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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School-to-Prison Pipeline and Meaningful Student Involvement

Students at the 2015 SoundOut Student Voice Summer Camp at Cleveland High School in Seattle.
Students at the SoundOut Student Voice Summer Camp.

The school-to-prison pipeline is a social and economic practice unfairly targeting low-income students and students of color out of schools and into incarceration. Meaningful Student Involvement can disrupt this pipeline by transforming learning, teaching and leadership to focus on Student/Adult Partnerships in systemic, structured and strategic ways.

What It Is

Running directly from early childhood learning through whichever point students are pushed out of schools and into the waiting clutches of incarceration, the school-to-prison pipeline is a tangible injustice affecting schools today. It primarily affects students of color and low-income students, and is driven by practices including traditional classroom management and zero tolerance policies, both of which unfairly target these specific populations. In-school suspensions, out-of-school suspensions, expulsions and school arrests are all markers affecting the youngest students straight through graduation.

What It Does

With the mass introduction of police in public schools starting in the 1990s, more schools and districts adopted zero tolerance policies that pushed students out of schools. Using harsh punitive measures, African American, Latino, American Indian and other students of color, as well as low-income students of all races, were targeted for their behavior in schools. As police enforced increasingly strict policies, students were more frequently sent to juvenile incarceration centers which were privately operated. Done disproportionately across the country, this resulted in some schools using behavior and discipline for their teachable moments, while others simply supported private punishment in public schools

The Role of Meaningful Student Involvement

Feeling unfairly targeted by these policies and practices, students began organizing campaigns nationwide against the school-to-prison pipeline in the 1990s. By the mid-2000s, there was a rush of actions happening nationwide that forced education-focused nonprofits and philanthropic foundations to support these students and launch adult-led efforts to address these challenges as well.

Meaningful Student Involvement allows educators to embrace this struggle from within schools and in their individual classrooms, rather than waiting and relying on external force. Learning new ways of relating to students through Student/Adult Partnerships, educators and administrators in schools are freed from the confines of the pipeline and allowed to embrace restorative justice, among other approaches to Meaningful Student Involvement.

Next Steps

Research shows that there are some definitive next steps in stopping the school-to-prison pipeline. When combined with Meaningful Student Involvement, they include:

  1. Using positive behavior interventions and supports that position students as constant drivers, planners, trainers and evaluators of school behavior and learning through behavior.
  2. Students studying and creating annual reports on the total number of disciplinary actions that push students out of the classroom based on gender, race, economic status and abilities.
  3. Students and adults creating strategic and deliberate agreements with courts and law enforcement to limit arrests at school and the use of restraints, including mace and handcuffs.
  4. Position students to co-write and distribute simple explanations of behavior issues and school responses to every student in order to ensure fairness.
  5. Students and adults work together to Create appropriate limits on the use of law enforcement and severe punishment in public schools.
  6. Train students and teachers on the use of positive behavior supports for at-risk students, and support each in administering these support.
  7. Ensure ongoing fiscal investment, cultural transformation and strategic implementation over years through training, tools and technical assistance.

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Restorative Justice and Meaningful Student Involvement

Olympia 2014
Students participate in a conversation about restorative justice led by SoundOut in Olympia, Washington.

Restorative justice is a student-led approach to resolving conflict in schools. It holds Meaningful Student Involvement at the center, with students as planners, facilitators and evaluators throughout the entirety of the process.

What It Is

Where many previous conflict resolution programs in schools were adult-led and student-driven, restorative justice programs elevate student voice by increasing student agency through positioning learners as strategic owners of the entire process. Students can call for restorative justice, plan its implementation, facilitate the process and submit their feedback afterwards. This is especially important to students of color, of whom US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, ”…minority students across America face much harsher discipline than non-minorities — even within the same school…some of the worst discrepancies are in my home town of Chicago.” Many people believe historic ways of behavior management in schools are directly responsible for several realities for students of color and low-income students, including the achievement gap and zero tolerance policies, both of which encourage students to drop out or face being pushed out of school.

What It Does

Restorative justice moves students to engage with each other in powerful, responsive ways. The philosophy and practices of restorative justice bring students who misbehave into structured, safe and supportive conversations with students who are affected by their misbehavior. This teaches accountability and interdependence while repairing the harm that was caused. It also prevents future behavior of a similar fashion, as students become more responsible for their actions and responsive to the climate of the learning environment. Significant research supports all of this.

Community organizations, individual schools and districts across the United States are adopting this practice more frequently, including Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE) and Oakland Public Schools.

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Student Empowerment and Meaningful Student Involvement

classroom banner

Student empowerment is any attitudinal, structural, and cultural activity, process or outcome where students of any age gain the ability, authority and agency to make decisions and implement changes in their own schools, learning and education, and in the education of other people, including fellow students of any age and adults throughout education. There are countless ways this can happen as well as many potential outcomes, all of which feature learning, teaching and leadership. Student empowerment happens in schools; child empowerment and youth empowerment happen outside of schools. 

How It Happens

Throughout our society, adults act as the apex (top) power holders, using adultism to enforce their power. This is true within schools, too, where adults are ultimately responsible for all activities, outcomes and processes. Student empowerment happens when adults share any amount of that power with students.

There are times when students can attempt to grasp the power of adults without adults sharing it willingly, too. However, these are fleeting because of adults ultimate grasp on power.

Student empowerment generally happens through student authorization and student action. Student authorization, which is part of the Cycle of Engagement, happens when students acquire the knowledge and positions they need in order to affect schools.

What Stops Empowerment

As reflected elsewhere on this site, there are many barriers to school transformation reflecting student empowerment. They include the culture of schools; structures within education; adults throughout the system; and students themselves. There are also many ways to overcome these barriers.

However, one of the barriers to student empowerment is the concept itself: By dispensing their power without discretion or well-informed intentions, well-meaning educators can actually do a moderate-to-severe disservice to students themselves. Placing students on a pedestal, the behind these actions is often that any power is better than no power, and that students are devoid of power within schools right now. However, that’s simply not the case, and learning about student empowerment before taking action can do a lot to improve students’ experiences with this approach.

What many educators are actually striving for is not student empowerment at all, but Meaningful Student Involvement.

Where Meaningful Student Involvement Fits

When student empowerment activities are most effective, they reflect Meaningful Student Involvement. Students’ ideas, knowledge, opinions and experiences in schools and regarding education are actively sought and substantiated by educators, administrators, and other adults within the educational system. Adults’ acknowledgment of students’ ability to improve schools is validated and authorized through deliberate teaching  focused on learning about learning, learning about the education system, learning about student voice and Meaningful Student Involvement, and learning about school improvement.

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Student Behavior and Meaningful Student Involvement

SoundOut workshop in Cheney, Washington
Students participate in a SoundOut workshop about student voice and classroom behavior in Cheney, Washington.

Student behavior and classroom management are consistently important issues to educators and students in the area of Meaningful Student Involvement, although for different reasons.

What It Is

Classroom teachers often report they want to use meaningful involvement as an incentive to make students behave better; students often report that if they were meaningfully involved, classroom behavior would not be an issue.

When considering the variety of issues that are tied together within student behavior, it may seem important to address it through school improvement approaches. However, what Meaningful Student Involvement promotes is consideration and understanding of the contexts of challenges in schools. This includes the overall issue of student engagement and the different ways different students are engaged throughout learning, teaching and leadership.

How It Happens

There are many issues to consider when thinking about student behavior:

  • What makes student behavior right or wrong? Who determines what is right or wrong?
  • What happens when students behave well? What happens when they aren’t doing well?
  • Should students sacrifice their happiness for good behavior?
  • When we expect students to behave well, do we limit expectations for them in other ways?
  • What informal rules do we expect students to follow?

When educators use rules arbitrarily and without learning objectives, students often see behavior as an artificial measure for their behavior. Similarly, when behavior is rewarded and made an example of, students can see it as a measuring stick for their intelligence and ability.

Meaningful Student Involvement can position students as co-learners with educators, allowing everyone in the classroom to learn and grow together. Student/Adult Partnerships in all grade levels can explore:

  • What counts as “good”?
  • Should we behave “good”?
  • Does “good” behavior earn us the outcome we want?
  • What outcomes can “bad” behavior get us?
  • What happens when two students can’t be judged by the same standards?
  • Can we learn our way to good behavior, or is it something we either do or don’t do?

With this type of inquiry-based learning through student behavior, classrooms and schools prove to be vibrant, vital and ever relevant for learners of all types, including the historically disengaged. Meaningful Student Involvement can allow the traditionally static relationships between learners and teachers to become more elastic, and that sense of ability to change everyone’s learning experiences, including students who traditionally get “in trouble”.

Where Meaningful Student Involvement Fits

Infusing Meaningful Student Involvement into classroom management has become a challenge in many classrooms. Mark Barnes, an author and the creator of the Results Only Learning Environment (ROLE) method, shares three simple steps for teachers:

  1. Create a workshop environment in your classroom that encourages the pursuit of learning and allows little time for disruption.
  2. Set the tone from the beginning of the school year by eliminating all discussion of rules and consequences by explaining that your learning space is built on mutual respect and the quest for knowledge.
  3. Keep activities engaging and behavior will never be an issue!

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Disconnected Students and Meaningful Student Involvement

There is a crisis of disconnection affecting students, teachers, classrooms and schools around the world.classroom banner

What is Disconnectedness?

Disconnectedness is the absence of any sustained connections in life. Disconnected students can feel separated from from learning, curriculum, peers, teachers, teaching, learning devices and more. They can feel disconnected from relevance, rigor, and relationships, as well as disconnected from their selves and their communities. This disconnectedness is at crisis proportions because almost every student in every school experiences it at some point throughout their education.

The Challenge

Disconnection is a challenge because it prohibits many things that are essential for school success, including student engagement, student ownership, student agency and more. Disconnected students literally cannot experience those things without proactive, positive and powerful experiences of Student/Adult Partnerships.

Opportunities for Meaningful Student Involvement

Meaningful Student Involvement happens when the roles of students are actively re-aligned from being the passive recipients of schools to becoming active partners throughout the educational process. The relationship between meaningful involvement and disconnection is direct: Moving students towards active, authentic and substantial opportunities to reconnect to learning, teaching and leadership throughout education.

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