Empowering Students: How School Leaders Can Foster Student Voice

Students are the foundation of our schools—so it makes sense that they have a say in their education and their school culture. Consider these strategies to cultivate and elevate student voice throughout their school career.
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Blog date
9/19/23
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When we think about “feedback” or “voice” in schools, we often look through the lens of the adults in our ecosystem—our teachers and staff, parents and families, and community members. We know that when we give the people in our school community agency and voice, we build a high level of trust and  engagement.

And yet, it’s student engagement that’s paramount to school success. When students are able to contribute to their school culture in an active, meaningful way—and when their ideas are discussed and included in the daily pulse of our schools—they become more engaged and committed to learning. Their well-being improves, as well. There are plenty of research studies to back up these positive effects. 

When students are able to contribute to their school culture in an active, meaningful way—and when their ideas are discussed and included in the daily pulse of our schools—they become more engaged and committed to learning.

In collaboration with adults, students also have the opportunity to become agents of change. What begins with them sharing their perspective about something important can empower and inspire them—and might just turn into a lifelong passion.

There’s no doubt countless ways your teachers can cultivate student voice and student agency in their classrooms—but as a school leader, what can you do to ensure you’re playing a part in creating and elevating student insights and ideas? We have a few ideas below. 

First, what do we mean when we say “student voice”?

Like many words we use in education, “student voice” has different meanings for different people. Here, we’re defining student voice as the Center for American Progress defines it: “Authentic student input or leadership in instruction, school structures, or education policies that can promote meaningful change in education systems, practice, and/or policy by empowering students as change agents, often working in partnership with adult educators.”

We also appreciate this simplified definition from Eric Toshalis, Senior Director of Impact at Knowledge Works, who says student voice “can be understood as expression, performance, creativity, and as co-constructing the teaching/learning dynamic.”

No matter the definition of student voice, it’s normal to have a little apprehension about creating ways for students to share their perspectives in school, even if  it’s something you steadfastly support. It might feel like it will be tough to get started, or you might be concerned about negative feedback. It takes a bit of strategy and planning to implement, but the positive outcomes for incorporating more student voices into school decisions far outweigh the concerns. 

For elementary school students: creating “Somedays” and space for self-reflection

It’s easy to assume that building student voice and agency is only possible with high school or middle-school students. However, there are many actions we can take in elementary school  to lay a foundation for students getting involved and sharing their perspectives later in their school careers. 

There are many actions we can take in elementary school  to lay a foundation for students getting involved and sharing their perspectives later in their school careers. 

For example, leaders and teachers at a Maine school collaborated on a low-effort, high-impact activity they called “Somedays.” Each student and staff member at the school had to complete and submit the following sentence: “Someday in school, I would like to _______.” For each day of the school year, teachers, staff, and school leaders worked together to make sure those wishes came true to the best of their ability. 

The effort taught the school several lessons. One was how achievable many of the “Somedays” were. One student hoped to share a recess period with her younger cousin. Another wanted his mom to come to school and read a book to his class in Spanish, while he translated in English. When a wish was asked for that couldn’t be fulfilled—such as a student bringing their pet to class, they improvised. For the pet example, everyone in the school was encouraged to bring a photo of an animal they loved. The hallway with the pet photos became the most popular destination in the school.

Another simple activity to promote student voice among elementary school students is to simply give them the time and space for a bit of self-reflection. You know how important self-reflection is in your own leadership to help bring your perspectives into view. Are there ways that you can model or share your own reflection process with students so that they can foster a deeper understanding of who they are and how they feel?

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For middle and high school students: surveys, advisory groups, and actionable research

In the upper grades, cultivating voice is so much more than student leaders taking part in student council—it’s about welcoming a range of student opinions in academic content, discipline, school culture, family interactions, and more. No matter what the topic is, here are a few key ways and learning experiences to capture their perspectives:

  • Student surveys: The most efficient way to collect student perspectives are through student surveys. Taking the time to ask students what they feel would make them more successful in school, how they learn best, and what kind of school activities would benefit their learning the most offers school leaders a way to get a large amount of information on a targeted subject. And, it doesn’t have to be a large survey. Even 1-3 question surveys and pulse checks can give critical insight.
  • Student advisory groups: These kinds of groups bring students from different walks of life together for regular meetings or conversations about their needs, expectations, and the trends they’re seeing emerge within their school. This method is especially effective if you’re looking for students to weigh in on a specific issue or challenge.
  • Student research & action: Consider elevating student voice and student agency as a learning opportunity. One way is to train students in collecting and analyzing data, in addition to brainstorming their own research questions and using their observation skills to draw conclusions on what’s going right, what could use some work, and how they can help create action. 
In the upper grades, cultivating voice is so much more than student leaders taking part in student council—it’s about welcoming a range of student opinions in academic content, discipline, school culture, family interactions, and more.

Student voices are diverse voices

As you’re considering how to best infuse student voice into school decisions, programs, and initiatives, remember that students are not a monolith. Each student has diverse perspectives and needs, and the main goal should be not only to incorporate student voices, but to engage as many of those voices as possible—especially those who have been historically underrepresented or under engaged

Remember that students are not a monolith. Each student has diverse perspective and needs.

When all student voices have a seat at the table, students can practice agency over their education, advocate for themselves and their communities, and prepare for the future in the short- and long-term—and you can obtain the information needed to affect meaningful change at your school.

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