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Student Voice Tip Sheet

Student Voice is any expression of any student, anywhere, anytime about anything relating to learning, school or the educational experience.

What Does Student Voice Include?

Student voice includes—but isn’t limited to—active or passive participation, knowledge, voting, wisdom, activism, beliefs, service, opinions, leadership, and ideas. Student Voice reflects identity, and comes from a person’s experiences, ideals, and knowledge.

Because they are expressions about learning, school or education, student voice can also include art, handraising, fighting, bullying, classroom participation, speaking at school board meetings, texting, attendance, students teaching, homework completion, self-assertion, tardiness, device usage, student newspapers, websites, evaluations, and much more.

Student Voice is Not the Same as…

  • Meaningful student involvement, which is a process for engaging students as partners in school improvement for the sake of education, community, and democracy.
  • Student engagement, which is the excitement and investment a young person feels towards learning
  • Student participation, which is a self-determined act of students committing to something in school.

Student Voice is About Outcomes.

A growing body of evidence surrounds Student Voice, as more students, educators and researchers identify powerful outcomes.

What is Student Voice?
Do you know the Basics of Student Voice?

What Can Student Voice Positively Affect?

Research shows student voice can positively affect many issues throughout schools, including…

  • School improvement goals
  • Academic achievement
  • The “engagement gap”
  • Students’ feelings of agency
  • Drop out rates
  • Retention of students of color
  • Curricular effectiveness
  • Teachers’ feelings of efficacy

Student Voice is About People.

Any person who participates in a process of learning, including every single student in every classroom in any grade, has a voice that should be engaged in schools.

Who Can Share Student Voice?

Who Can Listen to Student Voice?

Every adult working in education effectively has authority over students. This gives every adult the moral responsibility to listen to Student Voice.

  • Students
  • Classroom teachers
  • Building leaders
  • School support staff
  • School board members
  • District and state school leaders
  • Education agency officials
  • Education policy-makers
  • Curriculum makers
  • Education researchers
  • Politicians

Student Voice is About Action.

Student Voice allows students to share who they are, what they believe, and why they believe what they do with their peers, parents, teachers, and their entire school. Student Voice can be engaged in dozens of ways in classrooms and schools.

Student voice is any expression of any student, anywhere, about anything relating to schools, learning or the educational experience. Every student matters. Every student counts.

Where Can Student Voice Be Heard?

Literally every activity throughout schools can foster student voice and meaningfully involve learners. Some areas include…

Student Voice is About Process.

As the list above shows, there are dozens of ways to actually engage student voice in schools. However, there are five primary steps that every responsible educator should take when working to infuse Student Voice in their practice. These steps make up the Cycle of Engagement.

  • Listen to Student Voice. This is a starting point – not a stopping place.
  • Validate Students. Acknowledge student voice and let students know you listened.
  • Authorize Students. Make new positions and teach new things to give students authority.
  • Take Action. Foster Student/Adult Partnerships that transform schools actively.
  • Reflect. Think about what happened, what you learned, and what you’ll do different.

Student Voice is About Power.

Power happens in many ways. Sometimes it is given, sometimes it is taken and sometimes it is created. There are many places and ways student voice can have power throughout education.

Student Voice Meaningful Student Involvement Student Engagement Process
SoundOut Theory and Practice

When does student voice have power?

Student voice inherently has its own power. However, when its systematic, infused, empowered and intentional, student voice can affect schools in wholly new ways. Here are five times when student voice has power:

  1. Meaningful Student Involvement
  2. Student/Adult Partnerships
  3. Student Organizing for Education Reform
  4. Classroom practices
  5. Education issues

Student Voice is About Outcomes.

Outcomes happen inside, throughout and afterwards student voice is expressed. Sometimes they are predictable and measurable, while other times they are immeasurable and undefinable.

Student Voice is NOT About…

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Student Voice Toolbox

SV101Student voice is any expression of any student, anywhere, at anytime focused on learning, schools or education.

Here is a collection of tools you can use to embrace student voice in your school or community! Are you looking for professional development or student training opportunities? Coaching for your school, classroom or program? Learn about our services.


definition of student voice


Additional Resources

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Measuring the People in Meaningful Student Involvement

Whenever educators, students, researchers, advocates or parents are considering if an opportunity for involvement is meaningful, its essential to measure the people. When we consider the people, SoundOut examines motivation, student readiness and adult readiness, among other factors.


When we think about the outcomes of Meaningful Student Involvement, it’s important to identify the original motivation for action. Perhaps the first step is the most important, that the purpose of student involvement is clearly defined. It can be important to identify who declared that purpose, and whether their intention was known to everyone involved. Meaningful Student Involvement should matter in the classroom, throughout the school, and across your district.

The process of fostering Meaningful Student Involvement at your school affects how it is received. Different people who can foster the engagement of students as partners include students from the individual school who requested it, elected officials such as the school board or mayor, teachers, school leaders such as superintendents, principals, or other administrators. Identifying whether Meaningful Student Involvement was a district/state/federal policy directive can be important, and considering whether it was a response to internal or external challenges facing students in schools.

Motivation for Meaningful Student Involvement may include the expected or delivered outcomes of the action for students; teachers, principals, or other adults; building culture; the larger community, or; the entire education system. It might also include the history of student involvement in the individual school or district, positive or negative.

The final motivation to measure is whether Meaningful Student Involvement is part of a larger strategy, policy, or campaign focused on school improvement. Formalization is frequently one of the main political and professional motivations behind school change of all kinds.

Student Readiness

Ensuring Student Readiness for Meaningful Student Involvement is essential. This can include enhancing the capacity of students to be involved through building skills and sharing knowledge. It can also be through strategic positioning and sustainable Student/Adult Partnerships.

The first component of student readiness for Meaningful Student Involvement could be to determine whether students where involved in negotiating, advocating, or deciding there was a need for engaging students as partners in their school. It is not a requirement that they were; however, if they were, there may be more student readiness. The next step should reflect how students are be made aware of educators’ intentions for their involvement. Measuring student readiness should show that students deliberately reflect on their learning through involvement, schools, the education system, school improvement, and student voice as a whole.

Meaningful Student Involvement should reflect what steps have been taken to ensure that the level of involvement is appropriate to the knowledge and ability of the students involved. The developmental needs of students should be taken into account, and skill building learning opportunities focused on the task at hand, i.e. preparing agendas and taking minutes, formal decision-making, problem-solving, action planning, evaluation, task completion, budgeting, self-management, curriculum design, research, community organizing, etc. should be available throughout the course of involvement. Advanced leadership skills should be intentionally taught to students, including how to create teams, depersonalize conflict, and how to learn from the process as well as outcomes. Students should be prepared for routines involved in the activities they are involved in.

Knowledge-acquisition opportunities should link learning with the task at hand, such as school improvement, supportive learning environments, equity and diversity awareness, standards-based learning, etc. should be available too. Students should learn about the politics and personalities involved, the bureaucratic structures and policy constraints of the education system, and the reasons why students (and other groups) have been excluded from decisions. Also, informal conversations should happen to explain potential underlying reasons for personal conflict at meetings.

In addition to students’ leadership development, basic self-image and confidence of students should be built according to students’ experience, ability, and exposure. Activities should also deliberately provide opportunities for varying levels of engagement from students as well.


Adult Readiness

Students who schools work for often become adults who work for schools. The discrepancy between their experiences in academic success, social popularity, and student leadership do not prepare them to meaningful involve students. Ensuring adult readiness for Meaningful Student Involvement means taking time in order to critically reflect on our experiences as students and look at how we’ve behaved towards students as adults in schools.

Adults should be aware of what motivates students to be involved, and what students’ experiences of being involved have been. Adults should become fully informed about the issues, policies, programs, services, and/or activities that affect students. Becoming clear on what the need for student involvement is, adults should know who created or advocated for Meaningful Student Involvement—students, adults, or both. Adults should feel fully informed about Meaningful Student Involvement, student voice, and the possibilities and limitations of students’ roles in the activity at hand. Adults should be aware of how many adults are involved in ensuring student involvement in the activity. They should also be aware of how often adults advocate on behalf of students as partners to other adults in the system to persuade them to listen to students by listening to them, returning emails or phone calls, etc. On the flip side, they should be aware of which adults are not in favor of Meaningful Student Involvement, and how they resist, refuse, or deny student voice.

When it comes to promoting Meaningful Student Involvement, adults should consider whether adults promote the activities in a way that is fun or pleasant; gives positive recognition to Meaningful Student Involvement; and demonstrates adult trust in students. Promoting activities should not marginalize students to a limited role or set of issues in the school, and should show that adults allow students to make mistakes in the course of being involved. All activities should genuinely provide time to listen to students as part of the activities.

When considering readiness, adults should be prepared through training to provide emotional support for Meaningful Student Involvement by paying attention to students’ feelings, demonstrating appropriate levels of caring about their personal issues, helping students with their challenges and problems related to Meaningful Student Involvement, and discussing sensitive topics with students.

Meaningful Student Involvement should create space for adults to offer support for students through suggestions, feedback, critical questions, and other responses to student voice. Students should have a range of options to stimulate their ideas while adults are capable of helping students organize their activities and co-facilitate when appropriate. Adults should be provided timely information, and be presented information in real, concrete terms. (Read more about this subject in Student Voice Revolution: The Meaningful Student Involvement Handbook.)

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Student Voice Revolution: The Meaningful Student Involvement Handbook written by Adam Fletcher published by CommonAction Publishing in 2017.

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Adults Must Engage Student Voice

SoundOut for Student Voice

Every adult throughout the education system must engage student voice.

Student voice is any expression of any student related to learning, teaching, schools or education. Student voice is not any single activity, and it is not focused on any one thing. Instead, it is every single expression focused on anything about the activity of learning, the institution of schools, or the process of education.

Whether you’re a teacher, principal, school counselor, coach, librarian, school board member, parent, teacher aide, district staff, or any of the countless other roles adults have throughout the education system, you have opportunities and a responsibility to engage student voice. Your imagination is your only boundary. It is the ethical responsibility of adults throughout the education system to engage student voice.

Following are examples of everyday activities that adults can do to support, empower, and involve students throughout the education system.

50 Ways Adults Can Engage Student Voice

  1. Have a real conversation with a student. Ask a student what they want to do find out how you can help make that happen. Learn more here »
  2. Actively support student-led action however possible, including working with students out-of-school to accomplish their goals in education. Learn more here »
  3. Start a resource library at your school that will inspire students to make change. Include books, websites, and organizations working on democracy, social change, school improvement, and youth power.
  4. Use active learning methods to teach students about education, including service learning and constructivism. Build on what they already know. Learn more here »
  5. Develop a student-adult partnership program in your school where students and educators can actually discuss school together. Learn more here »
  6. Create a student action center in your school for students to become involved in changing their school and communities. Learn more here »
  7. Use participatory action research in your classroom for students to take action in your school.
  8. Be an advocate for students at school meetings. Make sure students are at the table whenever your school is making choices about students.
  9. Create classroom lesson plans that actively engage students in critical thinking about education and action that changes schools.
  10. Make students concerns visible in your school by posting them in your classroom and sharing them at meetings where adults are.
  11. Sponsor a letter with students to the administration about student issues.
  12. Respect students as you do adults. Don’t expect more from students than you do adults and don’t interpret for students what they can say for themselves.
  13. Co-design a lesson plan with students about education reform and student involvement. Learn more here »
  14. Listen specifically to students whose voices are seldom heard in schools, including students who are minority, low-income, have low grades, or don’t interact with their peers.
  15. Host an activity for students and educators to encourage student-adult partnerships.
  16. Engage students as classroom consultants, interns, apprentices, and activities staff.
  17. Be consistent and clear about your expectations of students in your classroom.
  18. Team up with students to have a town meeting or school forum for everyone at your school.
  19. Identify and network with students in your school who are concerned about their school.
  20. Connect with other adult allies who want to involve students meaningfully, both in your school and others, and around the community. Learn more here »
  21. Include students in hiring adults at your school, including staff, teachers, and administrators.
  22. Arrange resources for students who would not otherwise be able to participate in school activities, including transportation, permission, and childcare.
  23. Support political candidates for local, state, and national office who make listening and working with young people a priority.
  24. Arrange for a radio station to sponsor a call-in show led by students that allows them to talk about their concerns about school.
  25. Arrange a meeting with the principal for students to highlight the concerns and recommendations they have for school.
  26. Create a school-wide vision for student involvement and voice that includes adults and students.
  27. Serve on an advisory board for a student-led effort.
  28. Refuse to attend meetings where students are not invited or where you can not bring students with you.
  29. Be a real, active, and engaged friend to students.
  30. Discourage unfair opportunities for students based on academic performance, attendance, race, gender, etc.
  31. Create student-led experiences in your classroom and throughout your school.
  32. Make your classroom a comfortable, safe, and affirming place so students can “hang-out.” Learn more here »
  33. Help students create a newsletter, or work with your school newspaper, to share students’ concerns about their school and education.
  34. Help students create a listing of all opportunities for their involvement in your school and community.
  35. Call for your school to have regular student evaluations of themselves, teachers, administrators, and classes that influence performance evaluations, contracts, and hiring. Learn more here »
  36. Ask a student for help. If they know about computers, ask them to assist you. If they understand diversity, ask them to teach you.
  37. Sponsor a support group for students who face particular difficulties such as parents’ divorce, violence, etc.
  38. Raise funds for a student-led organization focusing on school issues.
  39. Actively support youth-led organizations in your community, and encourage them to address education reform. Learn more here »
  40. Join (or form) with students a community task force to address youth issues and coordinate responses in schools.
  41. Prepare students for multiple roles in your school, including learner, teacher, and leader.
  42. Create full-voting positions for students on your school board. Learn more here »
  43. Be an advocate for student involvement and student/adult partnerships throughout the education system.
  44. Start an adult support group to share ideas, concerns, and ways to listen better to students.
  45. Recognize student involvement. Don’t assume that just because someone is a student that they enjoy school. Help them appreciate it by giving class credit or through other meaningful recognition. Learn more here »
  46. Include students on committees in professional education organizations.
  47. Hold students accountable for their mistakes and challenges. Be honest and forthright with young people, and support their efforts to improve.
  48. Treat students as individuals. One student cannot represent all students, and must learn how to represent themselves. Teach them.
  49. Speak to students with respect, and avoid interrupting students.
  50. Involve students from the beginning of class by having them create a list of their own expectations for the climate of the classroom through the end by having them conduct self-, class-, and teacher-evaluations.
  51. Become a systemwide advocate by continuing your movement towards Meaningful Student Involvement by calling for student voice throughout the education system, and by offering yourself and your classroom as a resource consistently.

Check out SoundOut tools for…

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Review: Fires in the Bathroom

Originally published in Meaningful Student Involvement Research Guide by Adam Fletcher (2004) Olympia, WA: SoundOut.

Review of Fires in the Bathroom: Advice for Teachers from High School Students. By K. Cushman. Published in 2003 by The New Press in New York.

Fires in the Bathroom challenges readers to listen to the voices of those most affected by education reform: students.

Throughout the book Cushman introduces us to the opinions, experiences, ideas and knowledge of forty students who are from groups often seen as the “hardest to reach” students: immigrants, students of color, and low income students.

The students tackle a variety of problems. Among other issues, they address:

  • Teaching styles
  • Classroom behavior
  • How to help students with learning challenges
  • Student attitudes
  • Teaching English language learners
  • Visual and audio approaches to learning

Fires in the Bathroom advocates that students become informants and advocates to teachers on what works and does not work in their classes. It offers practical advice to educators from forty high schools students across the nation.

The author unveils a pragmatic outline of advice from high school students to teachers, covering a variety of topics and themes. There are detailed accounts, summary lists and worksheets spread throughout the book that are designed to help teachers actually listen to their students, and to change their methods to best support students.

All educators should listen to their students like this, according to Cushman. She offers the following steps for teachers as they engage students in discussions about school:

  1. Come up with questions you really care about
  2. Gather a group of students willing to express their thoughts
  3. Write everything down
  4. Ask for evidence
  5. Analyze the material together, and
  6. Value the difference in opinions.

Throughout the book students provide a great deal of valuable information for educators. Speaking about academic work, a student remarks,

“I think one of the only ways people learn something alien is to relate it to their own experience. If a teacher can connect geometry and angles to my interest in art or to being an actor, that works. Even though I know I didn’t grow up with math, I know enough because he relates it to me” (p13).

Another student, talking about teacher readiness, says,

“It feels like we’re being punished when the teacher doesn’t know the subject well enough to help students. The student has to move on the next year to a higher level, and they’ll be stumped in the next year. It’s kind of not fair” (p24).

Fires in the Bathroom illustrates the gamete of hopes students have for schools, and provides vital details for educators to meet the diverse visions students share. Instead of wanting total control, students want fairness and respect in schools, between educators and students and among students themselves.

By listening to students through constructive, meaningful dialogues that result in change, educators can take valuable steps towards creating transparent, interdependent relationships in their classrooms and schools.

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