Elevate Student Voice

Students have a unique perspective on how high-level decisions impact the day-to-day life of the school, and their voices are critical to quality schoolwide SEL implementation and fostering equitable learning environments. By listening to students, schools can make informed decisions about the changes that will best support all learners (see the Student SEL Data Reflection Protocol for an example of how to learn from student perspectives to inform plans and decisions).

Just as important, when students are engaged authentically as leaders, problem-solvers, and decision-makers, these experiences give them an understanding and ownership of how SEL is implemented in their schools. This is a step toward ensuring that all students experience a sense of agency—the ability to make choices and take actions that impact one’s own trajectory and influence the wider world. When students have a sense of agency, they believe that their own active participation matters.

Schools can foster a sense of identity, agency, community, and belonging by providing a variety of thoughtful opportunities for all students—not just those who regularly volunteer—to lead and contribute both in and outside of the classroom. This includes actively engaging students who don’t typically take on leadership roles by recognizing that the knowledge, life experience, and culture of all students’ are assets to the school community.

As you work to elevate student voice and engagement, use the rubric or the questions below to identify areas for continuous improvement:

Do staff honor and elevate a broad range of student perspectives and experiences by engaging them as leaders, problem-solvers, and decision-makers?

Are there ways for students to shape SEL initiatives, instructional practices, and school climate?

Do students regularly initiate and lead activities, solutions, and projects to improve their classrooms, school and the broader community?

Ladder of Student Participation and SEL

A major goal of elevating student voice is to support young people in becoming agents of change in partnership with adults. To do this, it is important to consider the existing power dynamics between adults and young people and to plan ahead when there is divergent thinking and opposition. The figure below provides a way for adults to reflect on the ways they engage students. While it may not be realistic for young people to engage and initiate all action, teachers and administrators can be intentional and purposeful about how to elevate student voice and engagement to promote SEL.


Image from SoundOut, adapted from the work of Roger A. Hart. Learn more about the Ladder of Student Involvement here.

By creating space for all students to provide their perspectives, share in decision-making, and lead and initiate action, schools can support the development of:

  • Self-awareness, as students define their own values and perspectives, gain awareness of personal strengths, and gain a sense of self-efficacy.
  • Self-management, as students practice self-motivation and organizational skills when working toward a goal they’ve set.
  • Social awareness, as students recognize the perspectives of others when many different voices are elevated.
  • Relationship skills, as students practice communicating and engaging others in shared ideas and goals.
  • Responsible decision-making, as students identify and solve problems in their classroom, school, and community.


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Strategies for Elevating Student Voice

This tool offers examples of ways that staff can support and elevate a broad range of student perspectives and experiences as part of schoolwide SEL efforts.


Read the Student Voice in Action stories below to learn more about how schools are implementing strategies to elevate student voice and perspectives as part of schoolwide SEL.

Fenton High School Bensenville, Ill.

Students Join Adults in Leadership

Giving stakeholders a voice at the table is an important part of the history of Fenton High School, a large high school located on the west side of Chicago. At Fenton, at least one student is assigned to every staff committee including SEL, Wellness, Discipline, and Restorative Justice.

Presence on staff committees has led to unique SEL opportunities for students, such as developing leadership and teamwork skills. They have assisted in creating a Fenton “mood meter,” developed training videos, and supported teachers in delivering lessons for the school’s SEL program, RULER. In the process, students learned essential leadership skills related to data analysis, action planning, marketing, and communication.

The role of students on committees goes far beyond sharing their opinions in meetings. Students are actively involved in the administration, data analysis, and presentation of results for their annual school climate student survey. They have also helped to develop a schoolwide SEL mission statement and create promotional materials for an attendance campaign.

The commitment around elevating the voice of students at Fenton, particularly when it comes to SEL, continues to grow. Melissa To, the school counselor says this: “It was fascinating for our staff to see the data and hear directly from students about how they feel about our school. They now see how important it is to have a student perspective and to promote schoolwide SEL.”

Johnson Senior High School in St. Paul Public Schools, Minn

Student-led Leadership

“Adults should not do for students what students can do for themselves.” That’s a fundamental belief at Johnson Senior High School in St. Paul, Minn., where student voice has been a catalyst for schoolwide transformation, driving implementation of social and emotional learning (SEL) and school climate improvements.

At Johnson, every student has an opportunity to be a leader within the school’s multi-layered “Govie Leadership” structure. Through this structure, Johnson’s principal, Micheal Thompson, has offered students various leadership roles, including running weekly schoolwide forums about social issues, participating in a student group that advises the principal on school policies, working with school social workers to support peers, and training staff in restorative practices.

Following a key youth recommendation to allow more time in the schedule for student leadership, a student-led advisory model is now the backbone of the SEL structure within the school. Advisory at Johnson is a daily 15-minute block during which students facilitate an SEL curriculum they created for a mixed-grade group of 20 students, using a community-building circle format.

Johnson’s student leadership exemplifies the deep connections between SEL and student voice: SEL provides opportunities for all students to develop and practice the skills they need to become leaders, decision-makers, and problem-solvers. It can also help adults and students come together to create a learning environment that elevates all voices and strengthens the community.

Washoe County (Nevada) School District

Students as Decision-Makers

Washoe County School District involves students in informing and making important decisions, including budget proposals. They hold a Strength in Voices Symposium that brings together elementary, middle, and high school students to discuss priorities and challenges within the district. For example, students analyze results from climate surveys and make recommendations for change. Sessions are led by students, while adults capture the input.

Rather than “defaulting to students perceived to fit certain criteria,” Washoe works to ensure a representative sample of students by providing each school with 15 randomly-selected students, from which eight are selected to participate, according to Michelle Hammond, Student Voice Coordinator. “All kids have a voice and they deserve to express it” (CASEL, 2018) To learn more about Washoe’s work visit their Student Voice homepage and read a case example about their process of creating structures to elevate student voice before and through the pandemic.

Student Voice Resources

SoundOut Student Voice Toolbox has research, articles, tips, and resources to support meaningful student involvement in schools and communities.

Giving Students a Voice is a research story from the Harvard Graduate School of Education on what schools can do to welcome student input and bolster success of schools.

Washoe County Student Voice Toolkit has highlights of student voice events in their district as well as resources and practical tools for implementing student voice.

CASEL SEL Trends Volume 2, July 2018: Empowering Youth Voice describes the value of promoting youth voice in schools and shares examples of how three school districts promote student voice.

Student Voice Inc. is a student-led organization that equips students to take action on issues that impact their education.

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