The 6 Domains of Effective Student Leadership

I remember the day well. It was late 2015 and Jon (my business partner) and I were on an early morning run up the Calder Freeway to Newstead Primary School, en route to Mildura. It was a magnificent summer morning, not a cloud in the sky and that early morning sting in the sun that precedes an afternoon where comfort only comes through the blast of a fully functioning Fujitsu air-conditioner! 

Perhaps my memory of this day is so vivid because of what we were about to embark on, the first steps of bringing to life something which, to that stage, that had been merely philosophies, dreams, hopes and goals. 

Perhaps it was the sense of anticipation and slight nervousness that sat in my stomach as the car rolled in to Newstead Primary School. Would this work? Will the technology hold up? Will staff see value? Will the students engage? 

On that morning Leaders of Evolution delivered our first primary school student leadership blended learning program and for better or worse, we were away!

student leadership resources

Since that pilot week, where we spent three days working with visionary school leaders (thanks Ben and Andrew!) and eager students curious about the concept of leadership, we have worked with thousands of students, hundreds of teachers and over 50 schools in both face to face and virtual environments. Over this time, we have witnessed incredible stories of individual and school community growth and had our share of learning experiences along the way too.

We have come to understand how student leadership, when bestowed upon all students (not just the ‘leadership team’), provides countless opportunities for voice and agency in learning and meaningful positive change.  As the Victorian Department of Education’s Continua of Practice for School Improvement states, student leadership is not confined to a small group of individuals, as leadership potential is inherent within all learners.  Effective schools validate and embrace student voice, agency and leadership. We have come to understand that through this process students find purpose and motivation for their personal development. Perhaps most importantly we have come to understand how defining a student leadership program is going to yield best results for the individual, team and wider school community.

student leadership workshop

We call this program the ‘Domains of Effective Student Leadership’ (DESL).

So firstly, why ‘effective’? Language is important and we wish to encourage students and teachers to explore how we can all be effective leaders. Effective leadership in our eyes is as simple as deploying the right skills and behaviours, at the right time, to achieve a desired positive outcome. Daniel Goleman, one of the doyens of Emotional Intelligence research, boils the role of the leader down to ‘getting results’. This simplicity is powerful and a simple lens through which to encourage students to set and achieve goals.

As Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky suggest in Leadership on the Line: Every day, in every facet of our lives, opportunities to lead call out to us.  At work and at home, in our local communities and in the global village, the chance to make a difference beckons.  Yet often, we hesitate.  For all its passion and promise, for all its excitement and rewards, leading is risky, dangerous work but well worth the effort.

Further, too often leadership is dumbed down to good and bad. If you get a decision wrong or don’t achieve an outcome does this make you a ‘bad’ leader? The opposite can be true too of course. Leadership isn’t linear, all of us will go up, down, back and forth. By using the term effective we encourage students to focus on the outcome and how they aim to get there, moment to moment. This approach also allows for pause along the learning journey, reflecting on progress and what elements can be adapted to work towards achieving an effective result.

The Domains have been designed through much trial and error, utilising contemporary research and frameworks and talking to and observing the growth of student leaders. Since that monumental day back in November 2015 we have relentlessly chased the ingredients for that ‘secret sauce’ of leadership learning and how voice, agency and leadership integrate to empower students to have a positive impact in the school community and upon themselves.

effective student leadership

We have spent countless hours in deep discussion with school leaders as to ‘what works best’ as written so eloquently recently by Ben Milsom, and indeed often held the mirror up to reflect on what does not have the intended impact we seek. This process of listening to the voice of our partners, being open to feedback and critically assessing our own development and growth not only has helped establish the Domains but in my own belief, role modelled the skills and behaviours we espouse as being important.

Just this week I was fortunate enough to attend an intimate workshop with Helen Beattie, Director of Up for Learningbased out of Vermont, USAHelen, now slowly moving into retirement, led the growth of the organisation back in 2008-09 with a mission to establish more effective learning partnerships between adults and students and positively shape student voice and agency in learning.

Helen discussed the role Action Research played in the evolution of the organisation and the way it sought to achieve its goals. This resonated closely with me and how Leaders of Evolution have developed the DESL model. Essentially it has been four years of Action Research.

So, what does this mean for you as an educator and how can you harness this action research to grow leadership, voice and agency in your school? Read on dear reader, read on.

The Domains Explained

effective student leadership

The sum of the parts of the DESL equals what we refer to as a ‘student leadership program’. Although student leadership sits at the core of the model the outcomes in student voice and agency are implicit when the tactics for each domain are implemented. Successful implementation of the program requires the synchronised efforts of staff, students and wider community in order to function and deliver on program goals. 

How teachers and students co-design the program vision, goals and activities is crucial to its success. Schools need to be very clear on what they are aiming to achieve, what is possible and combine this with the student’s vision and voice. What we have come to realise is that establishing a sustainable student leadership program generally takes at least 12 months to tinker with and observe to understand what works and how to get the best result. Then comes the ongoing refinement!

This article is not about how to set the program up and in fact Irymple South Primary School assistant Ben Milsom’s recent blog helped our learning community with some of the steps and frameworks required to do this. It is important to note however that a robust planning and implementation strategy is fundamental to success.

1: 4 C’s Learning Framework

Our 4 C’s Learning Framework was born from the need to ensure a clear lens for teachers to utilise our curriculum and resources, and for students to have clarity on the areas of leadership they are exploring. Leadership is a complex and detailed pursuit and the 4 C’s allow for teachers and students to share the same language and utilise the Success Criteria to achieve clarity in the pursuit of individual and team goals.

The 4 C’s were adapted from sports coaching research, investigating what elements can help define what effective coaching is. The 4 C’s of Competence, Confidence, Character and Connectedness encapsulated the areas we felt could be seamlessly aligned to National and State curriculums whilst also providing a simple framework for teachers and students to investigate and harness.

Sitting under each of the 4 C’s within the Success Criteria Matrix are the behaviours and skills captured underneath each of the C’s and what success looks like at the Emerging, Evolving, Embedding and Excelling stages.

In essence, the 4 C’s and resources we provide are tools to use for explicit teaching purposes. Even if a school is not engaged with our online courses, they can still deliver a curriculum that explicitly teaches the skills of leadership to their students and provides the best opportunity for them to achieve success in their leadership pursuits.

student leadership development

2. Culture

Sitting at the core of a successful student leadership program is school culture. In this instance it is not necessarily about the overarching school culture (although there is likely to be cross over) but more so how do we think, speak, act, challenge, recognise and reward the pursuits of our student leaders.

Culture in this setting is about the whole staff being informed, engaged and eager to support the overarching goals in their own small ways. The majority of the heavy lifting may be done by the school leadership team or 5/6 teachers, but our Prep teachers may have really clear guidelines on how they engage with student leaders in the yard in order to reinforce key messages and recognise the efforts of students.

Culture means having a clear purpose and vision and enabling all elements of the school community to embrace and support the development of the student leadership program. Richard Dufour and Robert Eaker wrote the book Professional Learning Communities at Work and state the culture of an organisation is found upon the assumptions, beliefs, values and habits that constitute the norms for that organisation – norms that shape how its people think, feel and act.  In 2019 I spent some time at Auckland Grammar and was impressed as to how their school culture led to an environment of personal excellence, self-responsibility and acknowledgement of history.

3. Goal Setting & Reflection

Perhaps one of the most motivating things to witness is the individual goal setting and achievement of students. This is where students get to own their goals and how they intend to go about achieving them, voice in the creation of the goal and agency in the determination of how to achieve it consistently yields strong engagement and growth. There is deep personal purpose to the goals students set and the Success Criteria makes it easy for students to identify where they are at, where they want to get to and what they can do to get there.

The metacognitive aspect of reflecting on goals is also a critical element to this domain. Whether it is through teacher prompts, peer support or self-regulation students should be reflecting on their performance and the evidence of this performance as they track progress and make alterations to their learning journey.

Goal setting and reflection taps into student’s ability to develop and sustain a Growth Mindset as well as develop the metacognitive tools to achieve success. The Success Criteria matrix makes this learning visible, forming a powerful pedagogical triumvirate to encourage the development of leadership potential.

4. Authentic

Leadership is an action, or sometimes an inaction depending on the situation. It requires considered thought, awareness of self, the skills and behaviours required to achieve success, interpersonal connection and the confidence to put these things into action.

Critically, teachers must be open to and proactively seek opportunities to provide authentic leadership learning opportunities. Traditionally these may have been things like speaking at assembly or a quiet yarn in the principal’s office about what’s happening in the playground. With the right foresight and guidance these can still be leveraged as authentic leadership learning opportunities, however there is much greater depth and possibility we can get to with authentic leadership learning situations.

We have seen some schools implement incredible team projects focused on whole school outcomes, others using student voice and agency teams to lead change in anything from health and wellness to environment to curriculum. Others still focus on individual growth and establishing a framework for individual goal setting and leadership performance. 

Just this year we developed a visible leadership learning poster to use in the classroom where teachers can acknowledge leadership in action at any moment of the day and link this in with the 4 C’s. Leadership is moment to moment and it is critical our students understand this notion, we must challenge the ‘one and done’ mentality of ‘just a project’ or ‘just speaking at assembly’ and intertwine this with school values, individual areas of growth and ongoing displays of leadership in action.

Making students explicitly aware of the authentic leadership learning experiences they have, whether large or small, is an important tactic to help embed the concept of leadership being an ongoing and ever present pursuit.  As John Hattie and Klaus Zierer state in their book 10 Mindframes for Visible Learning, when a student questions their own learning, attempting to make learning visible for oneself, and using mistakes to reflect on the structure and coherence of one’s own action – all of this is highly influential for learning, because it fosters dialogue between learners and teachers.  Authentic opportunities allow for what Hattie and Zierer state, to realistically happen.

student leadership

5. Coaching

Full disclosure – I’m a sports fanatic and somewhat obsessed with coaching as a central tenant to individual and team success. When I was observing the importance of ongoing conversations with students to support, challenge, celebrate and embed key leadership concepts, it drew me to the importance of this being one of the Domains.

Coaching within the domains has its roots in individual and class dialogue. Using specific examples, contextualising these as leadership experiences and using the 4 C’s or Success Criteria as a lens to discuss what happened. The aim here is that we can provide a safe environment for students to analyse and discuss a situation, recognise its link to leadership and prompt their metacognitive processing to consider what did I/they do, how could we get a more effective result or what are the areas we are celebrating that lead to a successful outcome?

My personal philosophy with coaching is ‘let them play’. The situation, experience and tools required to navigate the experience provide the greatest learning any of us could hope for. Yes, as a coach/teacher we need to establish safe, appropriate and engaging environments but from this point let the students ‘play’ in order for them problem solve, communicate, troubleshoot and adapt in order to achieve their goals.

By doing this and observing what plays out it gives us wonderful opportunities to coach our student leaders through engaging in discussion and challenging their thinking of who, what, when, where and why.

student leadership workshop

6. Mentoring

Some of the most powerful learning experiences I have seen have been established through a student/adult mentoring approach. Critical to getting this right is having a very clear lens through which the mentee (student) guides the relationship with a clear focus on achieving a personal learning goal and engaging with someone outside of school they feel would benefit from learning alongside.

There are so many positives to this approach that sit outside of the mentoring relationship itself. Students are challenged to get outside of their comfort zone (No, Mum or Dad can’t be your mentor!), require effective written communication skills, appropriate time management and the ability to effectively drive the relationship itself.

Adults seem happy and often quite chuffed to be asked to take on this role and are motivated to give over their whole selves knowing a young person has sought their expertise in order to make them the best that they can be. It is wise to acknowledge that there are important safety considerations when setting up these mentoring relationships as well as the potential, sadly, of some students perhaps not having a person they feel safe or comfortable connecting with in this manner.

Schools may consider engaging with local community members as a ‘drop in’ mentor who can provide a termly check in and support the group as a whole in a pseudo mentor role. Although not quite as impactful as a one on one mentor, it still establishes a role model for students who can help them navigate their development.

We also recommend Year 6’s mentoring the incoming Year 5 student leadership cohort. This allows students to teach the concepts they have been working on during the year and provide the incoming group with clarity and knowledge that will enable a smooth and successful transition into the following year.

resilience workshop


So, you’ve read the blog – just go and implement now. Easy, right?! 

Of course, we recognise that the DESL are deep and require considered thought about what to tackle and when. Indeed, some schools may simply want to focus on culture before even bringing in supporting resources or explicit teaching practise.

In our experience it takes at least 12 months to implement the 4 C’s Framework in a way that is impactful and consistent – that’s just the 4 C’s! The fact is there is so much to plan for and structure that each school needs to be aware of their own priorities, resources and appetite in order to make the DESL an embedded and successful part of their school community.

When done well, the impact is powerful and inspiring. Not only do students take their leadership, voice and agency to another level but teachers oversee the growth and development of young people that will stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives.

When all elements of the DESL are working in unison the planning and effort is rewarded and all worthwhile. Our advice is to be really clear on how student leadership, voice and agency works together and what this means for your school community. When you have asked these hard questions, the resources and model is there to utilise and make your own. 

Now you’ve read the article, it’s time to run through a free self-assessment against the Domains of Effective Student Leadership and establish an action plan

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Leaders of Evolution are passionate about education. We expertly design and deliver technology enhanced e-learning courses focused on leadership, social and emotional learning, career readiness and sports coaching for students, teachers, athletes, coaches and the wider community.

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Damian Hecker

Keeping an eye on all sports, especially the mighty Hawthorn Football Club, staying fit in the great outdoors and sneaking in some travel wherever possible occupy Damian's time away from designing e-learning curriculum for both Leaders of Evolution and our valued E-learning Hub Partners.

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