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Adults as Barriers to Meaningful Student Involvement

This article explores how adults can act as barriers to Meaningful Student Involvement.

Barriers to Students
Barriers to Students

People themselves can act as barriers to Meaningful Student Involvement. Personal attitudes, past experiences, and negative perspectives can all serve as roadblocks. This article shows how adults can be barriers to Meaningful Student Involvement.

For, not With

Adults do things for—not with—students. Kohn offers that perspectives of control and a “lack of gumption” may hold many educators back. “Parting with power is not easy, if only because the results are less predictable than in a situation where we have control,” Kohn explains. (Kohn, 1993) Students also recognize that some educators, in an attempt to appear to be “empowering” actually offer too little structure in classrooms. Students have also said that adults in schools simply do not want to hear them and actively work to suppress their voices. (Alcoff, 1992)

Ironically, a lot of efforts to engage student voice have actually undermined student engagement in schools, especially in the school improvement process. As founding researchers in today’s student voice movement, Fielding and Rudduck have shared countless lessons related to the phenomenon of adults undermining student voice.

Adult Behavior

They wrote that there are three ways adults disengage student voice in schools [Author’s note: bolded words are my emphasis]:

  • Ignoring: Students do not talk about things adults think are important, and so adults ignore what is said by students;
  • Reframing: Adults reframe student voice in ways and with words that students themselves think are restrictive, alienating or patronizing
  • Obfuscating: Schools rarely if ever do things that reflect what student voices shared, at least in ways that change the quality of student experiences in schools. (Fielding & Rudduck, 2002)

Another study (Boccia, 1997) found that adults in schools:

  • Generally resist involving students in professional matters, especially curriculum and policy.
  • See student voice as being a flash-in-the-pan approach to improving schools because students are in a specific school for too limited amounts of time to actually be invested in something that will not change until after they are gone.
  • Want to keep students’ lives in schools and out of schools separate, and discourage students from mixing the two areas.

Each of these realities actively disengage students and are a barrier to Meaningful Student Involvement.

Adults can feel threatened when they feel students aren’t doing what should be done. Meaningful Student Involvement can allow a great deal of leeway for students to drive their experience of learning and teaching. It might also threaten teachers when they have to hear the unfettered ideas, opinions, knowledge, and experiences of students.

Whenever Meaningful Student Involvement happens either by choice or imposition, adults could learn new roles, language and behaviors. The experience of engaging students as partners in learning throughout education can be a severe break from adults’ experiences and expectations of schools. It can help for adults to read about Meaningful Student Involvement and being trained in Student/Adult Partnerships.

Another barriers happen when adults can assume that they easily understand the attitudes and challenges of students today. They assume their experiences as students are familiar enough because of their similarities in age, race, gender, socio-economic backgrounds, or otherwise. This eliminates the ability of students to genuinely relate to adults.


Working with adults who overtly resist Meaningful Student Involvement may be one of the more important thing advocates can do. Their concerns can be addressed by positioning students to offer workshops for adults on their cultures, heritages, and backgrounds. Students can also create “tip sheets” and other tools for teachers. Other adults can act as allies or critical friends to help prepare and nurture these adults’ growth and challenge their resistance. If they have been mandated to become involved because of a school leader’s orders, these adults can receive more guidance from their peers rather than their supervisors. If Reeves is right though, “Deep and sustainable change… requires changes in behavior among those who do not welcome the change.” (Reeves, 2009)

Ultimately, I have discovered that we can change all the rules we want, but until the hearts and minds of adults leading the system at any level—teachers, cafeteria managers, building principals, district administrators, or boards of education—are changed, policies and rules do not really matter. Adults are the single most enormous barrier to Meaningful Student Involvement, and the most important asset that can happen.

Most adults within the education system are inherently threatened by the capacity of students to lead their own learning. Ironically, integrating Meaningful Student Involvement throughout the school can lead to some of the best results in transforming adults from barriers to allies. There is no place throughout the education system that students cannot have deep and effective levels of impact that adults cannot have without them. Everything throughout the education system can be better because of Meaningful Student Involvement.

There are other factors that can be barriers to Meaningful Student Involvement; see the related content for ideas. Please share your wisdom, thoughts and ideas in the comment section below!

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