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Uplifting Student Voices: Sustaining Student Voice in Decision Making

REL Pacific
Samantha Holquist
March 20, 2020

This is the third blog post in our series on student voice in K–12 decision making. The second blog post covered information on effective practices for incorporating student voice in decision making and can be found here.

 Diverse teen students raising hands in classroom

Like many K–12 education change initiatives, sustaining student voice practices in classrooms, schools, and districts over time can be challenging (Mitra, 2014). Challenges to sustainability can include the departure of a trusted educator who supported the development of student voice opportunities, the graduation of students who were deeply engaged in student voice practices, and shifts in education priorities that result in a loss of student voice opportunities. Maintaining student and educator engagement in student voice opportunities requires ongoing commitment from both students and adults (Holquist, 2019). We are dedicating this third, and final, blog post in our student voice series to discussing promising practices for sustaining student voice in decision making.

Promising Practices for Sustaining Student Voice Practices

Research on the sustainability of student voice opportunities within classrooms, schools, and districts is currently limited (Brown, Conner, & Ebby-Rosin, 2015); however, several promising practices are emerging to support educators and students in sustaining student voice opportunities.

Continued engagement of an adult ally. As noted in the second blog post of our student voice series, an adult ally is essential for supporting students in engaging in student voice opportunities (Mitra, 2014). An adult ally is a teacher or staff member who provides students with support and/or encouragement, answers their questions, and gives them advice. An adult may also champion students' needs with school leaders when students feel unheard. When an adult ally leaves the school or district in which student voice opportunities are occurring, it can lead to student disengagement from and the dissolution of these opportunities. Therefore, it is important for educators and students to collaboratively create a transition plan for when an adult ally is leaving, which should include identifying a new adult ally to support the continuation of student voice opportunities (Holquist, 2019).

Establishment of student leadership opportunities. . Providing students with leadership opportunities within student voice opportunities enables students to more deeply engage with and take more ownership over their work (Holquist, 2019). Fostering student engagement and ownership within student voice opportunities is important for sustaining student commitment over time. If students become disengaged from leading student voice opportunities, it can be challenging for educators to rebuild student trust and reengage students.

Collaboration with out-of-school organizations. Working in collaboration with an out-of-school organization, such as a nonprofit, can support educators and students in ensuring resources are available to sustain student voice opportunities even if priorities shift within the education environment (Mitra & Gross, 2009). Partnerships with out-of-school organizations may help educators alleviate some of the costs associated with student voice, such as expenses related to educator time or student projects, which may help sustain opportunities when expenses cannot be covered by the school or district.

Institutionalization of student participation. As students are continuously entering and leaving schools, it is important to create clear and consistent structures within student voice opportunities to support student participation (Holquist, 2019). In creating structures for student participation, educators and students should consider the following:

  • the roles and responsibilities of students in decision making within the classroom, school, or district.
  • how students will engage in decision making.
  • how students will be recruited to participate in these opportunities.
  • how educators will support student participate in decision making.

These structures should become a norm within the classroom, school, or district in which student voice opportunities are occurring to ensure that new students are aware of how they can become involved.

Building flexible structures and practices. Because students, educators, and education environments are continuously changing and evolving, it is necessary to ensure that structures and practices created to support student voice opportunities are flexible enough to respond to the needs of students (Mitra, 2008). If structures and practices are not adaptable to student needs, student voice opportunities may become stagnant and students may become uninterested in continuous engagement. One way to ensure that structures and practices meet student needs is to regularly check in with students either through surveys, focus groups, or one-on-one chats, to ensure that they are aware of opportunities and that those opportunities align with their needs and/or interests. For example, if student voice opportunities are only available after school and most students have afterschool commitments, it may be important to shift the time at which student voice opportunities are occurring.

Commitment to School and District Leadership

For student voice opportunities to take root across a school and district, they require the continued support of school and district leadership (Mitra, 2009). Within schools and districts, students are often only able to deeply engage in education decision making when school and district leaders provide them with an opportunity and space to participate and be heard. Therefore, it is essential for school and district leaders to continuously support students in engaging in decision making through a commitment to providing student voice opportunities.

Wrapping Up

Sustaining student voice opportunities over time can be challenging. When student voice opportunities are not sustained, students will no longer receive the benefits associated with these opportunities such as increases in academic achievement, social and emotional learning, and overall wellbeing, and may become disillusioned with participating in the education decision-making process in the future. These promising practices for sustaining student voice provide some insight into how students and educators can ensure that student voice continues to be integrated into education decision making.


Blog: Uplifting Student Voices: Effective Practices for Incorporating Student Experiences into Decision Making

Blog: Consider Student Voices: Striving to Understand Student Experiences to Support Learning and Growth


Brown, A. S., Conner, J. O., & Ebby-Rosin, R. (2015). Introduction to student voice in American education policy. National Society for the Study of Education, 114(1), 1–18

Holquist, S. (2019). Student voice in education policy: Understanding student participation in state-level K–12 education policy-making (Doctoral dissertation). Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

Mitra, D. L. (2008). Amplifying student voice. Educational Leadership, 66(3), 20–25. publications/educational-leadership/nov08/vol66/num03/Amplifying-Student-Voice.aspx

Mitra, D. L. (2014). Student voice in school reform: Building youth-adult partnerships that strengthen schools and empower youth. New York, NY: SUNY Press.

Mitra, D. L., & Gross, S. J. (2009). Increasing student voice in high school reform: Building partnerships, improving outcomes. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 37(4), 522–543. https://journals.sagepub. com/doi/abs/10.1177/1741143209334577