Elevating Voice Through Social & Emotional Learning
Finding new ways for students to practice skills as decision makers and problem solvers
BY MELISSA SCHLINGER/School Administrator, June 2020

As vice president at CASEL, Melissa Schlinger pushes for integration of social and emotional learning practices into academic instruction.
“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 and school climate improvements.

At Johnson, which enrolls 1,300 in grades 9-12, every student has an opportunity to be a leader within the school’s multilayered 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 and serving on the principal’s student advisory group on school policies. Students also are an integral part of a peer support initiative started by school social workers and participate in training staff in restorative practices.

Thompson was clear that he wanted to turn the professional development model upside down. Students received training first, and then, with assistance from professional trainers, the students trained the staff.

The school’s extensive student leadership exemplifies the deep connections between SEL and student voice. Social and emotional learning provides opportunities for all students to develop and practice the skills they need to become leaders, decision makers and problem solvers. It also helps adults and students to jointly create learning places that elevate everyone’s voice and strengthens the community.

Core Competencies

SEL is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes and skills to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships and make responsible decisions.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, identifies five core competencies that can be taught in many ways across classrooms, schools, homes and communities. When students have frequent opportunities to develop these competencies, they are better equipped to use their voices to lead action. These opportunities also provide rich practice in social and emotional competencies. For example, students engage in:

»Self-awareness by defining their own values and perspectives, gaining awareness of personal strengths and self-efficacy.
»Self-management by practicing self-motivation and organizational skills when working toward goals.
»Social awareness by recognizing others’ perspectives when many voices are elevated.
»Relationship skills by communicating and collaborating with others on shared ideas and goals.
»Responsible decision making by identifying solutions to issues they care about in their classrooms, schools and communities.

 Senior leaders at Johnson High School in St. Paul, Minn., during the Time to Thrive Conference in Washington, D.C.
Supportive Environments

Amplifying student voice requires both the promotion of students’ social and emotional competence and a safe and caring learning environment where adults listen to and value what students have to say.

To create this type of environment, it is important to consider the existing power dynamics between staff and students. Our organization has heard from some schools where adults aren’t accustomed to asking students to share their perspectives or may fear a loss of control when giving students opportunities to advocate for change.

By integrating SEL practices into classrooms and schools, teachers and other staff can develop more trusting and supportive relationships with their students. SEL also can help adults reflect on their own social and emotional competencies and the different ways that they engage with students.

Furthermore, the implementation of schoolwide SEL can itself offer a valuable opportunity to elevate student voice and engagement. Students can inform SEL planning and provide important perspectives on how decisions impact day-to-day life in the school. By listening to students, schools and districts can make informed choices about how to meet the social, emotional and academic needs of all learners.

In Nevada, the Washoe County School District — a partner in CASEL’s Collaborating Districts Initiative — holds what it calls a Strength in Voices Symposium that brings together elementary, middle and high school students to discuss priorities and challenges within the district. In sessions led by their peers, students analyze results from climate surveys and make recommendations for change, while adults capture their input. Their involvement in data analysis not only raises student investment in making changes, but it also makes the data come alive for adults.

 Students from Washoe County School District in Reno, Nev., study data on social and emotional learning collected in their schools.
Washoe ensures a representative sample of students by providing each school with 15 randomly selected students, eight of whom are selected to participate. Michelle Hammond, student voice coordinator in Washoe, says: “All kids have a voice, and they deserve to express it.” (Click here to Washoe County’s Student Voice site.)

Elevating Voice

Schools can ensure they hear from all students, not just those who regularly speak up and take leadership roles, by providing thoughtful opportunities to lead and contribute both in and outside the classroom.
These are ways that staff can honor and elevate student perspectives as part of schoolwide SEL efforts:

»Foster supportive learning environments that ensure all students have opportunities to share their perspectives. Start by developing shared agreements that reflect how students wish to be treated and how they will treat one another. Make sure this process includes all students, including those who don’t normally speak up.

»Adopt an evidence-based SEL program that promotes student voice. SEL instruction provides many opportunities for students to reflect on and share their feelings and perspectives, work with classmates to solve problems and initiate and lead action. Identify a high-quality program that helps ensure consistent opportunities for all students to engage in SEL.

»Integrate SEL practices into academic instruction. Use instructional practices that provide frequent opportunities for students to discuss ideas, choose learning activities, collaborate with peers and reflect on their learning throughout all content areas. This amplifies student voice while providing practice in social and emotional competencies and deepening learning and engagement.

»Provide opportunities for students to lead family-teacher conferences. Teachers can help students prepare to lead the discussion about their own academic, social and emotional progress by having them gather work samples to review, write a reflection on their strengths and challenges and provide goals for the next quarter.

»Collect, reflect on and act on data on student perspectives. Many districts use surveys to better understand students’ perspectives on schoolwide SEL implementation, school climate, academic engagement and adult-student relationships. Some districts go even further by involving young people themselves in research and analysis, a strategy called youth participatory action research.

However you engage in collecting data on student perspective, ensure the results are transparent. Communicate that you have heard their views, share what you plan to do about it and let students know how they can be part of the planning process.
 Michelle Hammond (left) serves as student voice coordinator in Nevada’s Washoe County School District.

»Ensure student representation on SEL and other school leadership teams. Students need an authentic voice in school decision making, such as the hiring of teachers. While all students’ voices are important, it may be especially critical to hear from those who feel dis-connected from school. To support students who are hesitant to take on these roles, provide opportunities for them to practice and receive feedback from a trusted adult or peer mentor on important leadership skills such as public speaking and meeting facilitation.

»Encourage students to generate their own ideas on how they’d like to elevate their voices to make change. As members of their communities, students will have reactions to school, community and national news. Listen to students’ concerns and create space for them to research and develop solutions.

Mindset Shifts

Reflecting on the history of student voice as principal at Johnson Senior High School in St. Paul, Minn., Micheal Thompson recognizes the challenges of turning traditional approaches to leadership upside down by not only involving youth in decision making but by allowing students to implement these decisions, which may require more time, creativity and resources.

“While it’s difficult,” Thompson says, “we as adults needed to make the mindset shift of letting go.” It’s only by making this shift that we can support students in becoming the leaders and citizens we want them to be.

MELISSA SCHLINGER is vice president of practice and programs at CASEL: Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning in Chicago, Ill.