Skip to content
ascd logo

March 1, 2020
Vol. 77
No. 6

Let Them Lead

Walk into a local Springfield, Massachusetts, gymnasium one late afternoon when a Project Coach session is happening, and you'll find the activity level high and playful. The cinderblock walls and polyurethane rubber floors amplify the noise of bouncing balls, voices, and the clanging of loose basketball rims.
You might see a coach like 16-year-old Johnny move toward a bustling group of elementary-school aged boys and girls, put his whistle to his mouth, and give one short but decisive tweet as he calls, "OK, gather around for the huddle."
It's a typical start for a session at Project Coach, a Massachusetts out-of-school community-based organization run by Smith College faculty, staff, and students, in partnership with Springfield Public Schools, that empowers high school students to coach and mentor schoolchildren in free after-school sport and enrichment programs.
Twelve boys and girls reluctantly roll the balls to the sideline and form a fidgety circle where they are joined by Johnny and his coaching partner Yolanda. "Today's huddle question is about what we talked about last game," says Yolanda. "Athletes get better by noticing and talking about their small wins. We can also become better at school by noticing our small wins as students. Coach Johnny—do you have an example?"
Johnny says, "I have a hard time in math, so last week I stayed after school and met with my math teacher. She helped me out, and this week the homework was easier. What about you all?" he says 2with both hands extended in invitation. "Let's each of us name a small win that happened recently in school."
"I finished a book," says one 4th grader. Another says, "I started my homework today."
After each of the players in the huddle shares, Johnny claps his hands and points to a 30-inch square demarcated by orange cones. "OK—everybody grab a basketball. There is the ocean. You are fish, and Coach Yolanda and I are sharks. You know the game—let's go!" In an instant, the elementary-aged students are tearing around the court chased by their teenage coaches.
In 2004, Sam Intrator and Don Siegel, two Smith College professors, developed Project Coach to cultivate goal-setting, time management, communication, conflict resolution, networking, and persistence in high-school students. They believed that sports and coaching provided an ideal medium because they offer an array of opportunities to develop these skills within a motivating real-world context. The program, now run by Graeham Dodd and Jo Glading-DiLorenzo, works with teenagers from six high schools and more than 200 elementary students in five different elementary schools. It also includes a near-peer cross-age teaching and mentoring program in which aspiring college students mentor each high school student.

Cross-Age Coaching

Cross-age coaching presents teens with ever-unfolding dilemmas and teachable moments. To coach and teach successfully, one must employ a complex repertoire of skills, behaviors, and aptitudes that schools and employers associate with high achievement and success. Coaches must communicate, problem solve, take initiative, persevere in the face of adversity, resolve conflict, collaborate, inspire, plan strategically, and more. Research has consistently found that cross-age teaching can lead to academic learning and the growth of social-emotional skills (Hedin, 1987).
Psychologist Jerome Bruner (1972) believed that cross-age teaching and coaching could help solve what he describes as an endemic problem of disengagement facing "human culture and our species" (p. 704). Bruner believed that "a great many of the world's schools are conventional and dull places," and that as youth matured, they viewed formal schooling as being "irrelevant" to adult life (p. 703).
Bruner's commentary half a century ago is still relevant. The 2013 Gallup Student Poll of nearly 500,000 students in grades 5–12 concludes that "our educational system sends students and our country's future over the school cliff every year" (Busteed, 2013). Gallup found that of the 500,000 students surveyed in 2012, nearly eight in 10 elementary students were engaged with school, but by middle school that falls to about 6 in 10 students. By high school, only 4 in 10 students qualify as engaged. Bruner's answer to this lack of student engagement is to tap into the "superpower" of older youth caring for, teaching, and mentoring younger youth. We can see this in action with Project Coach, where student empowerment becomes enriched through cross-age interactions.

Qualities of Empowerment

Empowerment refers to an individual's ability to influence the outcomes of particular events. The noted community psychologist Julian Rappaport (1987) championed the idea that community agencies and other serving organizations should emphasize empowerment—processes that develop the knowledge, skills, and capacities of participants—rather than focusing on prevention or risk factors. Project Coach is designed to function as a youth-empowerment program. Our vignette describing Johnny and Yolanda's leading children and teaching them about a growth mindset illustrates three key attributes of empowerment: youth being psychologically engaged in 4positive activities, exercising control over their environment, and believing that they are doing noble and important work in their community.

Deep Engagement

As coaches of young children, Johnny and Yolanda are immersed and absorbed in the moment. They are fully and vitally present as they interact with their players. This state of intensive engagement—the quality of being "fully there"—is an optimal state of experience that the organizational theorist William A. Kahn (1992) describes as being involved in a task in such a way that one is "cognitively vigilant and empathically connected to others in the service of the work they are doing, in ways that display their thoughts and feelings, creativity, beliefs and values, and personal connections to others" (p. 322). The role of being a coach and a teacher demands high levels of preparation and concentration and the capacity to improvise.

Genuine Influence

Students are empowered when they feel confident that they can influence and shape their environment. As a teenager cast in the role of coaching a child, your job and responsibility is to coach—or, more broadly, to help others actualize their needs, wants, and hopes. As a coach or teacher, you set the tone, you lead the activities, and you set in motion what transpires in the setting. Fundamentally, Johnny and Yolanda's efforts focus on creating engagement and play, but they also have a raft of goals—to teach technical and tactical sport skills and to develop in players such values as teamwork, sportsmanship, and responsibility.

Making Meaning and Purpose

The children that Johnny and Yolanda coach live in the same neighborhood as they do. The community is one of the poorest zip code tracts in Massachusetts, and children have limited options for participating in enriching activities such as youth sports. "I grew up in this neighborhood, and there is just not a lot of opportunity to get involved in positive activities," Yolanda says. "We give children a chance to play, have fun, get exercise, and learn important things, like how all of us can better with practice."
The teens involved in Project Coach believe that the meaning and purpose of coaching sports has impact beyond what happens on the soccer field. And as the social psychologist David Yeager said, "We just don't often ask young people to do things that matter. We say, 'Be selfish for now, later when you're an adult then you can do something important.' But kids are yearning right now to have meaning in life" (Lehrer, 2014).
Coaching is more than coaching—it is noble action guided by what Bronk (2012) calls a "central desire to act in the world beyond oneself or in pursuit of a larger cause" (p. 80). At the end of every season, we conduct focus groups with our players and their parents. We once asked a 4th grade boy what he thought about the idea of being coached by teenagers. He lit up with a toothy smile and replied, "I think it's perfect. … Teenagers know how to make it fun." As for the teenagers, they take seriously the task of coaching in ways that make sports fun and active, but they also believe in that work is meaningful and important.
Our program has more than 10 years of data drawn from Reed Larson's Youth Experience Sample (Hansen & Larson, 2005) and the Life Skills Transfer Survey (Weiss et al., 2014). Both instruments track how the teens perceive the value of participation. Our results track higher than the national norms associated with these instruments in three areas: First, teens identify that they are learning key life and leadership skills such as understanding how emotions affect performance 6or learning to initiate conversations with others. Second, teens describe how their work as a coach and teacher helps others in the areas of giving advice and learning to listen. Third, teens believed they positively impacted their community. In aggregate, our teen coaches believe they make a difference.

Small and Big Wins

While there are many approaches to developing a program that enables cross-age coaching and teaching, there are several ideas that guide our work in Project Coach that make it particularly successful. We function as an out-of-school program; however, the basic structure of teens mentoring and teaching children can be coordinated within schools as well.
The first is through pairing up our coaches. While many programs focus on one-to-one tutoring or mentoring, we have teenagers work together as a coaching team. This enables them to complement one another's individual skills and strengths. They can also support each other while they are teaching as well as be reflective partners for debriefing and problem solving.
We also build towards the genuine moment of teaching each week through a process like that a sports team would use to get ready for game day. Each week has a single organizing theme; for example, one week we may be focusing on how to teach Carol Dweck's idea of growth mindset in sports by teaching how practice helps us improve our skills. Another week might focus on the importance of supporting your teammate and noticing how they achieved "small wins" during the game. The process includes these steps:
  • Learn: Coaches participate in a workshop that introduces the idea of growth mindset, and they reflect on the idea in relation to their own life and learning.
  • Rehearse: Coaches work on developing practice plans and rehearse how they might develop mini-games or questions for the huddle.
  • Simulate: Coaches coach each other in versions of the practice. This a low-stakes opportunity for them to work through the different elements of their plan and to give and receive feedback.
  • Perform: Game Day! Working in pairs and threes, coaches lead practices and coach games.
  • Reflect: After game day, coaches engage in a series of individual and group reflections using a variety of protocols that include writing, think-pair-share, and video analysis of their coaching. Our processes encourage our coaches to study coaching-in-action so that they can focus on specific qualities that are hard to verbalize, such as the energy level they bring, the frequency and quality of feedback they are giving their players, and the forms and quality of verbal and nonverbal communication.
  • Share: We provide opportunities for our coaches to explain the purpose of their work to others. They may write letters to parents introducing themselves as coaches, invite teachers and parents to see their work in action, or participate in community forums, for example. These opportunities for them to explain publicly how the work they do with children makes a difference build commitment to the work and affirm a coach's positive leadership identity.
While many of the examples described in this article are linked to Project Coach, the core approach is adaptable to almost every educational setting. The effect of this kind of peer mentoring and teaching was aptly described by a 16-year old in another study that Sam conducted 8of a high school English class that worked with kindergartners (Intrator, 2005). His conclusion on empowerment: "You know, it feels good to do good" (p. 83).

Bronk, K. C. (2012). A grounded theory of the development of noble youth purpose. Journal of Adolescent Research, 27(1), 78–109.

Bruner, J. S. (1972). Nature and uses of immaturity. American psychologist, 27(8), 687.

Busteed, B. (2013). The school cliff: Student engagement drops with each school year. [Blog post]. Gallup.

Hansen, D. M., & Larson, R. (2005). "The youth experience survey 2.0: Instrument revisions and validity testing." Urbana-Champaign, IL: University of Illinois.

Hedin, D. (1987). Students as teachers: A tool for improving school climate and productivity. Social Policy, 17(3), 42–47.

Intrator, S. M. (2005). Tuned in and fired up: How teaching can inspire real learning in the classroom. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Lehrer, J. (2014). The educational benefits of purpose. [Blog post].

Kahn, W. A. (1992). To be fully there: Psychological presence at work. Human relations, 45(4), 321–349.

Rappaport, J. (1987). Terms of empowerment/exemplars of prevention: Toward a theory for community psychology. American Journal of Community Psychology, 15(2), 121–148.

Weiss, M. R., Bolter, N. D., & Kipp, L. E. (2014). Assessing impact of physical activity-based youth development programs: Validation of the Life Skills Transfer Survey (LSTS). Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 85(3), 263–278.

Author bio coming soon

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Related Articles
View all
Why Music Should Be in Every Classroom
Joan Koenig
2 months ago

Related Articles

From our issue
Product cover image 120041b.jpg
The Empowered Student
Go To Publication