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Career Readiness | High School | 21st Century Skills

How to Teach Initiative to High School Students

April 19th, 2022 | 7 min. read

Bri Stauffer

Bri Stauffer

For nearly 10 years, Bri has focused on creating content to address the questions and concerns educators have about teaching classes, preparing students for certifications, and making the most of the AES curriculum system.

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It’s never easy to teach students how to take initiative. How do you know which students are comfortable with initiative, and how do you help the ones who need it?

On top of that, how do you know students have mastered initiative for the workplace?

One teacher told us that employers list “initiative” as the biggest issue they face with new employees coming from work-based learning programs.

So how can you motivate your students to take initiative in the classroom and the workplace?

In this post we’ll share the five best ways to teach initiative to high school students:

  1. Tie your lessons to the end goal
  2. Incorporate group work
  3. Let students work independently
  4. Help students stay productive and be proactive
  5. Encourage students to discover connections

Before getting into the details, let’s start with a quick definition of what initiative actually is!

What Is Initiative?

Initiative, or “intrinsic motivation,” is a 21st Century skill that relates to employees starting projects, developing plans, and executing strategies on their own.

As a result, employers love employees who show initiative. They’re great to have on staff, and they’re ideal for promotions to middle management or executive teams.  

But initiative is not an innate skill. That’s why it’s so critical for you to teach initiative to your students!

So with that, let’s get to it!

1. Tie Your Lessons to the End Goal

how-to-teach-initiative-high-school-goal

In school and the workplace, goals encourage people to take initiative.

This is especially true if the goal is rooted in what your students find important.

But how do you incorporate this into your classroom?

Start by learning more about your students! Find out information such as:

  • What type of job do they want?
  • Do they need to go onto a technical center or college to obtain that job?
  • Will they need to be certified in specific skills?

Find this information out and bring it to the forefront of your lessons.

By always tying your classroom instruction to the end goals your students have in mind, they’ll be more motivated to put in the effort and go beyond your expectations.

Whether a student is doing clinicals, internships, or even working part-time they should always be aware of their goals.

To tie this into career readiness, it’s a good idea to mention that employees should always have some sort of goal, no matter what line of work they pursue.

Teaching your students to think with this goal-in-mind approach will help them adapt their learning and working styles and show more initiative moving forward!

2. Incorporate Group Work in Your Lessons

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Group work is a great way to encourage critical thinking and promote teamwork in small groups of students.

But to inspire initiative, you need to do more than just have students work in groups. Very often group work can lead to one or two students doing the bulk of the work, while others sit back and agree.

That’s why it’s important that you incorporate a way for students to rate their teammates on how helpful they were at getting the tasks completed.

By being upfront about this process, students will be more likely to take initiative so as to not let their team, you, and even themselves down.

By adding this type of pressure, students will work harder and avoid being seen as the “weak link” in the team.

In addition, by promoting this type of collaboration students will find ways to motivate their classmates to put their best work forward.

Whether it’s offering words of encouragement or embracing each person’s strengths, your students will try to find what works best to motivate everyone to get the job done.

Overall, the experience of working in groups can give students a new perspective on what motivates themselves and others.

But, that’s just one way to teach your students to take initiative! Along with group work, it’s important to let students work independently as well.

3. Let Your Students Work Independently

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Independence is closely related to initiative both in the classroom and in the workplace.

Students will need to learn to manage their time and work effectively, without someone constantly there to keep them on task.

If you let students work independently, you’re showing them you trust they will get the work done.

You’re also giving them practice with making decisions on how much time to dedicate to certain aspects of the assignment.

In addition, this can be an excellent follow-up after group work, because if someone tried to coast off their teammates’ work in previous lessons, now their performance is all on their own shoulders!

That’s not to say you should be 100% hands-off, as someone is bound to have a question here or there.

But in general, if you give students the reigns of their learning, they will be more responsible and motivated to show you they can be trusted to get everything done.

However, the one problem with students working independently is that some will finish quicker than others and be left waiting. That’s where our next tip comes into play!

4. Help Students Stay Productive & Be Proactive

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Whether in class or in the workplace, it’s inevitable that your students will run into chunks of “downtime” after finishing a project or task.

This downtime is where initiative can decline. Students who finish classwork more quickly than others may not know what to do next.

In order to help your students stay productive and proactive, it’s smart to address these situations before they occur!

Develop Extra Tasks

One way to help students stay productive is to assign “extra” tasks for students to complete throughout the semester.

These could be anything from answering a question in their class journals to completing an additional worksheet.

No matter what the task is, the most important aspect is that it relates to the topics you’re covering in class and rewards students for going above and beyond.

Use Bonus Questions

If some of your students finish assessments more quickly than others, you can add a “bonus” question at the end of certain quizzes or tests.

Open-ended questions like “What else do you know about the topic?” can work well.

By asking students to fill out this section, you’re helping them stay productive after an assessment and giving them a chance to show what else they know!

Get Student Input

At the beginning of class, ask students what they think would be a good use of their time once they’ve completed their assessment or activity.

This can be a great way to get students proactively involved with deciding how they can stay productive. Talk about showing initiative!

This idea of getting students involved also relates directly to tip number five!

5. Encourage Students to Discover Outside Connections

how-to-teach-initiative-high-school-outside-connections

Some teachers try to inspire initiative in their students by directly addressing why they should learn what’s being taught.

While it can be tempting to dictate what’s important, it can sometimes be more effective to have students make those connections themselves!

Depending on the topic you’re teaching, ask students to think about questions such as:

  • Why do you think we’re learning this?
  • When would someone use this information/skill in their career?
  • Where have you seen someone use this information/skill before?

You can either ask these questions in classroom discussions or for students to answer in their class journals.

No matter how you implement this idea, having students make the connection to the workplace will give them more motivation and initiative to learn!

Need to Teach Initiative and More 21st Century Skills?

Initiative is a tricky topic to teach for most career readiness educators. For many, it can appear more like an innate trait that a student either has or doesn’t have, rather than a hard skill that can be learned. Luckily, that isn't the case.

In this article, you’ve discovered five strategies to better teach initiative in your classroom. If you use these strategies and run with them, your kids will be well on their way to becoming proactive thinkers and planners. 

However, initiative isn’t the only essential 21st century skill out there. To succeed in the workplace, students these days also have to learn essential abilities like critical thinking, leadership, collaboration, and more. 

If you want help teaching all of these and more, check out this Ultimate Guide to Teaching 21st Century Skills. This 30-page guide goes in-depth into 12 critical skills every student should develop to succeed in their future careers. Along the way, you’ll learn what each skill means, why they’re important, and how to teach them to secondary school students:

Read Your Free Guide on Teaching 21st Century Skills