Mariah Sandy, 10, left the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center energized and determined to return to her school and pass along her newfound knowledge about leadership.
"I know how to be a good leader without being too bossy," the Atholton Elementary School fifth-grader said confidently as she stood among a small group of classmates. "I'm going to tell them everything I know."
It's never too early to prepare to become a leader.
Mariah was one of 400 fourth- and fifth-graders from 27 Howard County schools who learned about leadership at the fifth annual Peer Leadership Conference on Thursday.
The four-hour event comprised a series of seven workshops on topics that included leadership traits, effective decision-making, positive communication and conflict resolution.
During a session titled "Leadership," a group of eighth-graders led small groups in discussions about bullying. The day culminated with a slide show of photographs of participants taken during the conference.
Students were chosen to attend by staff members at their schools. Many were picked because of their participation in their school's safety patrol, peer mediation group, student government or anti-bullying initiatives, said Lisa Boarman, facilitator of school counseling for the county school system. The event was sponsored and coordinated by school counselors.
"It's about character development," Boarman said. "We are trying to give them the skills for everyday life."
The conference was founded by Beth Ivey, a counselor at Bellows Spring Elementary, to groom primary school leaders. Offerings have expanded to include conferences at the middle and high school levels, Boarman said.
"We're trying to build a capacity to build leadership," she said.
Tricia McCarthy, an assistant principal at Bollman Bridge Elementary, was the keynote speaker and shared real-life anecdotes about the challenges associated with being an effective leader.
"It isn't a popularity contest," McCarthy said during her presentation. "You aren't leaders because you want to be liked. You are going to tick some people off."
The messages resonated with students.
"I'm going to try and let everyone express their ideas," said Camryn Beaumont, a 10-year-old fifth-grader from Atholton Elementary.
One of the most popular workshops involved making "mud pies" from chocolate pudding and whipped cream. During the exercise, students were blindfolded and given directions to make the pies by their sighted group members.
"We all had to work together to accomplish the goal," said Hannah Larsen, 10, a fifth-grader at Atholton Elementary. "It taught us to be nice and how to use teamwork."
Santez Johnson, also a fifth-grader at Atholton Elementary, admitted that the mud pie exercise was messy.
"It turned out pretty good," the 10-year-old said, revealing that the students were able to eat the finished product. "We had a lot of fun."