Youth Voice at School

There are almost countless ways that every student shares youth voice everyday at school. Are adults ready to listen? This article shares what youth voice at school is, what youth voice at school does, and whether youth voice at school can make a difference in learning, teaching and leadership.

The Freechild Institute defines youth voice this way:

Youth voice is any expression of any young person about anything, anytime, anywhere for any purpose.

That means youth voice in schools is not the same as student leadership, student engagement, or other student activities. While all of those are some of the ways youth voice is shared, they are not the only ways.

There are so many ways youth voice happens at schools. When a young person participates in class, they are sharing youth voice. If they etch graffiti onto a hallway locker, they are sharing youth voice. If they put on a suit and present at a school board meeting, they are sharing youth voice. Here are some more ways students share youth voice in schools:

  • Attendance or skipping class
  • Submitting assignments or cheating and plagurizing
  • Completing group projects or not completing group projects
  • Voting or abstaining from voting
  • Complying or complaining
  • Joining clubs and teams or leaving fast
  • Mentoring or bullying

In some schools, youth voice is treated as a synonym for student leadership. Only students who follow adult agendas, behave in ways adults approve, and decide things the ways adults would present youth voice that is accepted by adults. In other schools, no youth voice is ever valid, and every adult is always presented as having all authority over student expressions, no matter what they are. Neither of these is a true reality though.

Instead, as the list above shows, every action by any student, anywhere in school for any reason constitutes youth voice—whether or not adults approve of it. With youth voice constantly present, the question is not whether students are ready to share youth voice—its whether adults are willing and prepared to listen to it.

There are many ways adults can embrace, engage and infuse youth voice in schools for students of all ages and all abilities for any purpose. Freechild’s sister program, SoundOut.org, shares the following as ways to do this:

  • Teach students about their voices: Rather than simply going through their days without consciousness, educators can teach every student about youth voice
  • Teach students about schools: Many students spend 13 years in schools without ever understanding what it is they are part of. Help students understand the purpose, structure, activities, and outcomes of education
  • Teach students about improving schools: Share with learners how they are part of a system that includes grades, assessments, projects, reports, and democracy. Show them who affects them and what they can do to affect others, and engage them in activities to improve learning, teaching and leadership
  • Teach students about Meaningful Student Involvement: It is one thing to know about all of this, and another thing to actually do something about it. When youth voice is activated for the purpose of connecting students to education, community, and democracy young people can learn most effectively

There are many other steps to take and a lot of examples available. For more information on engaging youth voice in schools, visit SoundOut.org.

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