,” says Pinson, who has taught students with special needs and a leadership class for years. “I try to draw on my students’ strengths, which means you really have to know them individually.” Making such an effort with a leadership group can have a significant impact on a student who may have social, emotional, or learning challenges. And, she says, it can pay off for the group and for the adviser.

“You need a balance of all types of students in order to have a successful council. Be open-minded about who is involved on your council, how you work with them, and how they can work with each other. That benefits everyone,” Pinson says.

Personalized Experiences

Susie Brighouse, an English and leadership teacher and class adviser with more than 25 years as an activities director in Portland, OR, schools, says her students continually show that individualized attention pays off.

“I adjust my way of thinking, learning, and planning. It’s like figuring out a puzzle but making it work even if the pieces don’t go together perfectly, because we shouldn’t change the pieces to make them fit,” says the Cleveland High School teacher. “It provides change, breaks the monotony, and we all learn from differences and from adjusting to them.”

Brighouse says creating a culture where differences are identified and addressed makes all students in the group better at collaborating with all types of people—a soft skill that colleges and employers are looking for. She also notes that prioritizing this awareness of individuality has made her a better teacher and adviser. “It challenges us to see things differently,” she says.

Pinson can tick off three examples where an awareness of a student’s specific needs has paid off.

In one case, one of her council members was the sister of an older, very successful, outgoing, confident student, while the younger girl was less likely to want the spotlight. Pinson quickly recognized that they were different. She found the younger student had other skills—she was a hard, meticulous worker who could design and build just about anything. “In many of our projects, we wouldn’t have been successful without her,” Pinson says.

Another student had a learning disability that made it difficult for him to read and speak comfortably, although he wanted to lead and be able to address groups. She worked with him several weeks in advance of such presentations—the first time she also stood nearby so she could whisper to him if he stumbled or lost track. Now he understands how to approach those opportunities and has grown comfortable in that role.

A third student had more obvious challenges and was in one of her special education courses. She determined what tasks would be a good fit for the student and got some other members to work with him on painting a poster and designing and distributing flyers.

“He loved being a part of the group, and the social opportunities that he was able to participate in were amazing and so different for him. He has grown and made friends, and now has more students to interact with throughout the school,” Pinson says.

Seeing the Invisible

Kathleen Laundy—a psychiatrist and family therapist who works closely with adolescents and author of Building School-Based Collaborative Mental Health Teams—says that an adviser can often help students who have significant learning or social-emotional issues, including those who may have “invisible” issues that are difficult to spot. Learning issues such as dyslexia, attention issues, or other serious social concerns can be masked by the normal developmental behaviors of young people that can seem excessive.

The adviser may want to look at a student’s individual education plan (IEP) or 504 plan if they have already been diagnosed with a disability. Those plans spell out their challenges and the ways specialists feel the student should best be accommodated. Also, school counselors typically are well aware of any concerns.

“They may have to connect to others who can provide support—a parent, a special education specialist, or a counselor,” Laundy says. She notes, however, that adults in adviser roles often get to know students better than any others in the school, and they might see an issue clearly that needs to be brought forward.

Brighouse says that her group’s work with a member who has a disability has made other members more understanding about such issues. “The other students have embraced having her in our leadership program. They constantly team up with her on projects, having her take on smaller, hands-on tasks that she will be successful doing. They are offering just what she needs,” she says.

Curtain Pullers and Spotlight Seekers

Lesser issues such as variations in learning styles (see sidebar below) and personality differences often require that an adviser pay close attention to how a student works—both individually and in groups—and adjust assignments or responsibilities.

If a student is an introvert, for example—a type of student who might struggle in a leadership group because they tend to keep to themselves—the student should understand that tendency but also know the power of the strengths of being an introvert.

“Certainly, shy and/or introverted children often overcome shyness and develop new social skills as they grow older, and they feel great when they do. But they still need to engage with the world on their own terms,” says Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Students should not be sheltered from challenges but also shouldn’t be shamed into leading or participating, or told they are failing if they don’t.

“Show them that you understand and sympathize with their difficulty, and help them strategize,” Cain says. Advisers should understand that introverted students may need quiet space and may be more comfortable alone and working separately, she says.

Pinson understands that sort of student. “Realize every student is not outgoing and wants to be on the stage. There are some kids who want to be what I call ‘curtain pullers.’ I am a curtain puller. We like to work hard and do all the behind-the-scenes work.”

Nearly every group also has students that try too hard to get attention or win approval from other members or even the adviser. Some experts say that indicates a lack of self-esteem, which is often difficult to build, but can be helped with genuine approval for their work and private conversations about social behavior that seems inappropriate or bothersome. “Some students need a quiet reminder, and subtle repetition of that message can pay off,” Laundy says.

DeLana Parker, a sixth-grade teacher and leadership adviser at Charles T. Koontz Intermediate School in Asheville, NC, has found when she considers individual differences, her work as an adviser is better, the culture in her group improves, and individual students thrive, even in cases where it doesn’t seem deserved.

She recalls a student who was a strong leader and eventually chosen as president of her group, but she was unkind and it was discovered she bullied other girls. Parker worked hard with the girl, but eventually had to remove her from her position as president.

“She was extremely remorseful because she lost something that she had worked so hard for and had been given so much positive recognition and feedback for,” she says. Parker was supportive of the student, helped her understand why the behavior was hurtful, and helped her participate and lead in other ways.

“It all paid off. She became much kinder and empathetic. I recently saw her; she is in high school now, and she is in a leadership group and doing great,” Parker says.

And that sort of success has been Pinson’s experience, too. “Leadership comes in a variety of packages,” she says. “Our job is to make sure that all students are allowed to share their gifts.” —


Jim Paterson is a writer based in Lewes, DE.


Sidebar: Defining Learning Styles

Although they’ve been identified for decades, there is no consensus on the types of learning styles nor how they should be applied. Generally, experts say educators should understand that students learn differently.

There are more than 70 ways of defining learning styles, but probably the most popular ones use the acronym VARK and suggest that humans generally tend to learn in one of four ways:

  • Visual learners more readily absorb information by using visual aids such as charts, graphs, mind maps, and symbols.
  • Auditory learners prefer to have information that is spoken from lectures, tapes, group discussions, or talking something out.
  • Reading learners acquire information best through reading and writing.
  • Kinesthetic learners prefer to learn through personal experience, examples, practice, simulation, and working with their hands.

By understanding how students learn with these or other categories, educators can help them learn more readily and understand their tendencies. There are a number of resources online—such as the North Carolina State University index of learning styles questionnaire—to help determine a person’s learning style.

Students over time develop a preference for learning a certain way and discomfort with learning other ways, so understanding that can help an adviser get them to learn and perform better, says Indiana University Professor Polly Husmann, who wrote a widely discussed study about the fact that learning styles might not be clearly defined or immediately evident in students.

It is important for students to recognize their strengths and weaknesses and preferences, which discussions can accomplish. Advisers should also recognize preferred learning styles in an effort to push students out of their comfort zones.

Husmann says she would like to see educators say, “Okay, this style of learning seems to be one with which you’re comfortable. Let’s see if we can widen your skill set to include more of these others.” She notes, “The more that students can broaden their study skills, the more options that they will have to learn, and this can only benefit them in the future.”