Learn about the different types of student leadership

Leadership is a personality trait and, therefore, children little by little also show their “greater or lesser gifts” in that sense as students. At one extreme, there are those who enjoy leadership roles. On the other, those who actively seek non-participatory status when they become involved in a group for whatever reasons. If you are a teacher, think about the work experiences of your group or your school and visualize the students. Are there children who naturally assume leadership of the group ? Are there those who do not take an active role, but do participate? Or are there those who sit down and take a minimal role in group discussions? You will likely be able to easily answer the questions, giving you a general picture of the different types of student leadership that can occur in classrooms and almost anywhere.

To briefly explain this phenomenon, during a study of cooperative learning in the classroom of a school in Madrid (Spain), the work of a class was analyzed in small groups during four different units of cooperative learning. Afterwards, the types of leadership shown in the various working groups and which we will discuss below were explored. Each student was classified according to predetermined criteria as “leader”, “follower” or “non-participant”.


aprendizaje cooperativo



Students reflect four types of leadership

  • TASK LEADERSHIP. The student is preoccupied with the process: keeping others on task, getting supplies, etc.
  • INTELLECTUAL LEADERSHIP. The student offers a new idea to the group (instead of simply answering someone’s question with a research result).
  • SOCIAL / EMOTIONAL LEADERSHIP. The student praises or encourages a member of the group.
  • COERCITIVE LEADERSHIP. A student makes a negative comment or creates an off-topic discussion to interrupt the process that is taking place.


Different existing roles in leadership

  • LEADERS . These students “execute” all facets of the group and initiate virtually all dialogue between members.
  • FOLLOWERS. These students answer questions and participate easily, but usually only at the instigation of one of the leaders.
  • NO PARTICIPANTS. These students never offer information unless requested. They never volunteer for anything either, as a general rule. However, they will do almost any task assigned to them.


During the study, the only students who had assumed significant leadership roles within the group were those who had been categorized as “leaders.” The “followers” sometimes displayed some leadership characteristics, but always at the urging of the leaders. The “non-participants” never took any leadership role, answered the questions when asked while using the shortest possible answers, and did their work without any interaction with others.

But what was most interesting, and the most important thing when determining the roles of cooperative learning groups , was seeing how a student leader could show leadership in certain areas one day and in others the next, that is, they are not watertight compartments . The leaders varied in their leadership roles depending on what other leader was in their group on that particular day. However, in all cases, all leadership roles were fulfilled by those students previously characterized as leaders. Students classified as “followers” or “nonparticipants” never took a leadership role within the group.


tipos liderazgo niños


In the event that a student with a “non-participating” personality style becomes the group leader for that session, it is likely that at least one of the three possibilities will result:

  • Students with leadership personalities will take over the group process in the long run.
  • Students with leadership personalities will exercise their inner need by sabotaging the group in some way, often unconsciously.
  • The non-participant student forced into leadership will feel so uncomfortable and distressed with this role that nothing will be accomplished or will allow those who enjoy leadership to take control of the group.
  • In all situations, if a “non-participating” type of student is artificially forced into a leadership position, the group will not function the way it was originally planned.
  • Rather than incorporating predetermined group “leaders”, a possible solution to this problem is to make a list of tasks or assignments for the group to complete, and then let the natural group dynamics solve them. For example, you can tell a group that you need a spokesperson, delegate, etc., and let the students know who will do the job in question. With this dynamic teachers will find that, in most cases, the group will distribute its leadership roles and tasks in a matter of minutes.

This way of observing students and group work is essential in order not to end the dynamism of a class when it comes to working and achieving objectives and, most importantly, it is vital so as not to force students to behave as they do not want or they do not believe they are capable of acting, as this would limit their ability to learn and relate to others. It will be up to the teacher again to apply, on another occasion, some specific dynamic to promote the interest and decision-making capacity of those students who appear a priori as followers or, above all, as non-participants.

The implications of these findings are critical to the development of a good “cooperative learning” lesson or unit.

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