Student Engagement and Voice in SEL and School Climate Systems

By Kay A. Augustine, Iowa Department of Education

The growth of Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) in research, practice, and visibility in the media is building in momentum and focus. With this comes the expectation of producing evidence and accountability for the efforts taking place. As the field grows in depth and breadth, the challenge is to keep a focus on SEL as a process and to engage all stakeholders, including students in the efforts.

SEL and School Climate

As the field provides opportunities for considering the impact of SEL implementation, it is important to recognize that SEL and school climate relate, intersect, and influence the impact of each. Osher and Berg (2018) underscore that to have a healthy school, you need both and that SEL and school climate are “co-influential”. Within the National Standards for School Climate, the focus on social and emotional skills, policies, practices, environment, and community is omnipresent.

As schools have become more cognizant of the importance of school climate on achievement, major efforts have been implemented to secure data on student perception of school climate through the use of surveys. Through the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), some states have implemented school climate measures as a required annual data source.

The data from surveys provide an excellent snapshot of student/teacher/family perceptions that can assist in monitoring the impact of SEL efforts through constructs such as Safety, Interpersonal Relationships, Institutional Environment, and Social Media. However…

“There is something fundamentally amiss about building and rebuilding an entire system without consulting at any point those it is designed to serve.” Cook-Sather, 2009

At a ratio of 16:1 students to teachers in school buildings across the country, there is an untapped resource with potential, energy, and capacity to assist in clearly identifying issues and implementing strategies to address them through the voices and actions of the students themselves. National survey reports note a major disconnect between what adults and students in schools believe and want. To lessen this gap the adults must first be open to authentic, systematic student engagement and voice in continuous improvement processes and decision-making systems.

So how would engaging students work?

  1. The first step is to critically consider the beliefs of your administration, staff, and families. To maximize student engagement and voice there must be a positive and supportive environment where adults are willing to give up some of their control and work in a true youth/adult partnership with the students.
  2. The second step is to review what you are already doing with a brutally honest and critical eye. Authenticity of student voice requires addressing the current status of youth engagement and voice in your school/organization. Many schools, with well-meaning intentions, are providing opportunities for some students to share what they think and be involved including: surveys, advisory, student council, clubs, organizations, athletic teams, summits, forums, etc. Be willing to take a hard look and pay attention to the voices that are taken seriously as well as those who are silent or not considered. It is important that the student body represented in providing feedback includes: students of color, students served by the foster system, LGBT students, students who are chronically absent, students with lived experiences related to mental health, and students with intellectual and physical disabilities. Consider the overall demographics of your school and strive to have students involved mirror those demographics.

For example: the use of a school-wide school climate survey provides data that can be both enlightening and illuminating. It’s important to remember that this is aggregate data by district/building and may be disaggregated by subgroups, but it is not collected or shared at an individual student level. Deliberately identify how the constructs within a given school climate survey could inform your efforts on social-emotional competencies. If the desire is for students to take the survey or any assessment process seriously, consider thoughtfully where and how existing policies, practices, cultures, and/or traditions might be working against your desire to build a strong school climate and positively impact social-emotional competencies. Identify and address any existing practices where:

  • survey data isn’t shared back with the survey participants (students/families)
  • decisions based on the data and/or strategies are adult contrived and controlled
  • traditions or policies dictate or restrict student access to participate
  • sustainability comes and goes with specific adult champions
  • sustainability comes and goes with bursts of short-term funding streams
  • student engagement is limited to traditionally successful students
  • only a small number of students are allowed the opportunity to respond to the data
  • diverse students are gathered together for their opinions without first taking time to build community through strategies that provide a safe place for all students to share their voice
  1. The third step is to develop an on-going process to engage students within your system for continuous improvement. By empowering students through action research alongside of the adults it provides the chance to dig deeper and engage students in analysis and discussion to get to the “why” and/or “how” the issues are perceived and might be addressed. That’s where the diverse voices of students are critically needed to help adults understand their views and where true innovation can happen. Engage students in developing any needed skills to take a leadership role with implementing strategies.

Authentic student engagement and voice through participation in a data team and conducting action research in a purposeful and pervasive way will provide meaningful opportunities for the development of social and emotional competencies. The process of bringing students into an existing system or continuous improvement process will look different depending on the context and culture of a district/school. Below is just one example for creating a sustainable youth/adult partnership-based process (see Figure 1):

  • Develop a student guide group that directly reflects the demographics of the school so all voices are honored and respected
  • Carefully select two adults to be the adult partners with the student guide group
  • Create a sustainable process where the student guide group reflects all grade levels in the building providing for rotation with seasoned members and new members in subsequent years and reflecting the importance of voices from all grade levels (developmentally appropriate)
  • Embrace a Student/Adult Decision Making Team (including student guide group & family representation all trained in youth-adult partnership) which could be an existing team or a new one. This team is used to promote the principles of action research, review and analyze data along with input from staff and student body to identify and implement strategies with a defined way to monitor process and progress
  • Through a joint process, identify and share clear expectations and norms for both students and adults including confidentiality and privacy
  • Provide training on how to review and analyze data for both students and adults
  • Review and refine existing policies that may inadvertently prevent student participation (i.e. grades, attendance, etc.)
  • Establish meeting times that do not limit some students or staff from participation (i.e. lack of transportation, need to be home to care for younger children, extra-curricular responsibilities, etc.)
  • Create and monitor a reciprocal communication system by and between the youth-adult partners and the rest of the staff and student body to share analyzed data, garner input, identify strategies, and provide updates on progress (i.e. facilitated discussions during advisory times and/or departmental meetings, focus groups, updates via school-wide media, etc.)
  • Develop opportunities for celebration on progress of efforts/results and share with the larger community

Figure 1: Student Engagement & Voice in District/Building Systems

As the SEL field continues to grow and consider various opportunities to measure the process and impact of SEL, let’s recognize and act on the opportunity to authentically and purposefully engage students as crucial stakeholders in this process.

“When schools find ways to welcome student opinions—to partner with students as stakeholders in their own learning…they do more than equip students with tools for lifelong success. They also wind up creating programs and policies that are more effective at meeting the schools own goals for supporting young people in their healthy development.”  Shafer, 2016**

Note: The Iowa Department of Education was one of two selected proposals for the top 2019 Innovation Award from the Pathway 2 Tomorrow: Local Visions for America’s Future for this recommendation for authentic student engagement and voice.

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