Does it seem like you’re raising a future politician? Encourage your child to put those negotiating and people skills to use. Some time between third and fifth grade, many schools begin to hold student council (or government) elections.
The process and the posts vary depending on the school, but there are a few common principles to know. Foremost: “The purpose is to teach children about leadership and to show them that good leaders have character,” says Gwenn Webb-Johnson, Ed.D., professor of education at Texas A&M University and an elementary school consultant. “The best programs revolve around service-learning projects so kids can see that their actions impact others.” That means raising funds not just to improve the school, but also to benefit charities in the community or beyond, such as our troops overseas.
Hopefuls will typically have to fill out an application or write an essay, make posters, and give a campaign speech in front of the student body (or at least one class). Some programs include a campaign spending allowance, so candidates can hand out pencils, cupcakes, flyers, and other get-out-the-vote tools.
What kinds of kids are suited to student government? All of them, says Dr. Webb-Johnson. “Some are naturals at public speaking, sure,” she notes, “but quiet kids run campaigns or help organize charity events. Children find their niche when we show them the whole spectrum of government.”
Many moms — and kids — assume that only “popular” kids can win. But those we spoke to said they were surprised that the victors weren’t the queen bees. And our experts emphasized that student government programs that heavily emphasize service tend to draw kids with fresh ideas and lots of enthusiasm, not only the ones at the top of the social hierarchy. In any case, kids can overcome the popularity factor by campaigning on a platform of sincere promises to do real good for the school and students.
Of course, the thrill of victory is paired with the agony of defeat. So if your kid is ready to toss her hat in the ring, she needs to be prepared for both outcomes. “Let your child know from the beginning that only one person can win, but that she can become a better person from what she learns in the process either way,” notes Dr. Webb-Johnson. For instance, what could she have done better in the campaign? What other promises could she have made to the voters? How can she help those who were elected?
If your child is lucky enough to enter office, get ready for a busier (and more rewarding) year than ever. We talked to parents and kids who recommend the experience.
Name: Tiger B., 10, Austin, TX
Position: Secretary/treasurer in fourth grade; plans to run for president in fifth grade
Campaign promise: To continue the Pennies for Patients program, which raises money for kids who have cancer, and to stop bullying. “I want to be able promise that the school will be bully-free this year.”
Advice to kids who want to run: “Be confident! Rehearse your speech over and over in front of people who will tell you the truth. Oh, and you will need a plan for getting everything else done, like homework and sports.”
Mom’s take: “It was a great experience because Tiger was accountable to the entire student body and staff, not just his class and his teacher. His behavior was exceptional all year because of his accountability.” —Suzie B.
Name: Connor H., 9, Blasdell, NY
Position: Student council representative in fourth grade; plans to run for vice president in fifth grade
Campaign promise: “I said I was responsible and my classmates could trust me. I’m nice and work hard in school, and I want to help make decisions.”
Proudest moments: “Helping people in need. We served breakfast to veterans, collected school supplies for poor families, and had a Thanksgiving food drive. Also, running the Pencil Express. We went around with a cart selling pencils and raised money for the playground.”
Mom’s take: “The biggest change I’ve seen in Connor is confidence. Putting yourself out there at this age can be hard. He got involved in a lot of things he wouldn’t have been able to push himself to do otherwise.” —Robin H.
Name: Julie C., 10, West Babylon, NY
Position: Peer mediator, fourth grade
Why it’s a big commitment: “The school psychologist trained me to help other kids work out problems like having arguments with friends and dealing with bullies. I had to give up my recess for the training and then for working with the kids who needed confidential advice. Recess is when most of the problems happen! But it was worth it. I am happy to help people.”
Advice to kids who want to run: “You should know it’s hard to get the job! Focus on the traits you have that would help you do the job. With me, it was that I always listened whenever someone was upset and gave advice.”
Mom’s take: “Julie has really matured. I see it in how she expresses herself with adults and how diplomatic she is with her cousins. I was so proud of what she did for the school community. She helped kids feel secure among their peers.” —Jennifer C.