Cycle of Student Engagement

“Arriving at one goal is the starting point to another.”

—John Dewey

Are there certain steps every adult could take to engage every student in every school everyday?

SoundOut says “Yes”. Since we began studying student voice programs around the world and operating our own activities across the United States, SoundOut staff have identified a pattern of activities that occurs in every single activity where both students and adults agree there was meaning. Our Cycle of Meaningful Student Involvement identifies that pattern, giving adults a practical guide to their daily relationships with students.

Cycle of Engagement © 2016 Adam Fletcher for SoundOut.

Meaningful student involvement is not a magical formula or mysterious bargain with students – but, it doesn’t just simply happen, either. By following the Cycle of Meaningful Student Involvement, student participation is transformed from passive, disconnected activities into a process promoting student achievement and school improvement. The Cycle of Meaningful Student Involvement is a continuous five-step process. It can be used to assess current activities, or to plan future programs.

The Cycle of Engagement

The following sections explore each point in the Cycle of Engagement.

1. Listen to Students

Meaningful student involvement inherently requires simply being listened to. Providing space a platform for Student Voice to be heard can be challenging. Listening to Student Voice can happen in personal conversations, classroom discussions, agenda items in meetings, or through written reports and studies.

2. Validate Students

When students speak, its not enough to nod your head. Validating students does not mean automatically agreeing with students, either. It is important to offer students sincere comments, criticism, or feedback. Disagreeing with students allows young people to know that you actually heard what was said, that you thought about it, and that you have your own knowledge or opinion which you think is important to share with them. Students must know that education isn’t about autonomous authority, and that a chorus of voices inform learning and leading schools.

3. Authorize Students

Meaningful student involvement requires capacity, which comes from experience and knowledge, as well as positioning and learning. Providing students with authority means going beyond traditional roles for students in classrooms by actively providing the training and positions they need in order to affect change. It is essential that adults provide students with the opportunities they need to be authors of their own narratives. 

4. Act With Students

Transitioning from passive participants to active learners and leaders throughout education requires students taking action to create change. Mobilizing students in positions of new authority allows them to affect cultural and systemic educational transformation, and encourages educators to acknowledge students as partners.

5. Reflect With Students

Meaningful student involvement cannot happen in a vacuum. Educators and students should take responsibility for learning through Student Voice by engaging students in conscious critical reflection by examining what was successful and what failed. Students and adults can also work together to identify how to sustain and expand the Cycle of Meaningful Student Involvement by effectively returning to the first step above.


Individually, these steps may currently happen in schools. When they do happen, it is rare that they are connected with school improvement, and even less likely, connected with one another. The connection of all the steps in a cycle is what makes partnerships between students and adults meaningful, effective, and sustainable.

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