ENGAGING STUDENTS IN SCHOOL
A Student Voice Strategy
Meagan O’Malley, Adam Voight, and Jo Ann Izu
Health and Human Development Program,
WestEd, San Francisco, California, USA
The recent occurrence of several high-proﬁ le episodes of violence committed by young
people in school and local community settings has reinvigorated a national conversation
around the need for prevention strategies that reduce or eliminate experiences that has-
ten youths’ feelings of isolation and alienation from peers and adults within their com-
munities. School climate improvement strategies seek to prevent violent, aggressive, and
uncivil experiences at school through the cultivation of environments that foster positive
interpersonal experiences for youth. These school climate improvement strategies are
heterogeneous in nature; some strategies, such as social and emotional learning (SEL)
approaches (Greenberg et al., 2003), seek to improve students’ ability to regulate internal
emotional states and to use communication strategies to prevent and/or intervene with
peer conﬂ icts, while other systems-level strategies, such as positive behavior intervention
and supports (PBIS; Sugai & Horner, 2002), aim to create transparent and consistent
behavioral reinforcement systems within schools in order to help reduce the use of puni-
tive control structures that cultivate toxic climates. Youth voice strategies complement
SEL and PBIS-type approaches for school climate improvement by positioning students
as agents of school leadership and change, recognizing that students want to attend safe
and civil schools and that, with adult support and encouragement, they can take action
to propel positive school environments.
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330 • O’Malley, Voight, and Tzu
The purpose of this chapter is to introduce readers to a youth voice activity, called
the Student Listening Circle (SLC), which is designed to catalyze student-driven school
climate improvement. The chapter begins with an overview of the SLC and goes on to
describe the results of a recent study of students’ responses from SLCs conducted in com-
prehensive high schools throughout the state of California during the winter of 2011to
2012. The chapter closes with a discussion of future directions for SLC-related practice
and research, as well as an outline of practical considerations for conducting an SLC.
THE STUDENT LISTENING CIRCLE
The Student Listening Circle (SLC), a youth voice activity, is conducted using the format
of a modiﬁ ed youth focus group and is designed for the purpose of catalyzing student-
driven improvements to the school context. Benard and colleagues (2004, 2009) origi-
nally developed SLCs to apply insights from resilience research to school settings. Benard
and colleagues developed the SLC in an effort to move schools toward an asset-oriented
lens, wherein the strengths of students, staff, and the organization are underscored and
buttressed. Drawing on two decades of research with youth in adverse life situations,
Benard and colleagues (2009) sought to inform school community members about the
protective processes that encourage young people to develop into competent, productive
adults (Werner & Smith, 1992, 2001).
Among the studies that guided the development of the SLC is the Kauai Longitudinal
Study (KLS; Werner & Smith, 1992, 2001), wherein Werner and her colleagues identiﬁ ed
protective factors that moderated the relation between early life stressors (e.g., being born
into poverty, experiencing perinatal stress, and/or living in distressed family environ-
ments) and otherwise expected deleterious developmental outcomes. Protective factors
include characteristics of individual young people (e.g., positive self-concept, prosocial
disposition) and characteristics of youths’ environments (e.g., close bonds with caring
adults, engagement in extracurricular hobbies and interests) that help buffer against the
effects of experienced life stressors (Masten & Coatsworth, 1998; Werner & Smith, 1992).
Researchers succeeding Werner and her colleagues provided ample evidence supporting
the inﬂ uence of these internal, family, community, and school-level protective factors on
the healthy adaptation of youth to their complex and multidimensional social environ-
ments (e.g., Resnick, Harris, & Blum, 1993; Roeser, Eccles, & Sameroff, 2000; for review,
see Masten, Cutuli, Herbers, & Reed, 2009). SLCs make use of these ﬁ ndings by creating
opportunities for students to, at once, bolster their internal assets through participation
in collaborative problem solving and strengthen their schools’ ecological resources by
working with peers and adults to improve school climate.
Context and Competence: Theoretical Foundations
The SLC is grounded in an ecological model of change that targets for intervention the
intersection between school community members and their shared contexts (i.e., shared
spaces within the school setting, such as classrooms and hallways; see Figure 21.1 ). The
ecological model is informed by theoretical developments in the ﬁ eld of developmen-
tal psychology, including ecological systems theory (EST; Bronfenbrenner, 1979, 1992).
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Engaging Students in School Climate Improvement • 331
EST offers a taxonomy describing nested contextual systems that, despite their increas-
ing distance from the immediate experience of the child, nevertheless exert an effect on
her development. According to EST, the microsystem —the most proximal system to the
child—includes settings wherein face-to-face interactions occur between the child and
others, such as the home and classroom. One step removed is the mesosystem , deﬁ ned by
the overlap of microsystems. A child’s mesosystem may include the relations between his
home and school, for example, with some children proﬁ ting from bolstered physical and
interpersonal resources resulting from highly engaged parents. The exosystem does not
include the child herself, but nevertheless exerts inﬂ uence on her developmental trajec-
tory by shaping variables within her microsystem. Parents’ work environments are often
cited as exosystems for children because they frequently inﬂ uence parents’ behavior at
home. Another example of an exosystem for a student would be his teachers’ experience
of collegial relationships at work. Though the student himself does not experience these
staff relationships, they indirectly inﬂ uence him through his teacher, who transfers her
experience into the classroom space. The pattern of micro-, meso-, and exosystems shared
within any group of people represents the most distal system, the macrosystem. Cultures
can constitute macrosystems, but so can social classes, religious groups, and neighbor-
hoods. Schools typically serve communities of students and families who develop within
multiple, overlapping macrosystems.
Having generally accepted ecological models, scholars in human development–
related ﬁ elds have turned their attention to explaining the processes that shape devel-
opment within these nested systems. Self-organization (Thelen & Smith, 1998) or
adaptation (Sameroff, 2000) is the process whereby the child adapts his own internal
(i.e., thoughts and mood) and/or external (i.e., behavior) state to the constraints and
opportunities provided within his environmental systems. Additionally, the concept
of a transaction explains that interactions between the child and his contexts are bidi-
rectional in nature, inﬂ uencing one another dynamically over time (Sameroff, 2000).
From these theoretical concepts, we infer that students in schools are engaging in an
ongoing process of adaptation to a multiplicity of environmental inﬂ uences, some of
which are immediately known to them and others that they themselves cannot iden-
tify but that nevertheless shape their presentation in the classroom and other school
Shaping the Context: Empowering Students
While ecological theory is most commonly used to understand how environments affect
individual development, its transactional nature implies that agentic human action has
the potential to inﬂ uence and change settings as well. Bronfenbrenner (1979) himself,
the pioneer of EST, writes: “Development is deﬁ ned as the person’s evolving concep-
tion of the ecological environment, and his relation to it, as well as the person’s growing
capacity to discover, sustain, or alter its properties” (p. 9). In the context of schools, this
implies that students’ development is shaped by their schools (e.g., the teaching and
learning experience, discipline policies, the physical space), and that students have the
ability to, in turn, inﬂ uence their schools (notated with the outward-pointing arrows in
Figure 21.1 ).
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332 • O’Malley, Voight, and Tzu
One way in which students are able to make a difference in their schools is through
student voice. Student voice refers to efforts to involve young people in collaborative deci-
sion making and problem solving with adults (Camino, 2000; O’Donoghue, Kirshner, &
McLaughlin, 2002). It is motivated both by the notion that democratic participation is a
key mission of public education and should thus be modeled in school decision making
and by the notion that students have unique experiences and perspectives on schooling
that make them special experts. Student voice initiatives can take different forms and
involve varying degrees of student control and power. An example of student voice that
involves limited student control and power is a student survey that allows students to give
feedback on school climate and teacher effectiveness. Here, the parameters of “conversa-
tion” are set in advance, and students may have little say in how the results of such surveys
are used. On the other end of the spectrum are youth-led organizing initiatives in which
student groups identify and research issues of importance and develop action plans to
pressure decision makers for change. In the middle are activities such as service learning,
student government, and students participating on adult boards and committees.
Using the SLC for School Climate Improvement
Research exploring the pathways through which Student Listening Circles affect students’
global experiences at school is in its infancy. Until ﬁ ndings are available that compare
Figure 21.1 Student learning circles ecological model of change.
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Engaging Students in School Climate Improvement • 333
outcomes for SLC participants and nonparticipants, determination of the SLC’s optimal
use, including timing and frequency, is based on experience and conjecture. Neverthe-
less, research regarding other student-voice initiatives has examined the two primary
paths through which the SLC is believed to impact student, staff, and school outcomes:
by building social support networks and by bolstering opportunities for student voice.
These proposed pathways provide a rough guide for practitioners to make decisions
about how and when to use the SLC in their schools.
First, the SLC is believed to lead to improved student outcomes by building students’
sense that they belong at school—that they are members of a supportive school social
network. Students’ perception of social support at school has been linked to a number
of positive youth outcomes, including improved academic performance (Jia, et al., 2009;
Niehaus, Rudasill, & Rakes, 2012), improved mental health and self-esteem (Jia et al.,
2009; Shochet, Dadds, Ham & Montague, 2006; Suldo, McMahon, Chappel, & Loker,
2012), increased willingness to seek help when faced with threats of violence (Eliot,
Cornell, Gregory, & Fan, 2010), and reduced frequency of disruptive behaviors (Want,
Selman, Dishion, & Stormshak, 2010).
Giving students voice in school improvement, the second hypothesized mechanism of
change for the Student Listening Circle, has been shown to improve teaching and learning
and overall teacher–student relationships (Fielding, 2001; Mitra, 2003; Soo Hoo, 1993).
It also confers beneﬁ ts to the student participants. Students who have the opportunity to
contribute to school improvement enjoy better relationships with teachers and increased
academic motivation as a result (Ames, 1992; Eccles, Wigﬁ eld, & Schiefele, 1998; Lee &
Zimmerman, 1999). Further, when students are tapped to provide input into curriculum
and instruction decisions, they may experience an increase in achievement (Oldfather,
1995; Rudduck & Flutter, 2000). Giving young people the opportunity to tackle issues of
importance to them, in partnership with supportive adults, appears to be an instrument
of individual and organizational growth. That is to say, it helps build both internal assets
and environmental assets.
Based on the hypothesized mechanisms of change, there exist two potential uses
for the SLC. First, the SLC can be viewed as a data-gathering tool to guide inter-
vention, with the target of intervention being the larger school context. From this
school change framework, the SLC would be best implemented once or twice during
the school year to collect information that informs school improvement decisions.
Presumably, the information gathered from different SLCs within the same school
will not vary too much, so conducting multiple SLCs would not be the best use of
participants’ time. Instead, the time of SLC participants, including school leaders,
could be better spent implementing the students’ improvement suggestions uncov-
ered in the initial SLC. Because research has not yet provided insight into whether and
how the SLC works at the individual level (i.e., whether the SLC shifts internal beliefs
and attitudes), practitioners are urged to implement the SLC from this school change
From an alternative and untested perspective, the SLC could be viewed as an inter-
vention itself, with the target of the intervention being the student and adult partici-
pants. Operating within this framework, more SLCs would presumably be better because
the intervention is able to reach more school community members. Until research is
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334 • O’Malley, Voight, and Tzu
conducted to understand how the SLC acts as an individual-level intervention, practitio-
ners are encouraged to employ caution when choosing to operate from this framework.
LETTING STUDENTS SPEAK: THEMES FROM SLCS
The recognition that meaningful participation and engagement at school encourages
social well-being, belonging, and a sense of agency in young people has inﬂ uenced policy
in human services and education. Recognizing the need for attention to these nonaca-
demic dimensions of learning, the U.S. Department of Education’s Ofﬁ ce of Safe and
Healthy Students (OSHS) recently issued $38.8 million in Safe and Supportive Schools
(SSS or S3) grants to 11 states. The purpose of the S3 grant is to use school climate data
to inform the selection and implementation of evidence-based programs to improve
the developmental opportunities offered within the comprehensive high school setting.
Because of its asset focus and its reliance on the school context as the unit of change, the
SLC has been incorporated as a data-gathering and youth-action tool by 58 S3-funded
comprehensive high schools in California. Data collected from SLCs were used to
complement insights from quantitative school climate data collected via the California
Healthy Kids Survey and its staff and parent partner surveys (WestEd, 2012). Together,
these multiple sources of data were used to drive grantees’ selection of evidence-based
policies, programs, and practices for school climate improvement.
The study described in the remainder of this chapter identiﬁ es themes from a selec-
tion of student responses from SLCs facilitated in 31 S3-funded comprehensive high
schools throughout California during the winter of 2011 to 2012. Two major phases con-
stituted the SLCs conducted for this study: Data Gathering and Solution Planning. Dur-
ing Data Gathering, students were provided an opportunity to communicate authentic,
uncensored messages about their school experiences while adults listened carefully.
Importantly, there was no dialogue during this time; students spoke and adults listened.
Participating students answered the following prompts:
1. How do you know when an adult at school cares about you? What do they say
2. How do you know when an adult at school believes in you? What do they say
3. What makes your classes engaging or interesting to you?
4. If you could change or improve one thing at school, what would it be?
5. What could you do at your school that would make a difference?
6. What are your hopes and dreams and how can adults at school help you achieve
After writing open-ended responses to these questions, students discussed their responses
in an adult-facilitated forum of peers. After practicing their answers to the prompts in a
safe environment with peers and a trained adult facilitator, students joined a room with
school adults, sat in a circle facing each other with adults seated in a concentric circle
on their perimeter, and proceeded to provide their rehearsed responses to each of the
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Engaging Students in School Climate Improvement • 335
Following Data Gathering, the Solution Planning phase provided a structured oppor-
tunity for productive, solution-oriented dialogue between students and staff about
improving the school context. Students and adults joined a single circle in order to reﬂ ect
on what they experienced. They then moved into small groups, wherein they were asked
to begin to generate ideas to address themes within students’ responses.
In every case, the product of the SLC was agreement on two to four concrete, achiev-
able, time-limited action steps. In some cases, such as groups that had agreed upon broad
and/or distal goals (e.g., painting the school), SLC time limitations required that the
facilitator follow-up with members of the school leadership after the conclusion of the
SLC in order to further hone the ideas into more proximally achieved parts (e.g., obtain
bids for painting the front wing of the school).
Methods for the Present Study
To learn more about insights on school climate proffered by student voice, students’
responses to these questions were analyzed using a sample of 10 S3-funded schools.
These 10 schools were selected through a stratiﬁ ed randomization process that ensured
representation of urban, suburban, and rural schools (as deﬁ ned by the California State
Department of Education).
Students wrote their responses to the six SLC questions on forms that they then used
to guide their open discussion. These written responses were compiled into a database
and analyzed to uncover general themes. The analysis involved a two-step qualitative
coding procedure. The ﬁ rst step in this process involved coding—or giving a label to—
each individual idea or concept noted in students’ responses. For example, in response
to question 1 (“How do you know when an adult at school cares about you?”), a student
might have said, “when they greet me by name when I come into the classroom and when
they help me with my homework after school.” The idea of greeting the student by name
and the idea of helping with homework after school would each be coded separately.
The second step involved grouping each of these coded concepts into themes. In some
cases, this was straightforward, such as when multiple codes were given the exact same
name. In other cases, it required more discussion on the part of the research team. From
there, we used a “constant comparative” procedure that examines one code at a time in
each thematic category and compared it to all other pieces of data in that category and
related categories with the goal of integrating categories where there was sufﬁ cient over-
lap or creating new ones where there was sufﬁ cient difference. For example, for question 5
(“What could you do at your school that would make a difference?”), the decision was
made to combine peer support groups and peer relationship building into the same the-
matic category, as there was overlap in the types of responses included in each category.
The end result of this analysis was a parsimonious group of themes related to each of
the questions that students were asked in SLCs. These themes provided insight into how
students understand school climate and potential intervention priorities.
Included below are the response themes for four SLC response prompts. Although
the items “How do you know when an adult at school believes in you? What do they say
and do?” and “How do you know an adult at school cares about you? What do they say
and do?” were asked separately, the degree of overlap in students’ responses warranted
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336 • O’Malley, Voight, and Tzu
collapsing the included thematic summary. Also, students’ responses to the question,
“What are your hopes and dreams and how can adults at school help you achieve them?”
are not described because students’ responses were often too narrow and/or too broad to
inform decisions beyond those made at their particular schools. This trend is reﬂ ected in
the following responses: (a) “My goal is to graduate and go to college and my dream is to
be a police ofﬁ cer and I would need for my teachers to help me continue doing good in
school” and (b) “My goals and dreams are to join the military or Cal ﬁ re. . . [Adults can
help by being] supportive of me and my goals/dreams.”
Student Voice Themes for School Climate Improvement
Caring Relationships and High Expectations
Students responses to the two questions, “How do you know when an adult at school
cares about you?” and “How do you know when an adult at school believes in you?” fell
into four general themes: (a) attention to the personal connection, (b) commitment to
student learning, (c) expectations for behavior and success, and (d) encouragement and
motivation to succeed.
Simple but genuine interactions about student lives outside the conﬁ nes of the class-
room build personal connections with students that they commonly view as caring.
In addition to greeting students and knowing them by name, taking time to ask about
their day, weekend, or holiday break was commonly mentioned as evidence that adults
at school care. The students also remarked that it was not just what adults said, but
how they said it, that made a difference—positive, “polite,” welcoming tones and facial
expressions, and an open, nonjudgmental attitude communicated caring. As one student
explained, “The way I know adults care is by their way of speaking to me. They always
[speak] with a smile and [are] always open to my opinions.” Listening attentively, and
responding “in more than one or two words” conveyed a personal interest in students
which some described as acting like a friend or peer. One student said she knows adults
care “When a teacher actually gets on your level and [has a conversation] with you as
[though] they were one of your peers.”
Noticing changes in student attitude and behavior also conveyed caring. For example,
teachers who consistently noticed when students were sad, frustrated, or having a bad
day and took the time to ask students about it were described as caring. This “checking
in” at a personal level conveyed responsiveness to student attitudes and experiences that
may have led to stronger connections. “When an adult cares,” one student claimed, “you
can tell because they are the people that you know you can go to for advice.” Caring
adults were also described as those who were interested in students’ personal lives and
experiences and who were willing to share their own.
For some students, “checking in” academically on a one-to-one basis was also a sign
of caring. Adults who took the time to have one-to-one conversations about student
work—whether in regard to grades, missed assignments, or accomplishments—and gave
feedback to students on ways they could improve or meet their goals and deadlines were
described as caring. For example, one student noted, “The adults that care in my school
check on me, they come ask me how my day is when they see me, they also check on my
grades and behavior in and around campus.”
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Engaging Students in School Climate Improvement • 337
On a similar note, adult commitment to student learning is another major theme.
Teachers who offered to help students outside of class and who took the time to provide
extra help, tutoring, or study sessions at lunch or after school were commonly described
as caring. Several students reported caring teachers are ones who ensure students actu-
ally learned the concepts and material. “They don’t leave you behind while teaching” is
how one student described it. Caring adults, as another student indicated, “. . .teach the
way students learn and [are] not constantly forcing them to learn how teachers teach.”
Having high expectations for student behavior and success is a third aspect of caring
and belief in student potential. Students noted that holding them accountable to certain
academic standards such as going to class, participating, and staying focused and on
track (“tell me ‘don’t fool around’ ”) showed both caring and belief in students. As one
student indicated, “They keep bugging me to do my work, come to class on time and
believe I can do better.” Interest in and afﬁ rmation of student success is another way
students know adults care and believe in them. As these students noted,
“This is how I know if they believe in me—They will never give me up for failure.
They will always tell me to go for the 3.0 [GPA] because they know I can get it.”
“I know adults believe in me because they pull me aside and tell me, ‘Why do [you]
have a bad grade in this class? You can do better.’ And that makes me feel like they
believe in me.”
Finally, students pointed to encouragement and motivation to succeed as another way
they know adults care and believe in them. Students indicated that praise and reminders
of what they and other students have accomplished in the past offer hope and optimism
that they can succeed at the task at hand. Examples they gave include encouraging per-
severance through statements like, “Don’t give up; you almost got it” or simply “You can
do it.” Pushing students to optimize achievement by working harder, doing their best,
and completing the assignments is another form of encouragement noted by students.
Similarly, challenging students to take on classes and tasks that they typically avoid or to
“do things outside the norm” while communicating adults’ faith that they can complete
them is how students knows adults believe in them.
Engaging Learning Opportunities
To the question, “What makes your classes engaging or interesting to you?” students
answered according to four general themes, which we have labeled: (a) variety in instruc-
tional tools and techniques, (b) opportunities for self-expression and self-direction, (c)
real-world applications, and (d) teacher attitudes and beliefs.
Most frequent were requests for engaging instructional tools and techniques. Stu-
dents noted that they ﬁ nd classes to be most engaging when teachers use a variety of
pedagogical tools, including instructional games, hands-on activities, and diversity in
media, such as videos and computer software. To engage more deeply with the content,
students noted labs, projects, class dialogues, and small-group work opportunities to be
useful. Finally, students responded that they value opportunities to review course con-
tent in experiential, creative ways such as playing quiz games.
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338 • O’Malley, Voight, and Tzu
Second to engaging instructional tools were requests for opportunities for self-
expression and self-direction. Students noted that classes are engaging when there are
opportunities to make choices, such as selecting where to sit or selecting learning activi-
ties. As in other SLC item responses discussed herein, students requested opportunities
to express their personal opinions and beliefs and to hear the opinions and beliefs of oth-
ers. In one example, a student responded, “some [classes] require participation from the
students and it’s interesting to hear others’ opinions. It’d be better to have more people
involved. Voluntary sharing of inner opinions with a group of peeps.”
Additionally, students consistently reported the need to engage in material through
real-world applications. They asked for teachers to provide examples for how the mate-
rial could be used in future professional and personal life and to illustrate material using
examples that students could connect to their own lived experiences. Students at the high
school level are pondering the world, thinking about what opportunities life outside of
high school has to offer them and what skills they may need to adapt to new life demands.
Finally, students often supplemented their answers by noting that, in addition to
developmentally appropriate pedagogical tools and techniques, teacher attitudes and
behaviors can support an engaging learning environment. Speciﬁ cally, students noted
that they ﬁ nd that they are most engaged in their courses when their teachers are fun,
positive, and personally interested in the course material.
Improving Your School
The question, “What could you do at your school that would make a difference?” gave
students an open-ended opportunity to talk about their priorities for school improve-
ment. Their responses fell into four general themes: (a) the physical environment/
resources, (b) staff–student rapport, (c) student peer relationships, and (d) school rules
The most commonly mentioned target for improvement was the physical environ-
ment, including food options. Students described school campuses that were drab, lit-
tered, and generally unclean. One student claimed, “Every day I hear people say that this
campus is dirty and disgusting. There is trash everywhere. The things we do have are
outdated, like in the quad area.” The cleanliness of bathrooms was a particular concern.
As for food, students claimed that they would prefer more variety in lunch offerings or
the ability to leave campus for lunch.
Regarding staff–student relationships, many students voiced concern about the
disposition of some adults in the school. Students wished that administrative staff, in
particular, were more friendly, helpful, and welcoming. They expressed a desire for
more enthusiasm and positivity on the part of teachers and counselors. Some felt that
an improvement in staff attitudes toward students was necessary. There was also an
acknowledgement that students need to be more respectful of adults in school, especially
regarding attentiveness in class.
Additionally, students pointed to peer relationships as an area for improvement.
There was a concern over violence and racism among students. To combat this, students
recommended more opportunities for students to build prosocial relationships, with one
student stating, “Many kids don’t know each other very well, and we only know what we
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Engaging Students in School Climate Improvement • 339
infer. If we had a day or two to get to know each other I think that would help.” Students
expressed a desire for more mutual helping and connectedness in the student body.
Lastly, many students felt that some school policies were too restrictive. Special
attention was given to dress codes, bans on the use of portable electronics, discipline
policies, and scheduling. Student felt that dress codes prevented them from expressing
themselves. In terms of electronics, students felt it would be fair to be able to use them
between classes. “At lunch we’re doing it anyway, so why is it bad if we [use electronics]
when we’re not in class?” said one student. Another student wished that teachers would
be more consistent in enforcing discipline policies. Finally, for students who had jobs,
there was some frustration over the inability of schools to accommodate work schedules.
Students Make a Difference
Students’ responses to the question “What could you do at your school that would make
a difference?” fell into three thematic categories: (a) prosocial peer interactions, (b) posi-
tive norm-encouraging behavior, and (c) community events and activities. Overall, stu-
dents’ responses to this item suggested that not only do students want to contribute to
their school environments, but they also have a variety of creative, youth-appropriate
ideas for how to do so.
Most commonly, students responded that they could make a difference at school by
helping and connecting with other students. For these participants, ideas for helping and
connecting with other students were expressed with a variety of textures, such as men-
toring subpopulations and/or groups of students with traditionally less power within the
school, such as underclassmen, students with disabilities, and/or students who are learn-
ing English as a second language; tutoring students in academics; building friendships
across subgroups or “cliques”; making conversation with students they don’t already
know; and providing peer counseling.
Second to prosocial peer interactions, students responded that they could make a dif-
ference at their school by encouraging positive norm-following behavior. For example,
they mentioned encouraging other students to follow school rules, “stop bullying and
put downs,” “respect each other,” and “be themselves.”
Finally, students indicated that they could help by hosting and encouraging participa-
tion in school community events and activities. Ideas included advertising activities and
programs on campus, starting student clubs, and volunteering to perform community
service on campus (e.g., volunteering at the library, picking up trash). In other words,
students indicated that they were looking for opportunities to conduct student-led ini-
tiatives that weave peers into the school’s social fabric.
ILLUSTRATING STUDENT-DRIVEN SCHOOL
The following is an example of how one high school used the SLC process to inform
changes to their school environment.
On a Saturday morning in April 2012, a comprehensive high school in California held
a SLC. Twenty-seven people (8 students and 19 adults) participated. A diverse group
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340 • O’Malley, Voight, and Tzu
of adults (parents, staff, school administrators, school-based health center staff, and
community-based organization staff) and students were represented. Issues that arose
during the SLC included the need for better schoolwide communication, more adult
involvement in school activities, a wider range of strategies to engage students in learn-
ing, more opportunities for student voices to be heard, and in particular, more activi-
ties and opportunities to “break boundaries” between the cliques and divisions in this
racially and economically diverse school and community.
The group decided to address three of the SLC’s suggestions, with at least one student
and one adult taking responsibility for moving the work forward in each area:
1. Develop more opportunities to hear students by forming a committee to plan and
conduct a series of listening circles with strategies to share the results with more
2. Form a diversity committee to examine communication and breaking the status quo.
3. Form a committee to coordinate club outreach and communication.
In less than a month (and with the close of school just weeks away), changes were
already being put in place. While work to coordinate club outreach and communication
had just begun, improvement efforts in other areas were well underway. Announcing his
commitment to student voice at the circle, the principal, along with student and adult
SLC participants, shared the results of the SLC at the next staff meeting. In addition,
several students were invited to participate in a panel to talk about their perspectives on
school issues at the school board meeting held at the high school. Another SLC involving
students who participate in the Life Skills for Peace program was planned to take place
before school ended to ensure more diversity in the voices heard.
Similarly, the adult and student responsible for communication and breaking the sta-
tus quo met at least twice to develop a survey regarding cliques and belonging or “ﬁ tting
in” issues on campus, and to plan a Mix It Up Day for the fall. They hoped to use the sur-
vey to identify students for an ongoing committee to look at issues of cliques and ethnic/
racial tensions on campus.
FUTURE DIRECTIONS IN SLC
Future directions for the SLC follow two major courses: improvements to practice and
improvements in research. Practice-related improvements include building systematic
opportunities for students to participate in the planning and follow-up stages of the
SLC. Related to planning, it is notable that the questions that were asked in this SLC
process were selected by SLC adult facilitators based on what research has suggested are
the building blocks of resilience in youth. Given that the parameters of the constructs
tapped are constricted by the questions being asked, there is no way to be sure that all
potential dimensions of school climate relevant to students were tapped with the current
set of questions. Working with a group of students in advance to determine the content
and wording of items being used at their school could strengthen the SLC process. One
potential way to organize this discussion is to ask the students to review existing school
climate data (e.g., student, staff, and parent perception data [school climate surveys],
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Engaging Students in School Climate Improvement • 341
behavioral incidence data, and suspension/expulsion data) and discuss what they believe
to be the school’s greatest strengths and challenges. This discussion could naturally lead
to a determination of the school climate areas that the students would like to explore
more deeply via the SLC. Moreover, there is currently no systematic follow-up to the
SLC; instead, the process leaves schools to independently and idiosyncratically imple-
ment SLC-generated solutions. A more systematic approach could help ensure that solu-
tion ideas become reality.
Table 21.1 Steps for Conducting a Student Listening Circle
Phase I: Planning
1. Obtain administrator buy-in. It is critical to gauge school administrator readiness and support
before proceeding with the SLC to ensure that key school leaders value and intend to act upon student
voice. Some school leaders are ready to share their power, while others may be initially skeptical or,
alternatively, entirely opposed to the idea. Do not proceed with the SLC unless key school leaders are
supportive of the approach.
2. Select and recruit student participants. Students recruited to participate in the SLC should represent a
cross-section of the school community, both in terms of age, gender, and race/ethnicity and in terms of
school engagement and current academic achievement. The SLC is best run with no less than ﬁ ve and
no more than eight students.
3. Obtain parent/guardian consent. Consent is recommended, as participating students may be missing
4. Select and recruit adult participants. Adults recruited to participate in the SLC should be advocates
for student voice. This is not the time to invite skeptical staff, as they may undermine the emotionally
safe experience for students. A ratio of two adults per participating student is recommended. As
with students, the adult participants should represent a cross-section of the school. Recommended
participants include school leadership, instructional staff, counselors and school psychologists,
certiﬁ cated staff members, school security personnel, and parents.
5. Locate appropriate space. Two rooms will need to be located. The ﬁ rst room will need to be large enough
to hold all SLC participants, adults and students. This room should have a reduced number of doors and
doors should be able to be locked while the SLC is being conducted to avoid disruptions. Large tables
in the room should be able to be moved to the perimeter of the room to allow space for two concentric
circles of chairs. Midsized rooms are best; cafeterias and other very large spaces are not recommended.
Phase II: Implementation
6. Brief adults and students. Review SLC Agreements (Table 21.2), discuss the purpose of the SLC, and
describe the expected ﬂ ow of the day.
7. Prepare adults. Re-review adult agreements; discuss existing school climate data (e.g., student/staff
perception data from school climate surveys, behavioral incidence data, suspension and expulsion data),
paying special attention to disparities across student groups; and discuss current practices in school
climate improvement (e.g., school policies, evidence based programs, day-to-day practices).
8. Prepare students. Coach students through their answers to each SLC question. Facilitator provides
feedback and encourages students to share all of their ideas while actively listening to and reﬂ ecting their
answers, and, when needed, assisting them to reframe responses in constructive, solution-focused ways.
9. Conduct Student Listening Circle. Students are asked to sit in center circle, facing one another. The
facilitator sits in the center circle with the students. Adult participants sit in a concentric circle outside
of the student circle. Every student answers every question in the same order that has been practiced in
the student preparation, while adults listen quietly.
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342 • O’Malley, Voight, and Tzu
Though the anecdotal evidence for the SLC process is strong (e.g., one school adult
called it “the most powerful data-gathering tool” he had ever seen), there is little empiri-
cal research on the SLC. Validating the SLC as an impactful school climate intervention
will require thoughtful study of both the ingredients that predict high SLC quality, such
Phase III: Synthesis and Solution Planning
10. Adult reﬂ ection. Students and adults are asked to join a single circle. Facilitator asks adults, “What did
it feel like to listen to students? What did you hear the students say?” It is important that the facilitator
remind the adults that this is not a time to defend the school or to commit to action but only to reﬂ ect
on what the experience was like for them and what they learned from the students.
11. Student reﬂ ection. Facilitator asks the students, “What did it feel like to be listened to?” Students
are reminded that this is the time to thank the adults, but not to add additional critiques of the
school or school personnel. Students are asked to acknowledge that adults listened and/or revise any
12. Paired solution planning. Facilitator asks the students to partner with adults in small groups (e.g., two
adults and one student per small group) to consider at least two action steps based on a theme that
emerged in the students’ responses. Facilitator leads small groups through a share-out around each
theme that emerged.
Phase IV: Follow-Up
13. Reconvene adults and students to discuss progress on action steps. Revise action steps if necessary.
Table 21.2 Student Listening Circle Agreements
Adults agree to:
• Turn off cell phones and other electronics. No phone calls, e-mails, or texts!
• Stay for the entire Listening Circle.
• Be silent during the Listening Circle.
• Commit to a plan of action that reﬂ ects the youths’ perspectives.
• Keep comments offered by students anonymous when reporting to staff, parents, or community
• Avoid approaching Listening Circle students for clariﬁ cation outside of preplanned, structured
Students agree to:
• Turn off cell phones and other electronics. No phone calls, emails, or texts.
• Focus on what you do like, want, and need.
• When referring to speciﬁ c people, only use names for positive comments.
• Be respectful of each other.
• Be mindful of time.
• Speak one at a time.
• Speak your truth!
Table 21.1 (Continued)
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Engaging Students in School Climate Improvement • 343
as administrators’ orientation toward youth voice activities and student and adult par-
ticipant characteristics; as well as the adult and student psychological, social, and behav-
ioral outcomes that result from participation in the SLC. Deeper study of the process
by which the SLC inﬂ uences change in the school environment is also warranted. Of
particular interest to these authors is the process by which participants in the SLC inﬂ u-
ence nonparticipants through social action and behavior and how the accumulation of
inﬂ uence results in lasting change to the school’s social norms.
Included in Table 20.1 are the broad steps for conducting a best-practice Student Lis-
tening Circle in a high school setting. For a detailed description of each step, including
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CHAPTER SUMMARY STUDENT VOICE
• The Student Listening Circle (SLC) is two-phase student voice activity wherein
students are ﬁ rst provided a structured opportunity to give authentic, uncensored
feedback about their school experiences to school adults and then provided a space
to engage in a productive dialogue with school adults about improving the school
• Student voice strategies complement SEL and PBIS-type school strategies by
targeting students as agents of self-discipline, leadership, and organizational
• The SLC is grounded in an ecological model of change that targets for intervention
the intersection between school community members and their shared contexts
(i.e., shared spaces within the school setting, such as classrooms and hallways; see
Figure 21.1 ).
• The SLC relies on the proposition that democratic participation is a key mission of
public education and should thus be modeled in school decision making and by the
notion that students have unique experiences and perspectives on schooling that
make them special experts.
• The SLC is believed to lead to improved student academic, social, and emotional
outcomes by building students’ sense that they belong to a supportive school social
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Engaging Students in School Climate Improvement • 345
network consisting of peers and adults and by bolstering students’ sense of agency
and control of resources in their school environment.
• Results of a thematic analysis of students’ responses from 10 SLCs conducted in
rural, suburban, and urban schools throughout California in winter of 2011 to
o Simple but genuine interactions suggest to students that adults at school care
about and believe in them. According to students, adults at school demonstrate
they care when they check in about students’ personal lives outside the conﬁ nes
of the classroom; notice changes in students’ attitudes and behavior; and care-
fully monitor students’ academic performance, regardless of students’ perceived
o Students perceive their classes to be engaging and motivating when adults
employ a variety of instructional tools and techniques, include ample oppor-
tunities for self-expression and self-direction, and connect lessons to real-world
o Students’ primary school improvement concerns relate to their day-to-day expe-
riences, including most prominently the cleanliness of the school environment
and the quality of available food; the quality of interactions with school person-
nel, including administrative and counseling ofﬁ ce staff members; lack of per-
ceived rationale for and/or restrictiveness of some school rules; and the quality
of interactions with peers on campus.
o Not only do students want to contribute to their school environments, but they
have a variety of creative, youth-appropriate ideas for how to do so. Students
are motivated to contribute by helping and connecting with other students
both socially and academically and by leading school community events and
• Future research is needed to determine the effects that participating in an SLC may
have on adult and student psychological, social, and behavioral outcomes.
SUGGESTED READINGS: STUDENT VOICE
Goldstein, S., & Brooks, R. B. (2013). Handbook of resilience in children (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Springer.
Chapters within this handbook provide an overview of contemporary research on resilience in children.
Kirshner, B., O’Donoghue, J., & McLaughlin, M. (2003). Youth participation: Improving institutions and commu-
nities. New directions for youth development: Theory, practice and research, 96 (winter).
This volume offers an assessment of the ﬁ eld of Youth Development. Included chapters describe efforts to
increase youth participation in schools and other community settings.
Mitra, D. (2008). Student voice in school reform: Building youth–adult partnerships that strengthen schools and
empower youth . Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
This book describes the story of one high school in the San Francisco Bay Area in which educators imple-
mented measures to bolster student voice on campus. The school’s narrative is couched in a discussion of
research on youth voice.
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346 • O’Malley, Voight, and Tzu
Preble, B., & Gordon, R. (2011). Transforming school climate and learning: Beyond bullying and compliance. Thou-
sand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
This book describes the authors’ proposed process for improving school climate, from school climate data use
through youth participation strategies.
Zullig, K. J., Koopman, T. M., Patton, J. M., & Ubbes, V. A. (2010). School climate: Historical review, instru-
ment development, and school assessment. Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment, 28, 139–152.
This research article provides a contemporary introduction to the study of school climate, including deﬁ ning
features and measurement of student perceptions.
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