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The View from Here: Examining the Potential of Student Leadership

By Michael Piccirillo, Ed.D, CASDA Executive Director

It is hard to believe we are at the midpoint of the school year. We have focused much of our attention in the first half of the school year on student and adult social-emotional wellbeing and for good reason. The continued impact of the COVID pandemic, local and national political polarization, and shortages of personnel in all areas of school organizations have exacerbated existing mental health and emotional stressors. Unfortunately, there is no simple, quick cure-all approach to mediating these issues. The Winter edition of our newsletter is dedicated to examining the potential of student leadership, an often untapped and potentially powerful resource. However, to be impactful, student leadership must go beyond current strategies for involving students like holding non-voting seats at school board meetings or traditional student government structures. Students can and should play a more meaningful role in the decision-making process in schools.

Brown, Biddel and Tappan (2022) in the book “Trauma-Responsive Schooling: Centering Student Voice and Healing” assert, “Schools that wish to do trauma-responsive work well quite simply, need to include children as partners. Such work is, by its very nature, unsettling to the way things go. It requires humility, flexibility, improvisation, and openness to learning and change. That’s because healing depends on genuine relationships, which, by definition, are responsive and unpredictable. In short, such schools will need to evolve” (p.6). The authors point to what Heifetz (1994) considers an adaptive challenge, adults' willingness to share decision-making responsibility with students. Lyons and Brasof (2020) concur, stating “As scholars and practitioners seek to understand the logistics of implementing organizational mechanisms to support student voice in schools, research should consider the relevance of adult mindsets toward student voice initiatives” (p.367). In other words, do educators truly believe in the power of student voice? Are they willing to set a place at the decision-making table for students as true partners?

In the recently published NY Social Emotional Learning Benchmarks - Equity Revisions (November 2022), there is strong acknowledgement of the value in developing student voice. For example, take a look at Base Indicator 3B: Learners will be able to: Apply decision making skills to influence outcomes and strengthen agency in social and academic life. Next look at the description for Late HS (11-12) - Adults will support, teach and model for young people as they learn to (3B.5b.): Evaluate how decision-making regarding equity, diversity, and fairness affects interpersonal and intergroup relationships, and ways decision-making can support civic engagement. In unpacking this benchmark it is clear the goal is for students to engage in activities with adults, which require higher order thinking skills such as evaluation and decision-making. However, student development hinges on an adult mindset which values the contributions students can make and demonstrates the willingness to support, teach, and model the necessary skills.

Informal student voice is also a powerful tool schools can use to address social-emotional challenges. “Research shows that creating the conditions for students to express their thoughts and feelings and to have some measure of control and agency over the circumstances of their lives reduces stress and enhances school engagement by increasing students’ sense of belonging, competency, and efficacy in school” (Brasof, 205; Cook-Sather, 2002 as cited in Brown, Biddle & Tappan, 2022). Student empowered social-emotional learning or SESEL as described by the authors creates a space for the organic expression of student voice. In the article “Student-Led SEL,” the authors make a distinction between traditional SEL programs, which are controlled by adults and SESEL, which is not a pre-constructed curriculum. In fact, SESEL considers the needs and concerns of students by being open to the organic emergence of student-created SEL activities. Whether through activities like “Somedays,” which allow students and adults to express a wish and work together to enact it or through “microadventures,” which infuse outdoor activities into the curriculum, students can play a meaningful role in determining the activities they engage in to support their own SEL.

In ”Letting Student Voice Lead the Way,” the authors who are co-directors of the Rural Vitality Lab, a collaboration between the University of Maine and Colby College “piloted and refined school-wide strategies for fostering student voice and empowerment in schools to promote mental health, well-being, and emotional healing” (Biddle, Brown, Tappan, 2022). The approach centers trauma-responsive schools as best achieved by building meaningful relationships with students. As the authors contend, “This requires that we listen to students and trust them as experts on their own experience and that we engage them as full and active partners in school and community transformation” (p.49). Perhaps the most powerful statement made by Biddle et. al. (2022) on the this topic is “To understand children's needs, particularly children who because of systemic injustice and inequity experience schools on the margins, we must create spaces and opportunities for them to speak about their experiences, to explain what isn’t working, to ask for what they need, and to share what excites them and nurtures them” (p.53).

In closing, CASDA is very interested in working with schools to place students at the center of efforts to address their mental health and social-emotional needs. Additionally, we recognize this work must also include examining the systems and structures within schools and communities creating and exacerbating social-emotional stressors linked to the interrelated challenges of poverty, equity, racism, trauma, absenteeism etc. In the near future, we plan to rollout a new service designed to work alongside educators, students, families and communities to co-design solutions through a holistic lens.


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