Demonstrating Cascading Leadership Among Students

The model I created about “Cascading Leadership” is my “process-ization” of a naturally occurring phenomenon! So there’s a lot to draw from in order to illustrate it. Working with a group of students last year in Seattle, I saw this “cascading leadership” flow quickly.

Focused on stopping youth violence among youth in their high school, this particular group was led by a pair of 18-year-old students who were set to graduate. Other students in the group were from throughout their high school (secondary school), with the youngest ones being 13 or 14. There were 15 students in the meeting when I was there.

One of the oldest students facilitated almost the entirety of the group’s 40 minute session. The other took notes and questions, and seemed to have the “behind-the-scenes” authority. In 40 minutes, the students did a short training on strategic summer communication to their peers, voting for the next year’s leaders, finishing plans for the end-of-year celebration, and reflecting on this year’s challenges and successes.

However, instead of those two student leaders talking the entire time, watching conversation throughout the session was like watching a great juggler handling a dozen balls in the air. One student volunteered to take notes while another showed them how; everyone engaged in brainstorming when a different student stepped forward to lead the key question period for that section; while students took student-driven reflection to a whole other space through its depth and brevity!

This was actually these students’ interpretation and actualization of the Cascading Leadership model! I’d trained them on it early in the school year. A few of the students humored me afterwards by going through this article with me and showing me how they did it:
  • Student 1 gives direct instruction, mentoring, and critique to Student 2: In this group, that meant training and facilitation by the senior students throughout the school year;
  • Student 2 provides instruction to Student 3: Roles in this group were designated according to interest, versus the age of the students, so younger students actually facilitated the reflection questions for the whole group;
  • Student 3 learned from Student 2 and led reflection for Students 4 and 5: When less-capable students were stumped, students with a bit more experience or knowledge were empowered to assist them in activities;
  • Student 5 was acknowledged for their role: All students were involved throughout the group’s activities, both within the 40 minute meeting and throughout the group’s operations in the rest of the school year.
As I propose in the model, this type of deliberate engagement among students in fostering student involvement not only increases student engagement, but ensures succeeding generations of students stay invested and maintains ownership over group activities.
I have taught classroom teachers, community youth workers, and government officials this model as well. It basically takes peer tutoring to the Nth degree, with students fully empowered to engage their peers by acknowledging their capacity for self-leadership by ensuring they have the skills, authority, and ability to drive their own learning and activities.
Cascading Leadership can help schools take student leadership to its fullest potential.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Published by Adam F.C. Fletcher

I'm a speaker and writer who researches, writes and shares about youth, education, and history. Learn more about me at

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