Women’s rights have evolved and expanded over the course of the last century. More and more women are growing into positions of power, that in the past were dominated solely by men. With the advent of the “me too” movement, women’s rights have been at the forefront for the last decade and “girl power” is talked about everywhere you go. With this, the messaging directed towards young girls has changed as well. T-shirts that used to say things like “cutie-pie” and “I’m all that,” now display messages of empowerment for girls such as, “future leader,” “girls can do anything,” and “smart girls are the future.”

This exposure is a huge positive shift for young girls that moves away from image focused messages to action focused messages. But are these messages enough to foster the young female leaders of tomorrow, or is there more to it? How can we encourage and cultivate leadership qualities in our young and growing girls from early development? As with any new skill, practice is key, and there are many skills that need to be learned and practiced that comprise a leader. Many of these skills can be actively practiced and fostered in the day to day things our girls do. Check out the top five skills that are essential to leadership and four simple actionable steps that you can take to teach and reinforce these skills for the girls in your life today – the future leaders of tomorrow.

5 Skills Girls Need to be Strong Leaders

  1. Effective Communication Great leaders communicate effectively. Effective communication is the equivalent of relaying an idea, opinion or information in a clear and concise way. If a leader’s message gets lost in communication it will not convey a clear direction, and will likely cause confusion, setbacks, and frustration. Effective communication can be taught and reinforced from an early age. Communication is the cornerstone of human existence, and at an early age starts off with the development of learning to communicate basic wants and needs, such as for example, a baby crying when its hungry. It takes on more complex forms as children develop. Gestures and cries are replaced with words, phrases, and sentences. The more effective communicators are the ones that meet successful outcomes faster and more efficiently. A child who can effectively verbally say what they want or need, gets it a lot faster and experiences a lot less frustration and stress than a child that throws a tantrum to get what they want and need. Likewise leaders that communicate effectively get further and faster than ones that don’t. There are many games that can help girls develop more complex and nuanced ways of effectively communicating, such as charades, Pictionary, and other barrier games.
  2. Self Advocacy- Knowing your limits and setting clear boundaries allows leaders to keep the course. Successful leaders are effective self-advocates. Leaders with poor self-advocacy skills get overtaken and replaced by louder and bolder ideas, not necessarily always better. Those that are able to self-advocate, set boundaries, and speak loudly, and proudly about their idea, and share their message respectfully are primarily the ones who thrive. Foundational self-advocacy skills are fostered at a young age, and whether or not they develop and bloom has a lot to do with how much success they meet at an early age. Take for example a girl who likes to share her opinion. If she is frequently shut down or called names for being too opinionated or bossy, then over time she may learn that her opinion does not matter, and that spark to self advocate may burn out. Being overly opinionated or bossy can sometimes serve as a barrier, but there is a fine line between teaching to distinguish the when, and how to share your opinion, and completely putting opinion sharing based behaviors on complete extinction. Cooperative games that require team members to each act in accordance with a designated role towards a common goal have the potential to foster self advocacy. Each player has to communicate and advocate for what they need to happen within their role, in order for their role to be fulfilled in helping the team accomplish its end goal.
  3. Problem Solving- In order to be effective leaders girls need to develop a strong problem solving repertoire. This is the process of breaking down an obstacle or barrier, alone or with a group, into smaller and easier to understand pieces and seeking and applying possible solutions to overcome the problem. Problem solving is essential to leadership and is a cornerstone of play and development. It can easily be taught and reinforced through a variety of games and activities, such as treasure hunt, teamwork charades, and pretend play to name a few. Games and play that involve interactions with other children working together for the sake of achieving a common goal is called cooperative play. This type of play allows girls to explore taking on different roles, fine tune their negotiating skills, and learn to compromise.
  4. Goal Setting  Goal setting is a pivotal leadership quality. It is the process of identifying something you want to do or achieve and outlining actionable steps to get there. Without knowing what you want, when you want it, and how you are going to work toward it, it is highly unlikely that you will achieve it, let alone get anyone to buy into it in the first place. When teaching goal setting it’s important to teach the concept of SMART goals. SMART  is an acronym used to refer to goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based. Using this formula, not only aids in teaching girls to create goals that are more likely to be attained, but it provides a framework to help them achieve their dreams in the future, whatever those may be. Goal setting is scalable and can easily be scaffolded, taught, and reinforced within the context of day to day play. For example, in play, girls can set goals to beat their own time, beat their own score, or set those same goals with peers on their team if engaging in a cooperative game or activity. These types of goals fall into the category of smart goals because they are measurable, attainable, relevant and time based in relation to the game being played. Setting goals in this way allows girls to develop successful learning histories with setting and achieving goals, thereby laying the foundation for more complex goal setting further off in the future.
  5. Public Speaking- A leader is only a leader in so much as there is someone to lead. Public speaking is an essential part of leadership that takes communication and self advocacy to a new level. Learning to be a great public speaker also helps to boost self confidence. It is a skill that on the surface appears very scary, but can easily be scaled and scaffolded successfully starting at a very young age through the context of game play. The most basic form of public speaking for children often starts with a game called show and tell. A child selects a preferred item and talks and answers questions about it to another person or group or people. You can start out by talking about a preferred item with one person and as your child becomes comfortable and fluent in doing so, you can increase the number of audience members.

4 Simple Strategies to Foster Lead(her)ship Skills 

  1. Teach the skill you want your child to learn. Start by talking about what the particular skill means and providing examples and non examples of what it looks and sounds like. Chances are your child already has these skills in their repertoire on some level, so you can also provide examples of these skills in the context of something your child did in the past. For example you can tell your child something like, “do you remember the time you persuaded me to buy you that fun toy by telling me why you needed it, you were using your skills of self advocacy and effective communication.”
  2. Model the skill you want your child to learn. Children learn by imitating others so the best way to teach is to show your child how to do something. We all rely on video tutorials or instructions on some level to learn, whether you are building that new Ikea furniture, or watching a tutorial from Rachael Ray on how to cook those delicious brownies; seeing the skill broken down or in action is a powerful way to learn. One example of modeling the skill for your child is within the context of a game. Let’s say for example you are playing a simple game of keeping a balloon up in the air the longest. If you want to use this as an opportunity to target basic goal setting you could say something like, “I just kept the balloon up in the air for 2 minutes, I’m going to set a goal to keep it in the air for 3 minutes this next round, you think I can do it?” This goal is measurable (minutes), attainable (if you did it for 2 you can probably do it for 3), relevant (to the game you are playing), and time based (this next round/next turn.) There are many simple games like this that can be used as a method to teach important leadership skills.
  3. Practice is key. Teaching and modeling are great but alone they are not enough. Your child needs to get down and dirty with the skill they are trying to learn. Much like riding a bike. You can watch someone do it, you can read a book on how but until you get on that bike, fall off and get back up a few times you will not learn to ride a bike. Once you model the skill within the context of a game or play, take turns with your child. For example, if you are working on building up the skill of public speaking you can play a game of show and tell. Take turns talking and answering questions about a preferred item. Gradually increase the audience. If talking in front of too many people is scary at first, do it in front of one person and some stuffed animals. Gradually increase the number of real and imaginary audience members and then transition from talking about preferred items to neutral or non preferred items to increase the level of difficulty.
  4. Praise the behaviors you want to see more of. This is very powerful. The behaviors that persist over time are the ones that meet favorable outcomes. This does not mean that you need to give your child a new toy or game each time they do something good. For many kids, praise and acknowledgement is enough of a favorable outcome to show them whether a skill they utilized is effective and worthwhile or not. For example, your child comes up to you and articulates clearly why they want a particular new toy and what they will use it for. Even if you say no to buying that toy, recognize and praise their efforts to get something they want by using their skills of effective communication and self advocacy to try to get it. This will teach your child that even though they did not get that toy, those skills are still valued.

Regardless of where the girl in your life is skill wise, there are games and activities that can be structured and scaled to meet her needs while teaching her the foundations of leadership through fun games and play. It is important to foster these skills in girls in order to pave the way for them to navigate leadership opportunities and roles that come their way in the future. More and more opportunities that were previously dominated by men, are opening up to young women. In order for girls to be ready to take on those opportunities and to lead with confidence, these skills should be fostered from an early age.

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About the Author

Justyna Balzar, M.Ed. BCBA LBA (CT) Co-Founder & CEO

Justyna Balzar, M. Ed. BCBA, has a Masters in Curriculum and Education in Applied Behavior Analysis from Arizona State University. She has experience working with individuals with Autism and related disabilities in a variety of settings that include private school, public school, and home programs ranging in age from 3-18 years old. She is constantly seeking avenues to disseminate Behavior Analysis in conversation, presentations, and sharing Behavior Analytic content through her BehaviorChik Facebook page. She enjoys learning and discussing the boundless applications of ABA as they relate to all problems that involve behavior.