Hand adjusting thermostatMore than a decade of research shows that students learn better when they’re not distracted by the negative social behaviors of other students in a classroom climate that liberates good teaching with fewer disruptions.

However what research failed to look at, and what every teacher intuitively knows, is that a few students in each classroom have more influence than the rest. Schools are microcosms of society, where organizational leaders help people accomplish together what they would not and could not as individuals. That’s why leaders tend to get paid more than others and are lauded as heroes or villains, depending on the quality of their influence. This is the social science known as “leadership.”

While leadership for children and adolescents is typically defined in terms of character, social responsibility, and good citizenship, our pioneering work with thousands of students around the world in the last several years has taught us a lot about the ways 5- to 18-year-olds socialize. We’ve also learned more about the types of students who can learn organizational leadership skills at a very young age. By identifying and developing the natural social influencers to lead more effectively, schools can improve the learning environment while decreasing classroom disruptions, bullying, and other negative social behaviors. We refer to these students as “Thermostats,” because they help set the temperature of classroom climate.  

When schools pursue climate, character, and cultural changes, the typical strategy involves broadcasting messages throughout the student body. The problem with this approach is that it is contrary to how humans socialize. History is not made by the masses, but by those who influence the masses-society refers to them as leaders. By helping to mold students who are naturally prone to lead, we notice improved organizational skills and social-emotional maturity among the natural influencers, resulting in positive behavioral intervention and support catalyzed by peers, not just adults. This “Trojan Horse strategy” creates natural allies for teachers and staff, who spend less time policing disrupters as they cultivate more harmonious classrooms.  

Mistakes to Avoid

In working with elementary, middle school, and high school staffs, we’ve noticed that most people make earnest-yet-significant mistakes when it comes to handling students who possess a greater degree of social influence. 

Mistake #1: Failing to recognize the Thermostats. Approximately 10-20 percent of your students are Thermostats, and 80 percent or fewer are Thermo­meters. According to Dr. Bill Damon, director of the Stanford Center of Adolescence in the School of Education at Stanford University, our cultural value of equality causes us to overlook the most creative and motivated kids in our schools, many of whom are leaders. In our effort to treat everyone the same, we mistreat those with inordinate abilities. In doing so, we overlook the powerful benefit these influencers have to improve school climate. Both formally and informally, social movements are instigated by a few who enlist others to participate. Academics suffer when we fail to tap the potential of Thermostats to improve classroom climate.

Mistake #2: Labeling Thermostats negatively. In our work, we’ve discovered that about 75 percent of teachers actually try to avoid Thermostats, because they deem them troublemakers. Frequently, these students get sent to the principal’s office for disrupting class concentration. 

Mistake #3: Mistaking academics with leadership. Schools primarily focus on two of the eight intelligences identified by the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s professor of cognition and education Howard Gardner, namely language and math-logic. While IQ tests reward those with elevated intelligence in these areas, many schools naively assume that these are the fundamentals of leadership. In our work with thousands of student leaders around the world, we’ve discovered that most schools do not even allow students with sub-par GPAs to run for student government or serve in a leadership capacity. And administrators may never allow frequent flyers of detention hall into the extracurricular leadership class. 

Mistake #4: Confusing student government and service activities with leadership development. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had good-hearted, well-meaning educators tell me, “Oh yes, we have a really good student leadership program.” After observing and doing a content analysis of scores of these, I’ve discovered that nearly all of these programs represent little more than service-oriented social groups. The concepts of team building as opposed to building a team are quite different.

Nearly half of all student government members are merely popular. They get elected, but haven’t a clue when it comes to organizing anything. The danger here is self-deception-convincing ourselves that we’re producing leaders, when in reality we’re turning out good citizens at best. 

Solutions to Employ

As both a student and professor of organizational behavior, I observe what organizations do and don’t do to create organizational health. Obviously, every organization is perfectly structured to get the results it’s currently getting. Instead, consider three tactical ideas designed to tap in to the social influence among your most influential students.

Identify Your Thermostats. The typical classroom contains two primary and two secondary influencers who possess significantly more social power than the rest. Remember, don’t confuse leadership with conformity, IQ, academic achievement, or even popularity. Given a typical bell-shaped curve, you’re going to have a small percent of the student body that has naturally strong abilities in this area. (We’ve created a free assessment that adults can take on students called the Social Influence Survey to estimate those with leadership aptitude. View it at www.kidlead.com.)

Develop Your Thermostats. Leadership develop­ment among children, preteens, and youth is significantly undeveloped in most societies because leading is perceived as an adult behavior. We telegraph this to our students by saying, “Someday, you’re going to be a leader.” Teens lack experience, not capacity. Adolescence is a relatively modern social construct, resulting in our infantilizing them, as we often assume they’re incapable of complex social roles. Many kids can lead well and lead now, given the right training.  

Our work at KidLead shows that by the age of 10 you can teach students with high leadership aptitude sophisticated social skills, very similar to executive training. Unfortunately, most staff members assigned to leadership programs in schools have not studied leadership development, or experienced executive-caliber training. 

Unleash Your Thermostats. Traditional student leadership structures focus on class representation-kids run events like homecoming, putting together a yearbook, and organizing extracurricular clubs. While these tasks are fine, they rarely impact school culture significantly because they are peripheral, not core. If you want to harness the energy of your influential students, intentionally create opportunities for them to receive training, and then unleash them intentionally. Don’t limit the number of student leader roles but rather create opportunities based on the number of qualified students you’ve identified and trained in any given year.

When it comes to interacting with Thermostats, think judo, not karate. Schools by nature value conformity, because for education to take place en masse they must minimize classroom disruptions. But leaders by nature are nonconformists. They speak up and take action when they want to activate change, altruistically or not. Staff naturally push back, similar to punches and kicks in karate, to defeat an opponent. Judo, on the other hand, uses an opponent’s momentum by redirecting it. 

Principals who tap into the social acumen of natural student leaders can direct this influence toward the good of everyone, turning potential enemies into allies and harnessing the constructive energy more intentionally. Take time to consider this Trojan Horse strategy for improving school climate. 

Alan E. Nelson, EdD, teaches organizational behavior at Pepperdine University and the Naval Postgraduate School and is a founder of KidLead Inc. (www.kidlead.com).