Amplifying student voice: 3 ways to encourage authentic youth involvement

Research suggests student voice begins at-home and at-school. So, how can we provide more opportunities for children and youth to discover and speak their voice?

Think back to a time you had to make a decision that would impact your household or classroom. Who was involved in the decision-making process? How did you make the decision? And, did your children or students have a voice in the final outcome?

Student voice describes the ways in which children and youth have the opportunity to actively participate in decisions that can shape their lives. Student voice reflects personal identity, and gives children and youth a platform to share their ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and learn perspective-taking. An environment that fosters student voice can increase motivation, spark engagement, and cultivate important social, emotional and cognitive skills among children, youth, and young adults.

Across Canada, projects have been funded to support increasing opportunities for students to contribute authentically to improving their schools. Research suggests that incorporating more student voice in education can have a profound impact on learner engagement, attendance, and motivation. When children and youth actively participate at home, at school, and in their communities, they are learning how to express their beliefs, thoughts, and ideas.

Yet, although adults may be aware of the power of student voice, we sometimes forget to listen. If we create more opportunities for student voice, we can create more teachable moments for children and youth to navigate their personal awareness, social responsibility, and ability to positively communicate their ideas with others. 

Try these three strategies at-home or at-school to provide students with more opportunities to develop and express their voice.

Family and class meetings provide opportunities for adults and students to learn cooperation, mutual respect, responsibility, and social awareness. The goal of these meetings is to collectively solve problems, share sentiments of appreciation, plan events, or reflect on the community environment.

Using this strategy in my own classroom, I’ve found weekly meetings can build peer relationships, and reinforce important life lessons of mutual respect, active listening, and perspective taking. As well, students are much more willing to cooperate when they have been involved in the decision-making process. Here’s some tips for effective family and classroom meetings:

  • Discuss the goals of these meetings with your children, and brainstorm ideas for keeping conversations respectful, reasonable, and relatable. Post these ideas on a wall or bring them to each meeting to remind your children of the boundaries they helped create.
  • Create a meeting “agenda” and keep it in an accessible area for your children to add the items they want to discuss to this list.
  • Begin with compliments. Sharing a positive affirmation towards others can increase social bonding and helps foster a safe, nurturing environment. 
  • Make final decisions by a majority vote. Discuss the voting process with your children, and reinforce the importance of fairness, respect, and managing your emotions (especially if the result doesn’t go your way). After a classroom or household vote, debrief with your children about the result and how this outcome will impact them.

Children and youth are more likely to express their feelings, thoughts, and ideas when they feel confident enough to do so. Teaching your children effective communication strategies can enhance their ability to effectively discuss, debate, give feedback and share their opinions with others. Also, equipping children with communication tools can help them self-regulate their emotions and boost their independence with resolving conflicts on their own.

The “sandwich method” of communication involves giving corrective feedback that is “sandwiched” between two layers of praise. First, you start off with positive feedback or an authentic compliment. This positive statement starts the conversation with empathy and puts our brains in receptive mode, which means we able to listen and accept feedback. 

 For example:

 “John, I really appreciate you helping me with my story in class today…”

Second, you share the “meat” of the matter, or the criticism you want to share with the other person. Discuss boundaries with your children about sharing their feedback or criticism with others. Reminders about body language, respectful tone and language, and active listening are important communication cues that can help your child express their feedback.

“…but, I didn’t appreciate when you told me my idea for the solution was lame. I worked really hard on that idea, and your comment hurt my feelings.”

Thirdly, you collectively come up with a solution or end with a statement of encouragement.

“Next time, please be respectful to my ideas. You are such a great writer, so I take your opinion to heart.”

Practice the sandwich method by role-playing with your children, and role model it as often as you can. Brainstorm relevant scenarios, and debrief with your children about the “when”, “how”, and “why” for this communication tool. 

Student voice involves taking charge of the learning process, and making decisions about what and how you learn. Passion projects provide students with the opportunity to choose a subject, skill or passion to explore more in-depth. Teachers implement these projects through the “80/20 rule” — 80% of classroom instruction time is dedicated to standardized curriculum, while the other 20% is open for students to research, practice, or develop their own passions. These longer-term projects require students to develop cognitive habits such as, brainstorming, problem-solving, trial-and-error, and creative thinking.

These projects should be encouraged at-home, too. Your child may not be aware of how they can reach their goals, what are the actions required, or the steps they need to take. Brainstorm, set goals, and listen to the passions your child wants to explore, to help guide them in the right direction. 

Creating opportunities for students to guide the course of their education can foster the skills young people need today and in the future. Engaging students to share their voice through community meetings, practicing communication tools, and passion projects leads them to developing social, emotional, and cognitive skills. Acknowledging and encouraging student voice gives them the opportunity to voice the positive changes they want to see around them.