Acknowledging Student Voice

As I continue to have conversations with young people and adults in schools across the US, I consistently hear several specific questions. One theme that consistently comes up is about giving students credit for their contributions. This article looks at the question, “How can I meaningfully tell a young person that their contribution is really appreciated, and that they are making a difference?”

Authentic Acknowledgment

Adults who are authentically interested in student involvement are usually interested in this question. I hear it in a lot of different forms from teachers, counselors, youth program workers, and other adults in schools. I have also heard adults give dozens of answers to it.

Research shows that acknowledging young peoples’ contributions requires educators to walk a fine line. In her book Fires in the Bathroom: Advice for teachers from high school students, writer Kathleen Cushman identifies students who report that, “I know the other person’s gonna hate me when I get praise and someone else doesn’t.” However, on the same page, another student reports, “It feels nice when a teacher singles me out for praise because it lets everyone knows I am smart.”


There are thousands of ways to recognize students, and you’ve seen them all: certificates, letters, ceremonies, and on and on. However, when I talk with adults about it, there is a growing consensus that these steps just aren’t enough.

The young people that we want to participate in our activities isn’t motivated by the norm. They come from backgrounds that demand adults who care to recognize their lives.

With those factors in mind, a group of students and adults working with SoundOut created the following spectrum illustrating different ways to acknowledge student voice.

Spectrum for Acknowledging Student Voice

Acknowledge Student Voice

Here are some explanations of different points on the spectrum:

  • Students Earn Wages. This allows adults to acknowledge the extenuating circumstances that many young people face and encourages diverse participation. It can also create equity among socio-economic classes and parity between young people and adults.
  • Adults Give Students Honorariums or Scholarships. Students are acknowledged for sharing student voice with a flat amount that may not address all the hours they spent on a project, but still sees what they’ve done.
  • Adults Award Students Credits. The learning that students partake in during their involvement is acknowledged for its validity to classroom objectives. This can help make students aware of the so-called “real-world” applications of education-focused action. Can be partial credit or credit hours or other forms of classroom validation.
  • Adults Publicly Recognize Students. Student involvement is acknowledged in the court of public opinion by making other students, building staff, community supporters, and the general public aware of individual and group student activities. This can create a genesis of support beyond one particular group.
  • Adults Release Students from Class. Teachers acknowledge the necessity of using classroom learning time to promote whole-school student involvement. For students who cannot afford the luxury of being involved in school activities afterschool or on the weekends, classroom hours offer the most accessible means for participation.
  • Adults Say Nothing and Do Nothing. Student involvement is seen purely as an extra-curricular activity, meaning that it is outside the realm of regular educative activities. While opportunities for involvement are procured for students, they are not supported or sustained through any type of systemic acknowledgement of the validity of young peoples’ participation.

Following are some tips SoundOut has compiled from discussions with more than 300 students about publicly acknowledging student involvement.

Typically Unsuccessful Strategies for Acknowledging Student Voice

  • Basing acknowledgement on what adults value rather than what students value.
  • Assuming certain types of acknowledgement are good for everyone without regard for individuality.
  • Inconsistently administering acknowledgement among students.
  • Holding external events with no connection to the school or individual student.
  • Assuming that a group’s mission is sufficient justification to become involved with no recognition or celebration of student work.
  • Offering excessive recognition and celebration that seems like overkill, or even tokenism.

Typically Successful Strategies for Acknowledging Student Voice

  • Basing acknowledgement on an appreciating students as individuals and addressing individual needs.
  • Assigning responsibility according to proven ability in individual jobs or tasks.
  • Recognizing longevity and special contributions on a frequent basis.
  • Acknowledging teams of students or the entire group.

Researcher Allison Cook-Sather has observed that,

“Because of who they are, what they know, and how they are positioned, students must be recognized as having knowledge essential to the development of sound educational policies and practices.”

Engaging student voice in schools is the first step; the next step is acknowledging those contributions. Hopefully the lessons we’ve learned can help in your classroom or school.

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