5 Tips for Building a Teen Leadership Program

By Cassie Paddock, CPRP | Posted on June 18, 2024

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Starting a teen leadership program can be a game-changer for your community. It’s a chance to equip the next generation with skills, confidence and a sense of responsibility. Below are five practical tips to help you create a successful teen leadership program.

1. Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

There’s no need to start from scratch when others have already paved the way. Look into existing programs and reach out to their organizers. Don’t limit yourself to teen-specific initiatives either! When I developed the City of Schertz’s program, I drew inspiration from various sources like the Texas Recreation and Park Society (TRAPS) Dr. Michal Ann Lord Leadership Academy, a chamber of commerce’s leadership academy, another city’s teen leadership program, a “City University” program and a Youth Advisory Committee (YAC). By borrowing ideas and best practices, I was able to develop a program that perfectly fit our community.

2. Determine Your Goal

What do you want to achieve with your program? Are you seeking teen feedback, developing informed citizens or creating future leaders? Your goals might be a blend of these elements. For us, the aim was to educate teens about city operations, develop future leaders who are well-informed about municipal processes, and drive community engagement.

Also, consider what size group makes sense for you! We opted for a small group of 12 students to foster closer bonds and deeper engagement. Our neighboring city chose a larger group of 40 to include more participants. These programs aren’t “one size fits all,” so it’s important that you know what outcome you are looking for and build from there.

3. Find What Makes Your Community Unique

Every community has its own unique flavor. Identify what makes yours special and incorporate those elements into your program!

For instance, a significant part of our community is connected to the Joint Base San Antonio Randolph Air Force Base. Many of our residents have military connections, and our city often collaborates with the base. We wanted to highlight this by including a session about the base, complete with a field trip where students used flight simulators and heard directly from military leaders. It was a standout experience that showcased our community’s unique ties to the military.

4. Reach Out to Potential Partners

Remember - you don’t have to do it all alone! Building partnerships can make the program stronger and more enriching.

Our first move was to engage our local school district. Since our program meets during school hours once a month, we needed the school’s support for excused absences. They also assisted with transportation for students and field trips so that anyone who wanted could apply and not worry about how to get to the off-site program.

Additionally, we teamed up with a leadership consulting firm, Operation Total Leadership, that could provide expertise in leadership lesson delivery. I knew we could handle the activities, guest speakers and field trips, but hiring a consultant for the lecture portion really increased the validity of the program.

Both partners helped our team craft the program into what it is today and still meet to review applications and make modifications each year.

5. Find the Right Mix

Teens, like most nowadays, have short attention spans, so it’s essential to balance lectures with interactive activities. Sitting through long sessions of lectures and guest speakers can be tedious. Incorporate interactive activities that reinforce the lessons of the day and encourage student participation.

For instance, here is an example timeline of one of our sessions: Education and Peak Performance. You’ll see that we sprinkle interactive elements throughout the day so the students aren’t just being talked to all day. Even with our lectures and guest speakers, we encourage student interaction to keep them engaged.

  • 9:15 a.m.: Welcome and Review
  • 9:30 a.m.: Peak Performance Topic Delivery:
    • Participant Guide & Worksheets
    • Discussion Prompts
    • 2 Mid-presentation hands-on exercises
  • 11:30 a.m.: Lunch Break
  • 12 p.m.: Speaker and Q&A: The Superintendent of Schools
  • 12:45 p.m.: Activity: Personal Board of Directors
  • 1:45 p.m.: Speaker and Q&A: Dean of Admissions
  • 2:30 p.m.: Activity: Leaders Can, Leaders Think, Leaders Do
  • 3:15 p.m.: Wrap up and Dismiss

Creating a teen leadership program is a rewarding endeavor that can make a lasting impact. By drawing from existing programs, setting clear goals, leveraging your community’s unique aspects, building strong partnerships, and maintaining an engaging mix of activities, you can develop a program that resonates with your teens and prepares them for future leadership roles.

What unique elements does your community offer that could enrich a teen leadership program? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below!

Cassie Paddock, CPRP (she/her) is the Recreation Manager for the City of Schertz Parks, Recreation, and Community Services. Connect with Cassie on LinkedIn.

This blog post was written in partnership with the NRPA Young Professionals Network (YPN). Learn more about the NRPA YPN on NRPA Connect or on the YPN Facebook group.