Engage and Empower Students for a Stellar School Year

September 2019

...student perceptions and student input are inextricably linked to providing a safe campus...

Wouldn’t it be great to bottle that “fresh start” feeling that launches each new school year so you could spike the cafeteria’s chocolate milk cartons with it when student engagement begins to lag?

Authentically centering student voice and engaging youth in participation projects could be the answer. We know that student perceptions and student input are inextricably linked to providing a safe campus climate. Since linking student voice and engagement is an abstract idea, let’s look at recent research to make it more concrete.

Why is student voice so important?

When students are consulted about school and classroom practices their interest in schoolwork and learning increase, which leads to improved academic performance.1,2 Student voice and activism directly link with improved GPAs.3

Youth input measurably improves strategic planning. Youth raise issues adults may not see or that adults would rather avoid.4,5 Students have insider knowledge that can be key to meaningful, positive change and can give slow or poorly moving initiatives a kick start.6,7

There is some evidence that adults who participate in youth participation projects develop a more optimistic view of young people and critical self-reflection skills that positively inform their professional practices.8

For students, no voice equals disengagement with the school and links directly to lower attendance, lower achievement, poorer self-concepts, and worse student discipline.9,10

An Example:

In this video you can hear directly from students involved in youth participatory action research in New York City conducted by the Public Science Project. They share first-hand knowledge about the whys and hows of student leadership and engagement.

Video | 13:56

How do I do it?

Be Purposeful

Welcome student voices by intentionally disrupting traditional roles that have students as passive receivers of education.11 It can’t be a token or symbolic effort. Efforts that feel disingenuous to students risk decreasing school engagement.12,13,14

Support teachers who may fear that redefining the teacher-student power dynamic will undermine their authority, authority they might already see is constrained in other ways by resources and other limitations.1 The structural changes needed to include students in decision making will necessitate shifts in personal perceptions by participants.7

Try a youth-adult power sharing activity recommended by the University of California YPAR Hub. http://yparhub.berkeley.edu/get-started-lessons/youth-adult-power-sharing/

Take a Broad View

It is critical to recognize that different stakeholders, including students, express their voice in different ways. Music and protest, for example, may be preferred outlets for youth expression.17 New media and social media are also likely avenues.16,18

EdSurge shares two student created podcasts. Great examples of student voice and the use of a new medium for expressing it.19 https://www.edsurge.com/news/2015-11-27-student-voice-literally-we-feature-two-student-podcasts

Include a Range of Voices

Diversity in ethnicity/race, gender, sexuality, and ability will help ensure that decisions have positive impacts and don’t ignore unintended negative impacts.6,13 If the students whose voices are heard are always those already successful on your campus, they may not be able to speak for the students whose engagement you have yet to capture.21,22

Mitra describes a school whose student leaders discovered through research that their classmates didn’t take their school’s biannual writing assessment seriously because the prompts were unconnected to student experiences. The student researchers then crafted new, better prompts based on student feedback.23

Truly Hear

Do not embrace the fallacy of colorblindness, but rather hear and acknowledge the different experiences of students with different identities.24 Also be wary of the tendency to be skeptical or dismissive of students’ perspectives.

Phrases like “If bullying is really a problem…” and “do the students really know what bullying is?” dismiss students’ observations and perceptions.6

Let Students Lead

Be careful not to take information from students and then co-opt the leadership role as that info is translated into improved policies and practices. Support students as leaders. This is a great opportunity to help students develop important lifelong skills.9,21

Give students real responsibilities – for example, planning a conference – and pair them with mentors who can guide them. Specifics for these and other ideas are offered by Milton Hershey School at https://mystudentvoices.com/5-tips-for-empowering-student-leaders-11f9fce102d4?gi=e42056a959b8.


1Robinson, C. (2014, December). Children, their voices and their experiences of school: What does the evidence tell us? A report for the Cambridge Primary Review Trust. Retrieved from https://cprtrust.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/FINAL-VERSION-Carol-Robinson-Children-their-Voices-and-their-Experiences-of-School.pdf

2Toshalis, E. and Nakkula, M.J. (2012), Motivation, engagement, and student voice. The Education Digest, 78(1), 29-35.

3Conner, J. and Slattery, A. (2014). New media and the power of youth organizing: minding the gaps. Equity & Excellence in Education, 47(1), 14-30.

4Brasof, M. and Spector, A. (2016). Teach students about civics through schoolwide governance. Phi Delta Kappan, 97(7), 63-68

5Smyth, J. (2007), Toward the pedagogically engaged school: Listening to student voice as a positive response to disengagement and ‘dropping out’. in D. Thiessen & A. Cook-Sather (Eds.), International handbook of student experience in elementary and secondary school, pp. 635-658. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer.

6Bertrand, M. (2018). Youth participatory action research and possibilities for students of color in educational leadership. Educational Administration Quarterly, 54(3), 366-395.

7Kornbluh, M., Ozer, E. J., Allen, C. D. and Kirshner, B. (2015). Youth participatory action research as an approach to sociopolitical development and the new academic standards: Considerations for educators. The Urban Review, 47(5), 868-892.

8Kennedy, H. (2018, November). How adults change from facilitating youth participatory action research: Process and outcomes. Children and Youth Services Review, 94, pp. 298-305.

9Mitra, D. and McCormick, P. (2017). Ethical dilemmas of youth participatory action research in a democratic setting. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 21(3), 248-258.

10Lukes, M. (2015). Latino immigrant youth and interrupted schooling: Dropouts, dreamers and alternative pathways to college. Buffalo, NY: Multilingual Matters.

11Mitra, D. (2018). Student voice in secondary schools: The possibility for deeper change. Journal of Educational Administration, 56(5), 473-487.

12Mayes, E. (2016). Student representation on school governance councils. 10.13140/RG.2.2.28348.90246.

13Mayes, E. (2019). Reconceptualizing the presence of students on school governance councils: The a/effects of spatial positioning. Policy Futures in Education, 17(4), 503-519.

14Nelson, E. (2016). Re-thinking power in student voice as games of truth: Dealing/playing your hand. Pedagogy, Culture & Society, 25(2), 1-14.

15Mockler, N. and Groundwater-Smith, S. (2014). Engaging with student Voice in Research, Education and Community: Beyond legitimation and guardianship. London, UK: Springer.

16Chávez, V. and Soep, E. (2005). Youth radio and the pedagogy of collegiality. Harvard Educational Review, 75(4), 409-434.

17Winters, M. (2015, November 27). Student voice (literally): We feature two student podcasts. Retrieved from https://www.edsurge.com/news/2015-11-27-student-voice-literally-we-feature-two-student-podcasts

18Khalifa, M. A. (2013). Promoting our students: Examining the role of school leadership in the self-advocacy of at-risk students. Journal of School Leadership, 23, 751-788.

19Welton, A. D., Brock, B., & Perry, M. (2014). Building a youth leadership fortress: High school women of color as visible activists. In W. S. Newcomb & K. C. Mansfield (Eds.), Women interrupting, disrupting, and revolutionizing educational policy and practice (pp. 79-98). Charlotte, NC: Information Age.

20Mitra, D. (November 2008). Amplifying student voice. Educational Leadership, 66(3). Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/journals/ed_lead/el200811_mitra.pdf

21Bonilla-Silva, E. (2014). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in America. Plymouth, UK: Rowman & Littlefield.