Are we really listening to and empowering young people?

Caring about improving access, equity, and success for all students means paying attention to their experiences and responding to their needs.

It involves creating an environment where students feel empowered to participate in and influence the decisions that affect their educational experiences. 

This practice involves including student voice.

Student Voice to Student Outcomes 

Student voice is a promising practice for creating classroom and school environments where students play an active role in classroom and school decision making. In recent decades, educators have increasingly incorporated student voice into classroom and school improvement efforts.  

Despite these efforts, many students report that they have few meaningful opportunities to participate in and influence educational decision making.

Student voice is something that needs to be intentionally cultivated. It is a way of sharing power with students that sometimes rubs up against traditional hierarchical power structures in classrooms and schools. 

Educators who are using tools like the Student Voice Framework to incorporate student voice practices are finding success by helping students become partners with educators in shaping their learning and experiences.

What do effective student voice practices look like? How can school leaders and teachers intentionally share power with students in this way?

What Is Student Voice?

Student voice practices are defined as the opportunities students have to participate in and influence the educational decisions that shape their lives and the lives of their peers. Student voice can take many forms. Students can organize and demand changes in hiring policies, curriculum, or school climate. Teachers can ask students to provide feedback on lessons. Schools can create advisory boards for students to provide insights into policy issues.

Educators can incorporate student voice opportunities throughout students’ educational journeys. Students as young as grade 4 have been shown to provide valuable feedback to educators on improving their learning experiences. When classrooms and schools develop student voice practices that encourage these participatory actions, students and educators are empowered as they collaborate together to create an environment that welcomes participation and inclusion. 

The Student Voice Framework 

The Student Voice Framework is a research‑based tool to support educators in developing and implementing a student voice practice in their classroom or school. It includes 8 elements of student voice, organized into two broad categories: Structures and Relationships. Each element is intended to provide insights into how a student voice practice operates in a classroom and/or school, and how it is experienced by students and educators.

Student Voice Structures

Structures are the basic features of a student voice practice, which shape the boundaries of a practice in terms of where it is occurring, what it is targeting, why it is being undertaken, and how it is operating. When developing a student voice practice, several structures may be used simultaneously. There are four structural elements that help to build a foundation for a student voice practice. 

  1. Setting—the place where the student voice practice happens. For example, in a classroom, school, or extracurricular space.

  2. Focus—the policy, practice, or activity that the student voice practice influences. Generally, this can be teaching and learning (what happens in the classroom) and student life (what happens outside of the classroom).

  3. Intent—the reason or motivation behind the student voice practice. This involves examining how much change educators are willing to undertake based on student input, from performative change to deep, transformative change. It also means considering who will benefit from a student voice practice. Is it only the involved students, a subset of students, or all students in the classroom or school?

  4. Type—these are methods that can be used to include students in decision making. Examples of methods include surveys or feedback forms; one‑on‑one interviews or group conversations; collaboration on youth participatory action research projects or student advisory councils; and professional development for educators that is led by students.

Student Voice Relationships

Relationships define the power dynamics at play within a student voice practice. The traditional educational power dynamic is a top‑down model where educators make decisions and students have little say over their learning, or control over classroom or school policies or practices. When student voice practices are in place, those relationships change, disrupting the traditional structure to give students more power and influence. There are four relational elements that help to shed light on the power dynamics within a student voice practice.

  1. Access—This means thinking about who has the ability to participate in a student voice practice? Do time or resource constraints make it so only a subset of the students has the opportunity to participate? 

  2. Representativeness—This is the degree of alignment between the intended beneficiaries and the students participating in the decision making. Whose voice is being heard?

  3. Roles—This is the level of leadership and initiative that students have within a student voice practice. Roles can be viewed as a spectrum of educator and student involvement, ranging from adult‑led decision making with student participation to student‑led decision making with limited adult support.

  4. Responsiveness—This is a key element of student voice practices because it involves informing students when a student voice practice contributes to change. If students see the practice contributing to change, they feel empowered to participate.

To effectively develop and implement a student voice practice in their classroom or school, educators should carefully consider each of the elements discussed and make decisions within the elements based on their students’ needs. The elements within structures help educators understand how and why they are engaging students in decision making, while the elements within relationships assist educators in clearly identifying how they will be shifting power dynamics to be inclusive of students' participation in decision making.  

Student Voice in Practice

Let’s consider an example of a student voice practice where a high school principal creates a student advisory council to attempt to create a more equitable school disciplinary policy. The principal meets bi‑weekly with the council, which is made up of a subset of students who are being over‑disciplined under the current policy. The council members share progress during school announcements. 

Applying the 8 elements of the Student Voice Framework, this practice looks like the following:

  1. Setting: school

  2. Focus: schoolwide disciplinary policy

  3. Type: student advisory council.

  4. Intent: degree of change is transformative change, intended to restructure school disciplinary policy. The intended beneficiaries are a subset of students being over‑disciplined under the current policy.

  5. Access: Only a subset of targeted students have access to the council.

  6. Representativeness: Aligned. Council members are students who are being over‑disciplined under the current policy.

  7. Roles: Students and the principal make decisions together.

  8. Responsiveness: This practice has a high degree of responsiveness, because the principal is collaborating with the students to make decisions and the council updates students on their progress.

As shown in this example, by applying the Student Voice Framework, we can understand (1) how and why educators and students are engaging in the student voice practice and (2) the relationships between educators and students within the student voice practice. We also see how the elements intersect with one another to provide a complete picture of the student voice practice. 

In this example, decisions made within the elements are aligned as school leaders created a student advisory council made up of students being over‑disciplined and gave these students the power to change policy. However, most student voice practices in classrooms and schools have misalignments among elements (for example, educators saying they are open to transformative change, but are unresponsive to students’ ideas for changes). Misalignment among elements may negatively affect the implementation of a student voice practice as students feel increasingly anxious, frustrated, and disengaged toward the practice. By developing a student voice practice using the Student Voice Framework, educators can potentially avoid misalignments and more effectively implement the practice.

Moving Toward a More Participatory Future

Student voice practices are not something that can just be turned on. They take planning, deliberation, and buy‑in from students and educators. But it is well worth the effort to develop them. 

When developing a student voice practice, educators should reflect on the current environment, considering whose voices are being prioritized. Black, Latina/o, low income, LGBTQ+, students receiving special education services, and English‑language learners have historically been marginalized in school environments. Good student voice practices can help elevate their voices and concerns.

A student voice practice also needs to take into account the developmental readiness of students. High school students may have more ability to collaborate with educators than elementary students. 

The readiness of educators is also worth considering. Are the staff ready to share power with students? Do they understand the importance of doing so?

And finally, what is the existing school climate like? Student voice practices flourish in environments where students and educators are already paying attention to relationship building and participation. 

These are places where students’ voices matter — and where they will feel empowered to create a better experience for all.

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