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SoundOut is an expert assistance program focused on promoting Student Voice and Meaningful Student Involvement throughout education.


We work with K-12 schools, districts, state and provincial education agencies, and nonprofit education organizations across the United States and Canada.


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Overcoming Barriers to Student Voice

By Adam Fletcher


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 their arms.


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 your forehead.


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.


Culture 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 voice.


Scenario - The School Committee

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.


Structural Barriers

  • 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 reflecting activities.

  • 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 the committee.

  • 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 committee.

Cultural Barriers

  • 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 students.

  • 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 community service.

  • 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 becoming involved.

  • 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 include...

  1. Individual teacher advocate learning about student voice and meaningful student involvement.

  2. Teacher advocate training peer teachers and intentionally selected nontraditional and traditional student leaders about student voice and meaningful student involvement.

  3. Students learning about issues in education by incorporating their reflections on school in a constructivist learning experience centering on the committee's work.

  4. Teachers and students committing to participating as equals on committee.

  5. Facilitation of development and reflection activities focusing on student voice are provided throughout committee activities.

  6. Final committee 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.


Learn more


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 Toolkit.


This topic was originally explored in the Meaningful Student Involvement Guide to Students as Partners in School Change. For more information or assistance, contact us


About SoundOut


SoundOut has worked in more than 100 K-12 schools and districts across the United States and around the world. Learn more about us, and for more information contact us.















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