How Adultism Happens in Schools

On the 20th anniversary of, I want to acknowledge that after all this time with teachers, building leaders, counselors, support staff and other adults in K-12 schools across the nation, there’s a reality that few people are willing to face: Adultism in schools is rampant and deeply affecting education in many ways. This article explains how adultism happens in schools.

Adultism is the bias towards adults which often results in discrimination against students. Bias towards adults means that the ideas, opinions, actions and outcomes of adults are more valued than those of students. Students experience adultism in every grade level, each subject, all activities, and almost every outcome of schools. Whether its apparent in the ways adults talk to students, in how buildings are designed, in what types of assessments are delivered, or in who graduates from school, adultism is present throughout the entire education system. However, in order to address it we have to understand how it happens.

Through my research and practice focused on adultism, I have found that it happens in three primary ways in schools:

  1. Personal Adultism: The attitudes, opinions, beliefs and actions every person takes that show bias towards adults.
  2. Cultural Adultism: The shared beliefs, joint actions, and common traditions within a classroom, school and community that demonstrate, reflect, uplift, or ensure bias towards adults.
  3. Structural Adultism: The formal and informal systems, processes, organization, and outcomes of schools that ensure, reinforce, sustain, or transfer bias towards adults.
Affton, Missouri teachers in an adultism workshop with Adam F.C. Fletcher of
Teachers in Affton, Missouri in an adultism workshop with Adam F.C. Fletcher of

These three ways are present in every school, pre-K through 12th grade, as well as school districts, state education agencies, and the federal government. Within these broad categorizations, there are many specific ways adultism are demonstrated in schools. In the last few days I’ve talked with more than 50 educators in the Affton School District outside of St. Louis, Missouri. Dissecting this issue, they share some of the ways they express and witness adultism everyday in school. Here are some things they shared.

How Personal Adultism Happens in Schools

  • The language we speak
  • Teacher and student attitudes
  • “No interruptions!” and other arbitrary or irrelevant commands
  • Writing off new media’s usage in schools
  • Banning phone use in classes
  • Assigning unneeded homework
  • Enforcing the Queen’s English in schools
  • Apathy towards students
  • Respect (or the lack thereof) for students
  • Self care
  • “My job is to keep you safe”
  • “My job is to teach you; your job is to learn.”

How Cultural Adultism Happens in Schools

  • Adults know best
  • Behavior management expectations
  • Must create confident, capable consumers
  • Social grouping and friendships
  • Demonizing social media
  • Enforcing the “proper way” to speak to an adult
  • Assuming school is the best way to instruct all students
  • Unspoken socio-economic dress codes
  • The teacher is responsible for all the students’ needs
  • Expecting respect for “those in charge”

How Structural Adultism Happens in Schools

  • Time schedules
  • Graduation rates
  • Diplomas
  • Grading
  • Teacher-driven lesson plans
  • Testing and assessments
  • School start times
  • Career and College Readiness Plans
  • Rules
  • Procedures for classrooms, buildings and the district
  • Seating styles
  • Dress codes
  • Standardized tests
  • Standardized curriculum

Every person in schools is capable of showing, supporting, uplifting and sustaining adultism in schools, including students themselves. As the barriers to student voice show, adultism can force students to preserve their personal best interest by undermining group success.

This is a poster showing how teachers in Affton, Missouri thought adultism happens in schools from August 2022.
This is a poster showing how teachers in Affton, Missouri thought adultism happens in schools from August 2022.

How to you think adultism happens in schools? Share your thoughts, ideas and knowledge in the comments section!

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Students Stopping COVID-19

Students can help schools face the challenge of COVID-19.

As educators and leaders navigate COVID-19 (coronavirus), SoundOut encourages schools to foster student/adult partnerships to address the challenges facing schools right now. 

With that in mind, we call on classroom teachers, building leaders, district officials and others to engage the power of students to address the coronavirus. 

Students can…

  • Partner: Partner with educators to make decisions affecting students
  • Communicate: Make posters, videos and more to promote healthy actions
  • Inform: Inform peers with positive action and messages through social media
  • Build: Co-create webpages about COVID-19 for schools and districts
  • Research: Students can research quality resources for schools to learn more

Educators can…

  1. Take Action: Have create learning projects focused on preparing for the spread of coronavirus.
  2. Share Examples: Share student-created projects including posters, videos, webpages and more that students create in partnership with teachers, school leaders and communities in addressing coronavirus.
  3. Keep Going: Keep students active creating empowering messages and helping educators and administrators prepare for COVID-19, and keep sharing.

Working with adults as partners, students can help schools overcome the challenge of COVID-19. Have students helped your school so far? Share your examples in the comment section below!

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Truancy and Meaningful Student Involvement

For more than 100 years, schools have wrestled with truancy. Anytime students are intentionally late for class, late for school, or skipping class, they are deemed truant by schools. There are a lot of rules and regulations in schools governing truancy. Most schools and school districts use punishments to enforce those rules and regulations. Meaningful Student Involvement can play an important role in overcoming the challenges truancy presents in learning, teaching and leadership in K-12 schools.

Opportunities for Meaningful Student Involvement

Students can become partners in addressing truancy in a lot of ways. With adults as allies, they can learn a great deal about why truancy happens, what it does and means, how it affects them and their schools, and why it matters so much. In schools and district offices across the nation, students and adults are working together to transform truancy through research, evaluation, planning and decision-making.

  • BOSTON: Working with district administration and their superintendent, the Boston Student Advisory Council (BSAC) investigated why students do not stay in school and became disengaged. BSAC created a survey, interviewed students, collected data and presented their findings to the School Committee. BSAC has combined their solutions with those of the dropout rate research and created a document that is still alive.

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Dropouts and Meaningful Student Involvement

Students and educators in a SoundOut workshop in São Paulo, Brazil in 2014.
Students and educators in a SoundOut workshop in São Paulo, Brazil.

The question of dropping out and Meaningful Student Involvement is challenging. Research collected by a variety of researchers shows that students who leave school early often want to be meaningfully involved in schools. They frequently attribute dropping out to not feeling heard or engaged in their learning, by teachers or from education leadership.


Students face a variety of realities within schools. With large percentages of students graduating on-time, many educators lose focus on students who are likely to leave schools early. Sometimes, systematic discrimination and institutional racism conspire to pushout these students. This happens through harsh punishments, punitive grading and uncommitted student support. Educators trying to control students’ behavior through punishments take away student ownership of their own education, which affects every other part of their schooling and beyond into their out-of-school experiences, too. Instead of pushing out students and causing them to dropout, educators can empower students through Meaningful Student Involvement in order to foster student autonomy, increase their sense of competence, and building their capacity to be in community with others. Negative consequences, timeouts, and punishment just make bad behavior worse

Dropouts can also feed into the school-to-prison pipeline.  Its more important for schools to focus on what causes students to dropout than it is to focus on dropping out.


There are challenges to using strategies for Meaningful Student Involvement to meet address dropping out. The dilemma is that a lot of research on student voice is qualitative. With student voice being embedded in a lot of methods, approaches and pedagogies, its effects haven’t been thoroughly analyzed for direct causation. The quantitative, data-driven, longitudinal outcomes of student voice simply haven’t been proven. Instead, its treated as having corollary effects on measurable challenges like dropping out. Research doesn’t really show that student voice directly impacts the dropout rate.


As more schools become committed to student voice, it becomes more important for educators to stay ethically grounded in their efforts. That means deliberately engaging students who aren’t normally engaged in class with dynamic, powerful strategies, and those include Meaningful Student Involvement. Researchers can continue their efforts to measure the significance of these approaches in a variety of ways, including establishing the causative effects of student voice, student engagement, and Meaningful Student Involvement.

In the meantime, educators, students, community partners and education leaders should keep innovating. More can, should, and must be done to engage all students in every school all of the time. By examining the behavior of students, as well as the perspectives of adults and adultism in schools, as well as using approaches like restorative justice in schools, student voice can transform schools for all students.


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Democracy and Meaningful Student Involvement

Democracy is at the heart of Meaningful Student Involvement. The goal of public schools should always focus on the primary role of anyone in society, which is that of citizen. First and foremost, if you live in a society and contribute to it, you are a citizen of that society, whether that is acknowledged or not.

Students do not have to wait until they are 18 to become citizens, and people from other countries do not have to wait until the government acknowledges their citizenship. Instead, everyone who contributes is a citizen right now, no matter who acknowledges that.

As a citizen, everyone should be able to participate as fully as they can with as few obstacles as possible. Student voice is one avenue for participation.

When they enter the door to schools, students are participating as citizens in society. Their purpose in schools is more than to simply become adults or workers. Instead, it is what W.E.B. DuBois challenged when he wrote, “The ideals of education, whether men [sic] are taught to teach or plow, to weave or to write, must not be allowed to sink into sordid utilitarianism. Education must keep broad ideals before it, and never forget that it is dealing with Souls and not with Dollars.”

Meaningful Student Involvement narrows the broad ideals of student voice and targets students on democracy building in education. Some of the democratic purposes of education include:

  • Discovering—Exploring one’s own abilities and desires, and determining what their abilities are to fulfill their desires.
  • Learning—Deliberately setting about expanding, critiquing and transforming one’s abilities to fulfill their desires according to their own discovery and assessment.
  • Belonging—Joining a larger community of learners, students have powerful opportunities to self-identify who they are, who they aren’t and how they fit into the society they are part of.
  • Purpose—Through discovery and learning, students can also identify what they stand for and what they stand against, what matters to them and what doesn’t, and so forth.

There are many other purposes of education in general, but when it comes to democracy its vital to recognize the powerful, positive potential of Meaningful Student Involvement in schools.


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Social and Emotional Intelligence and Meaningful Student Involvement

Social and emotional intelligence is the way we understand how we feel and act, and how others feel and act. It can be distinctly obvious in Meaningful Student Involvement.

In modern schools... Belonging happens through Meaningful Student Involvement. Learn more at

What It Is

Some people are more able to understand their own feelings and others’ feelings and use that understanding for good. These skills and abilities can be nurtured and increased, and can affect the experiences of students in schools greatly. Meaningful Student Involvement embraces and can maximize social and emotional intelligence by providing enhancing, enriching experiences for students and adults to work together in empathetic, compassionate ways.

What It Does

When students and adults use their social and emotional intelligence throughout the education system, Student/Adult Partnerships are obvious to outside observers. Respect and safety in schools become just as important as literacy and critical thinking skills anywhere and everywhere, including learning, teaching and leadership. When students feel both physical and emotional safety, school climates become absent of adultism, other discrimination, harassment and exclusion.

How It Happens

Social and emotional intelligence can be innate and nurtured among students of all ages, as well as adults throughout education. Some activities do that better than others, including:

  • Active teaching of social-emotional skills
  • Attention to creating positive relationships
  • Bullying prevention and intervention
  • Community building
  • Overt focus on understanding and appreciating differences
  • Meaningful conflict resolution
  • Teaching students to challenge bias and exclusion

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Nutrition and Meaningful Student Involvement

SoundOut for Meaningful Student Involvement

Nutrition is a bedrock of academic achievement, behavior and school climate. Whether apparent in school cafeteria selections, vending machines and other privately sold foods, or candy shared throughout the school day. Meaningful Student Involvement can be a key to transforming school nutrition.

What It Is

School nutrition is meant to provide proper nutrition for students to support the growth, development and learning of students in schools. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, schools have a huge impact of student health. Because of their role in society and exposure in schools, students can learn healthy eating and receive healthy foods from schools like nowhere else. Nutritious, appealing foods and drinks should be provided in school cafeterias, vending machines, snack bars, school stores, and other places in schools that offer food and beverages to students. Nutrition education should also be part of a comprehensive school health education curriculum, and nutrition staff should be part of every school, district and state coordinated school health approach.

Opportunities for Meaningful Student Involvement

As students become more accustomed to personalized learning, teaching and leadership throughout schools, they want more relevant food choices to support their experiences in schools. School nutrition has to be as engaging as classroom education. While society is embracing greater health in nutrition, schools are responsible for doing the same. Meaningful Student Involvement can facilitate this. There are examples of this work happening around the world.

  • BOSTON: The Boston Student Advisory Council met regularly and advised a group over the course of a year with representatives from Boston Public Schools Food and Nutrition Services to discuss issues related to school food and vending machines.  Students advised a group of doctors working with the Nutrition Group on how to create healthy snacks that students will actually eat.
  • PENNSYLVANIA: Student involvement in wellness goals was promoted by having them work with local education agencies to develop Local Wellness Policies. Participating in the research, evaluation and re-design of school nutrition policies, student engagement was shown to increase, as did student acceptance in an array of health-related areas. Research found this approach may have promise in the area of obesity prevention. (Jomaa, L. H., E. McDonnell, et al. (2010) “Student Involvement in Wellness Policies: A Study of Pennsylvania Local Education Agencies,” Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior 42(6): 372-379)

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Rural Schools and Meaningful Student Involvement

Rural schools face a growing number of challenges and opportunities unique to their circumstances. In many rural communities, schools are the center of activity and identity. Meaningful Student Involvement can provide unique opportunities to facilitate powerful transformation throughout those systems, and to sustain those communities.

What They Are

Rural schools are anywhere outside of cities and suburban areas. They often exist either as large consolidated schools or tiny one-room schoolhouses. Most are historical, but some are new. Issues in rural schools can include fewer resources for students and teachers; lack of access to professional development and student training opportunities; community isolation; students having the same teachers for multiple subjects and grade levels; and fewer extracurricular activities.

Where Meaningful Student Involvement Fits

By facilitating active, engaged and educational roles for students through Meaningful Student Involvement, the approach can be essential for retaining learners, graduating students and decreasing the brain drain in rural schools. Providing educators and administrators powerful, research-driven frameworks, Meaningful Student Involvement breaks traditional hierarchal cultures in schools by appropriately positioning students in relationship to adults. In turn, students can become enthusiastic, engaged learners, teachers and leaders in rural schools.

Through this authentic systems approach, schools can embrace local community culture outside of schools by creating new roles for students that empower them with substantial skills and knowledge. This happens by embracing the following characteristics:

  • Just as many rural communities form holistic bonds that support entire families, communities and cultures, schools should take schoolwide approaches to Meaningful Student Involvement.
  • Integrated as complete members of their homes and family businesses, rural students need to experience high levels of student authority that allow them to experience full Student/Adult Partnerships.
  • Interrelated strategies to infusing Meaningful Student Involvement echo the relationships rural students experience throughout their communities.
  • Identifying and maintaining sustainable structures of support show students their contributions are relevant beyond them.
  • Personal commitment needs to be instilled, fostered and supported throughout the education system in order to ensure Meaningful Student Involvement affects everyone involved and not just students.
  • When students experience strong learning connections between their involvement and their classrooms, it ensures a long term sense of belonging and variety.

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Safety and Violence and Meaningful Student Involvement

SoundOut for Communities
SoundOut’s Adam Fletcher talking with students in Bellevue, Washington.

Safety and violence and Meaningful Student Involvement and intrinsically bound together. When students are meaningfully involved, schools are safe and violence is not present; when students are not meaningfully involved, violence is obvious and safety can be elusive in schools.

What It Is

Safety is a core need for students in schools. Using Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as an illustrative tool only, its easy to understand how safety is the second greatest level of needs in student learning. The need for security and protection is evident since our safety needs drive student behavior in schools. Research shows that much student behavior come from our natural desire for a predictable, orderly world that is somewhat within their control. Safety in a school can look like school security, classroom order, well-provisioned learning materials and aids, teacher continuity and sustainability, as well as student health and well-being.

Where Meaningful Student Involvement Fits

When students have a sense of ownership and agency over their safety in schools, they become empowered to research, plan, implement and evaluate safety and related issues. Other students advocate against violence. Working with adults as partners, some students gravitate towards restorative justice, while others focused on bullying and other issues.

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Literacy and Meaningful Student Involvement

classroom bannerLiteracy is at the heart of Meaningful Student Involvement. Literacy is more than simply reading; its understanding, interpreting acting on, assessing, and critiquing what’s been read, learned, reported, researched or promoted.

What It Is

For one hundred years, educational thought leaders from John Dewey to Paulo Freire encouraged teachers to consider the depth and breadth of literacy. Today, its widely accepted that everyone in society is affected by their levels of literacy in different areas, including their literacy in school knowledge; consumer consumption; social creation; family implementation; and cultural critical thinking. In schools, students experience varying amounts of true literacy education. Its been shown the amount of comprehensive literacy education are affected by the:

  • Political backgrounds of educators and politicians who make decisions for students
  • Socio-economic backgrounds of learners
  • Cultural influence over students’ families
  • and other factors.

According to UNESCO, “for individuals, families, and societies alike, it [literacy] is an instrument of empowerment to improve one’s health, one’s income, and one’s relationship with the world.”

2013LearningthruMSIHow It Works

Literacy affects every part of every person’s life from the moment they awake to the time they fall asleep, and even the hours in between. Their level of literacy is a humongous determining factor for how comfortable, successful and rewarding those hours are. From the Internet to text messaging; from advertising to packaging; from cultural traits to personal behaviors; from law enforcement to legal jurisdiction, all communication is driven by literacy. Additionally, all politics is driven by literacy and the ability to critically confront power and authority throughout life.

In highly literate communities, there is a constant, healthy and substantial exchange of ideas and debate. Illiteracy can breed exclusion and violence.

Where Meaningful Student Involvement Fits

With its learning cycle and outcomes firmly based in research and practice, Meaningful Student Involvement can provide useful frameworks for teachers to engage student voice beyond simplistic and tokenistic measures. It can help administrators facilitate further inclusion for students throughout the education system. Ultimately, it can reframe discourse around learning, teaching and leadership throughout education.

Rather than being a passive model for educators to simply implement in schools, Meaningful Student Involvement insists on literacy by positioning Student/Adult Partners in critical relationships with each other, with the frameworks, and with each other. The outcomes include highly personalized, high-ownership environments where students and adults co-facilitate each others’ personal growth. Educational literacy is a unique outcome of SoundOut’s frameworks; every school should include this as a goal of every students’ formal educational experience.

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