Student Voice Readiness
Mindsets, Heartsets, and Skillsets are three enabling conditions that schools and educators should consider in student voice practices. Learn more and assess your own student voice readiness below.
Mindsets are the belief that organizational and classroom change is more likely to occur when students are partners in decision making—in both schoolwide and classroom settings.
Schoolwide: Mindsets at a school-level refer to adults’ willingness to partner with students, to adapt to their influence, and to empower young people.
Example: When describing what student voice looks like, one high school teacher, Kareema, identified different opportunities for students to be able to have a say, including on their educational plan, pathway, and programming. The teacher also pointed out how the administrative and teacher support in a certain school can make or break these opportunities. Kareema said:
“I think we have a building of pretty young, innovative, open staff that would be open to changing their ways and listening to what the students have to say.”
Classroom: Mindsets within the classroom refer to teachers’ and students' belief that learning is a joint responsibility between teachers and students, and that students have the expertise to inform decisions.
Example: Joe, a high school teacher said he incorporates student feedback within his pedagogical practice periodically. He also advocates that other teachers should try to get student feedback and input to improve their practice. According to Joe, students giving feedback to the teacher allows them to articulate and critically think about their learning experience. Regarding how much Joe benefited from student feedback, he said:
“It's [getting feedback on my teaching] incredibly supportive. That's what I find with my students is that it [feedback] reinforces, for me, what I'm doing right. It helps me to see the modifications that I might need to make it be more effective.”
Adultism is a mindset that views adults as superior to youth. In a school setting, this is often shaped by dismissing student opinions and prioritizing what adults want to do and say. The assumption in such situations is that adults are more knowledgeable and therefore are prioritized.
One high school formed a committee to change their bus schedule and asked two students to be on that committee. When the students voiced their opinion, outlining the pros and cons of the proposed schedules, the adults shut them down during the committee meeting. When students asked the teachers about the adults’ behavior, one of the teachers, Adam, said: “there were already biased opinions on what they [the adults] wanted the bell schedule to be, and it was contradictory to what the students wanted.” The teacher continued to explain ironically how adults at the school viewed students by saying: “God forbid the students gave the logical opinion.”
Students and their families may not fully understand the potential benefits of student voice for student wellbeing and academic performance. Some families or students may stress that succeeding in school means staying narrowly focused on academics and not getting distracted by engagement in educational decisions happening at school or within their classrooms. Some families or students might equate engagement in SVPs with disrespecting elders, or being perceived by adults within the school system as troubling or rude. Finally, other students may not have been exposed to the idea of student voice, have not been asked about their opinions, or have not been invited to be part of the decision making process.
Jane, a high school teacher, explained how some parents of some student groups encourage their kids to focus on oneself at the school by accomplishing schoolwork and not getting involved in non-academic work that may lead to trouble. She elaborated how some families would describe the situation for students: “[parents would say] you were taught from your parents to respect your elders, and not disrespect them and stuff, so you don't want to respond back to them, because that's not what your parents taught you to do.”
A persisting problem that hinders the successful implementation of SVPs is how it’s understood by adults. Some adults view SVPs as a checklist of activities that students must be involved in rather than as a collaborative and sustaining approach between students and adults.
One middle school teacher, Mona, described how the school principal at her school treated SVPs in a superficial way. Mona explained: “She [the principal] reads a book about education and then she's like, "Oh my gosh, that's such a great idea. I want to try and use that." It's like a surface-deep kind of thing. She looks at student voice and she's like, "Okay, if they're talking, they're using their voice." And that's a very surface-level definition of what student voice is.” According to Mona, the principal ensures that students have the space to talk, take surveys at the school to express opinions, and choose the electives they want. However, that’s not enough to have joint partnerships and collaborative initiatives with adults, but rather a superficial understanding and implementation of student voice.
Heartsets include trusting relationships between individuals, as well as individual attitudes and motivation. For example, heartsets include students identifying trustworthy teachers, and teachers feeling empowered by the school system and administration to support SVPs.
Example: When students were asked how they judge a new teacher to make sure that they can ultimately open up and be themselves with the teacher, Danny, a grade 8 student, described how he views trustworthy relationships. He described that one of the social workers at the school is comforting and he can definitely trust her. He said:
“I can trust her [because of] her mood or the way [she] talks to students.It's like you get your confidence up when you're talking to her. [The social worker] pulls me out of class when I'm not paying attention. If I'm pissed off about something, she just helps me calm down. Also I come in here to make my mood go up.”
When the administration isn’t supportive of teachers, teachers can lack agency to move forward with school and classroom decisions. Students expressed how teachers lack autonomy in any decision making, and are forced to go back to the administration to get approval, even for classroom-related matters. The teacher's lack of empowerment makes it harder to be autonomous, ultimately affecting relationships, trust, and communication between teachers and students.
When students were asked if they think teachers have any say in policy and practice reform at the school, the student highlighted that teachers are not heard themselves. To students, this means that teachers do not have any choice in altering policies or in being part of the decision making process at that school. Loren, a grade 8 student, described teachers’ lack of agency at the school: “Because mostly if you get in trouble [teachers say], ‘Oh, well the principal said you got to do that and if you do, you do that I get in trouble.’ They have no voice at all (...)”
How Heartsets are Formed
Testing trust and building student-teacher relationships
Teachers must work for and earn student respect. Our research on SVPs in schools highlighted teachers who spoke about how they felt the need to earn the trust of students to be able to teach them, care for them, and have them feel safe to voice concerns and needs. From the student perspective, students deeply assess and evaluate if the teachers are trustworthy before letting them in. After students carefully assess the potential of this relationship, they start feeling safe, and are more likely to engage in SVPs.
When Diane, a middle school teacher, described how relationships are built with students, she highlighted the fact that students weigh in their relationships with teachers before they decide to trust them. From a teacher’s perspective, teachers, in this case, need to work hard to get students’ respect and ultimately get students on board. Diane reflected: “So with these kids, they don't give respect. We have to earn their respect, some of them. Me earning their respect is like, "Hey, can I listen to music?" I have to say no as a teacher, but as a human being and as me, I say yes. But if someone comes in, it [the electronic device] needs to go out. When you're in the hallways, it [the electronic device] needs to go out.”
Sustaining student-teacher relationships
Students will continue to assess their relationships with their teachers based on the teachers’ actions and reactions to certain situations. From a student perspective, the ways teachers show their appreciation when students meet expectations, give feedback when the students have areas of improvement, or deal with more intense situations when there are classroom or schoolwide challenges are all defining moments that can sustain or break the relationship.
During a conversation with Leen, a middle school teacher, she highlighted the importance of building one-on-one relationships with the students, noting that this is what makes a great teacher. While getting students gifts or packets might seem nice, Leen said building trust and maintaining it through ongoing efforts is more important. The teacher reflected:“you have to communicate with them because if you just, for example, give them a little packet or something, then that won't work. You have to talk with them one-on-one and help them if they need any help with anything.”
Being trusted by others
Our research also indicates that testing trust is bidirectional and includes seeing whether adults trust students back. Adults can show that they trust students by assigning students roles and responsibilities, and increasing students' level of responsibility. These actions make students feel valued, worthy, and appreciated.
When new students come to the school, the librarian chooses Tineka, a grade 8 student, to give them a school tour and familiarize them with the school setting. From Tineka’s perspective, the librarian communicates this with her clearly, sets high expectations for her, and shows appreciation of her efforts. The grade 8 student reflected on this matter since trust is a two-way process. The student said;“She [the librarian] picked me the most because she said she can trust me the most. It makes me feel like I'm important now. It makes me feel like they trust me. Someone takes me seriously. And it makes me feel good.”
Often, adults are reluctant to share power until they have assurance that youth possess the skills and confidence to assume leadership, but leaders in schools need to prioritize student voice activities to achieve and sustain change.
Training for adults and students: Since SVPs may be new to many educators and students, there might be a need from administrators and leaders to provide training. This training can help teachers and students engage in SVPs, voice their opinions, and be part of a collaborative, decision making process.
Example: One high school teacher reflected on the importance of training by acknowledging that students haven't received any of the training needed to build the necessary skills. The teacher said:
“I would love to be able to take a group of young leaders, not necessarily in the leadership classes, but include them and go to some of these leadership conferences where students can learn about what they have control over and how much power they have. These guys don't know. They haven't gotten to experience that. And until you do, until you get to go to other schools and see what they're doing, or go to conferences and see what's possible, they can't do it.”
Inquiry-informed student voice work: The use of data is very important for informing school improvement efforts. Data includes evaluation reports, surveys and questionnaires, course evaluations, focus groups, or student councils—as well as any types of data and data collection schools put in place to inform their student voice work.
Example: A school with a Student Advisory Board conducts a teacher evaluation report with open- and close-ended questions. While not all administrative offices at the school are on board yet, the school decided that there will be a multi-step approval process for the wording of the questions. The planned procedure gave students a sense of security due to its intentionality in including their voice and participation in the process.
Marketing and promotion skillsets: Communicating schoolwide initiatives can make or break the success, sustainability, and growth of student voice initiatives. The school needs to develop a communication strategy that ensures students learn about SVPs.
Example: Jess, a middle school student, shared that she never participated in SVPs because she never knew they existed. Jess reflected:
“Student voice [can’t exist when] no one knows about it… it wasn't announced, it wasn't. It wasn't broadcasted out. So no one really knew about it until like, this year, where everyone's actually like participating. And it's getting out there.”
We identify four barriers that might hinder the development and sustainability of Skillsets at the school: Lack of Capacity, Lack of Skills, Data Conceptualization, and Responsiveness. We will go deeper into each of these barriers, provide definitions, and illustrate through examples from the school.
Lack of capacity
While school districts might provide training to equip their staff with the needed skills to implement SVPs, many do not have the time or capacity to provide the level of support needed.
While a school district we partnered with had a strong commitment to provide training to the schools, it was hard to provide the appropriate amount of training needed due to large school size and the shorthanded student voice staffing of only one coordinator. Our conversations with the district team revealed that they were afraid that Tina, the student voice coordinator at one of the schools, would not return the following year because it was so difficult for her to get the teachers at the school to support the work and be involved in it.
Lack of skills affecting trust
Not all teachers receive training in leading advisory circles and similar practices. Ultimately, this affects the quality of the sessions led on student voice work. Like classroom teachers, student voice teachers need classroom and time management skills to help facilitate discussions and produce fruitful work.
In one of the school sites where SVPs seemed to struggle, the teachers responsible for student voice work, including sessions and discussions, were not successful in their implementation. According to Catherine, a teacher at the school, student voice teachers were unable to get student buy-in, and this ultimately affected student voice work. Catehrine said: “You have to have classroom management, and a lot of the advisory teachers are not general education teachers, so they [student voice teachers] didn't have the classroom management piece. Their circles were really difficult for them, because it does take a lot of time and practice to get the kids to want to do it.”
Conceptualizing the use of data
Gathering data from students is important to inform data-driven work, implement SVPs, and create equitable practices where all students can participate. However, data collection becomes counterproductive if the data gathered doesn’t inform policy and practice. Many caution that data gathering becomes a performative practice if not tied to any policy or practice change.
A high school that created school evaluation surveys to be taken by the students faced this problem. When the survey was distributed and the data was collected, the school administration did not analyze this data or use it to inform future practice. One teacher, Tod, described the situation: “It really feels separate because, well, our department leader didn’t want to share data and didn’t want to examine her practices.” This made the school lose students buy-in and their faith that the school will be responsive to this kind of work.
When lack of responsiveness was prevalent in schools, students reported more discouragement in participating in Student Voice work over time. Lack of responsiveness is defined by having Student Voice initiatives set in place but the school administration does not act upon them. In other words, building capacity, allocating budget, and reserving time to conduct SVPs are not enough if these efforts were not met with responding to student input in these efforts.
Students consistently reported to us that they felt discouraged when asked for opinions but then never hearing if any changes were made. One survey comment mentioned, “Students receive surveys but they don’t know what is being done with the data”. A feedback loop demonstrating how student voice leads directly to action and impact greatly improves student’s and teacher’s trust in the school.
The content on this page and all resources associated with "Student Voice Readiness" were created by Dana Mitra and Ghadir Al Saghir, with technical and editorial assistance from Search Institute Staff. Suggested Citation: Al Saghir, G. & Mitra, D. (2023). Student Voice Readiness Self-Assessment Tool. State College, PA: Pennsylvania State University.