SoundOut is an
expert assistance program focused on promoting
Student Voice and Meaningful Student Involvement
We work with K-12
schools, districts, state and provincial education
agencies, and nonprofit education organizations
across the United States and Canada.
Overcoming Barriers to Student Voice
You tried to listen to students or you
invited students to meetings, and nothing seems to work. Since then, every
time you've suggested students participate in activities you think are
meaningful, they don't show up; worse yet, they smirk at you and fold
Or you actually tried to speak up in
class, and you even went to the meeting. You were excited by what your
teacher was talking about, but when you got there you only heard a group
of teachers and a vice principal talking about school rules and policies
and procedures and... it was all very boring. Now every time your teacher
asks for volunteers to come, it feels like her stare is burning a hole in
Each perspective here is correct:
students are routinely bored at most significant educational leadership
activities, and teachers are often underwhelmed or frustrated by students'
disinterest in opportunities to change their education.
According to academic research and
practitioners from across the nation, there
are two main categories of barriers to engaging student voice throughout
education. This article explains those barriers, and offers several
strategies for overcoming them. These categories are entwined: changing
one shouldn't be seen as a silver bullet for engaging student voice. Each
should be acknowledged, examined, addressed, challenged, and transformed
in order to engage student voice.
Structure in school is any
formalized activity within education. There are "4 Ps" in the structure of
schools: positions, policies, practices, and procedures. It may be
tempting to neglect the importance of developing structures that embrace
student voice, as it may seem daunting or impossible to change those "4
Ps". However, the public education system is inherently steeped in
process; that is what makes it a tool of democracy. In order to secure and
strengthen democracy and education, students must be integrated and
student voice must be infused throughout the structure of schools.
is a less concrete, more intrinsic factor to
engaging student voice throughout education. Many researchers say the
culture of a school is its "personality": Just like people, schools can be
kind and accepting, rude and disrespectful, wise and guiding, and any
other set of characteristics. Even more so, schools can be, and usually
are, any combination of those characteristics. In this way, culture
actually dictates structure; it is also obvious in the attitudes, actions,
interactions, and relationships of individuals throughout education.
Here is an example of how structure and culture can be barriers to student
Scenario - The School
Teachers in a middle school decided to
invite a to student join a committee, a first for their school
district. During a seventh grade Advisory period, one teacher
invited a student to volunteer to participate in a meeting that
evening. At the meeting, there were 6 teachers, and the one student
who missed her Junior Honor Society meeting in order to attend.
After sitting through three meetings without speaking, the student
stopped attending. Afterwards, the teachers swore off inviting
"anymore kids" because "they don't add anything" to the meeting.
Teacher preparation courses
and professional development training does not prepare or
reinforce teachers' ability to engage student voice.
Student voice activities should
not be limited to one school or to middle and/or high schools.
Adding student voice was an
afterthought to committee planning, occurring only the day of
the meeting, rather than as a course of action with framing and
The meeting was not announced
in enough time to allow student participants to prepare.
The committee meeting time
conflicted with previously planned student activities,
limiting the participation of more students.
The student was not told about
expectations for their involvement.
The student did not receive
training on committee participation or the issues addressed by
There was inequitable
representation between the student and the teachers.
The student had no structured
reflection focused on her experience of being involved in the
While the teachers recognized the
inherent benefit of engaging student voice, their were armed with
good intentions, not experience-driven practice.
Teacher didn't have knowledge of or
access to materials to help them develop their committee.
The nature of the activity had
limited appeal to diverse students, particularly non-involved
Committee participation was seen as
separate and unrelated from classroom lessons, despite the
opportunities for applied learning in communication, leadership,
and social awareness.
Committee participation was seen as
separate and unrelated from Junior Honor Society activities,
despite the connections between serving on the committee and
The teachers made no overt
concessions designed to engage the student in the meeting, instead
relying on her to answer the question, "What do you think?" in the
same way another teacher would.
Lacking opportunities to reflect on
her participation, the student complained to other students about
the experience, further disinteresting other students from
The teachers' perceptions of the
student and her involvement will further alienate student voice.
Main Strategy for Overcoming Barriers
Develop a district or school-wide
strategy for engaging student voice, including professional
development, policies encouraging and sustaining student voice, and
integrated approaches to developing, sustaining, and strengthening
the impact of student voice. Steps in this particular scenario may
advocate learning about student voice and meaningful student
training peer teachers and intentionally selected nontraditional
and traditional student leaders about student voice and meaningful
Students learning about issues in
education by incorporating their reflections on school in a
constructivist learning experience centering on the committee's
Teachers and students
committing to participating as equals on committee.
development and reflection activities focusing on student voice
are provided throughout committee activities.
activity is focused on critical reflection and celebration of
accomplishments, including meaningful student involvement.
There are plenty of other examples of the structure and culture of schools
serving as barriers to engaging student voice throughout education;
however, these are surmountable tasks that every school can and should
overcome. Student voice is too valuable to the success of learning and
leading in schools and communities to continue to be neglected, alienated,
or rejected. Our schools and students can't wait any longer.
To learn more about overcoming barriers to student voice in the classroom,
see Alfie Kohn's article entitled, "Choices
for Children: How and When to Let Children Decide." For information on
overcoming organizational barriers to student voice, see Youth On Board's
manual called, "15
Points to Successfully Involving Young People in Decision-Making".
For more information about student voice, see
SoundOut's Student Voice
This topic was
originally explored in the
Student Involvement Guide to Students as Partners in School Change.
For more information or assistance,
SoundOut has worked in more than 100 K-12 schools and districts
across the United States and around the world. Learn more
and for more information