Assessing Student Participation at School: Developing a Multidimensional Scale

International Journal of Student Voice

A peer-reviewed, independent, open-access journal

Pennsylvania State University

Volume 5                            IJSV                           September, 2019

Assessing Student Participation at School: Developing a Multidimensional Scale

Donnah L. Anderson  Charles Sturt University, Australia

Anne P. Graham  Southern Cross University, Australia

Nigel P. Thomas University of Central Lancashire, UK

Citation: Anderson, D. L., Graham, A. P., & Thomas, N. P. (2019). Assessing student participation at school: Developing a multidimensional scale. International Journal of Student Voice, 5(1).

Abstract: In the past few years there has been a growing interest in student participation at school, and in whether participation is connected with student wellbeing or with academic success. One problem when studying student participation is that it seems to mean different things to different people. For some people it is just about students attending school and going to lessons. For others it is about students making decisions about things that matter to them, or being part of “student voice” activities at school. Another problem is that we do not have good ways to measure how well schools are doing at student participation, with tools that take account of the different ways that students can participate. This article reports how a new tool has been created to measure student participation. The new tool is called the Student Participation Scale. It was created in New South Wales (NSW), Australia. The researchers read books and articles on student participation. They also talked to school staff and students to find out what student participation meant to them, and they asked them about what questions should go into the tool. Once they created the Student Participation Scale, the researchers tested it on 1,435 secondary school students. The Scale asks 38 questions to measure six types or “elements” of student participation:

  1. Students working together with peers and school staff,
  2. Students having a voice about schooling,
  3. Students having a say with influential people at school,
  4. Students having influence on decisions made at school,
  5. Students having a voice about school activities outside of the classroom, and
  6. Students having choice.

These elements of student participation were the same for boys and girls, for different grade or year groups, for students who spoke English as a second language, for students from an Indigenous background, and for students with a disability. The Scale was also consistent and valid. That is, it measured what the researchers said it would measure. The Student Participation Scale is easy and free for schools to use. It can be used to measure which elements of participation are happening most, and which ones schools might try to improve. There is also a guidebook that has instructions and tips for using the Scale in schools.

Keywords: student voice, student participation, survey.

Online Discussion Questions:

  • The authors identified six important elements of participation. Do you think they identified the right elements? 
  • The Student Participation Scale has 38 questions (see column 1 of Table 2). Could the wording of any of these questions be improved?
  • Discuss whether you could be confident in the results from the Student Participation Scale given the process involved in developing it and the items it measures?
  • How could the Student Participation Scale be used for further research and/or to help improve practice in schools?



In recent years there has been an increasing international focus in policy, practice, and research on student participation at school. Several factors are driving this interest, not least of which is a children’s rights agenda, specifically informed by Article 12 of the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNCRC; United Nations, 1989). Article 12 states that children have a right to voice their opinions in decisions that affect them and to have their opinions given due weight in such decisions. Many contemporary developments within education policy and practice align with such an emphasis, including personalized learning and the rise of student-centered pedagogies (Whitty & Wisby, 2007). Additionally, there is a growing international evidence base that links student participation at school with improved outcomes regarding life skills, self-esteem, social status, democratic skills, citizenship, student-adult relationships, school ethos (Holdsworth, 2000; Mager & Nowak, 2012), student health and wellbeing (de Roiste, Kelly, Molcho, Gavin, & Nic Gabhainn, 2012), and agency, belonging, and competence (Mitra, 2004). Paradoxically, while there has been strong interest toward improving student participation in schools, understandings of what student participation involves; what its constituent elements are; and how schools should measure, assess, and monitor their progress in relation to student participation have been less clearly articulated.

Student participation has been defined in various ways in scholarly and applied literature and can mean anything from mere attendance at school (just “being there”), to “taking part” in classroom and extra-curricular activities, to “having a say” about topics that concern the individual young person (Holdsworth, 2000, pp. 354-355). Such definitional ambiguity has meant that any clear conceptualization of student participation has been elusive and, in practical terms, has conspired to inhibit the operationalization of the construct for practical, measurement, or assessment purposes.

This article reports on one component of a large mixed-methods research project focused on understanding student participation and wellbeing at school. In particular, it reports on the development of a reliable and valid scale, the Student Participation Scale (SPS), which measures elements of student participation at school.

Measuring Children’s and Young People’s Participation

Having a framework and tools for assessing and measuring the impact of participation on children and young people themselves; on institutions; and on polices, services, and communities is critically important (Crowley & Skeels, 2009). Such evidence is necessary for progressing implementation of Article 12 of the UNCRC (Skeels & Thomas, 2007). In their systematic review of the effects of student participation in decision making at school, Mager and Nowak’s (2012) key finding was the need for more comprehensive high quality research. We agree with this argument. However, to measure the impact of participation on various outcomes and to conduct quantitative research designs to achieve this, such as longitudinal and control group designs (Kirby & Bryson, 2002), the first step is to create a valid and reliable scale to measure student participation. As shown in the review that follows, any scales that are developed need to include multiple items that measure the elements of participation.

Models of Children’s and Young People’s Participation

There have been numerous conceptual models of children’s and young people’s participation discussed in the literature. Despite their different emphases, many models have in common a structure which either encompasses multiple spaces in which authentic participation takes place or posits multiple constituent elements of participation.

For example, Holdsworth (2000) argues that student participation occurs through two major spaces: (1) in school governance, for example school councils, committees or boards, and student representative councils; and (2) in curriculum, for example classroom learning partnerships and student participation strategies or projects. Mannion, Sowerby and I’Anson (2015) reported four spaces where student participation occurs: (1) the formal curriculum, (2) the extended curriculum or extra curriculum, (3) decision-making groups, and (4) informal contact among peers and adults.

Other models posit multiple elements of participation structured in various hierarchies of participation (e.g., Hart, 1997; Holdsworth, 2000; Lundy, 2007; Mitra, 2005; Shier, 2001; see also Thomas, 2007). As shown in Figure 1, these models include Mitra’s (2005) three elements of the “pyramid of voice,” Lundy’s (2007) four elements of participation, Shier’s (2001) five pathways to participation, Holdsworth’s (2000) six-rung student participation ladder, and Hart’s (1997) eight rungs of participation. Common to all five models are notions of young people having opportunities for voice, being listened to and heard, having their views influence decisions, and working collaboratively and sharing leadership or power with adults. As demonstrated by these examples, many of the models of children’s and young people’s participation support conceptual definitions of a complex construct with multiple components. Thus, these models, if used to inform operational definitions and the structure of tools with which to measure participation, support multiple item and multifactorial measurement scales.

Hierarchical models of the elements of children and young people’s participation.

Figure 1. Hierarchical models of the elements of children and young people’s participation.

Resonating with these models, the Student Voice Rubric (Sussman, 2012) uses six areas of student voice and 17 elements of participation to form a matrix aimed at supporting the implementation of student voice in New York schools. While this innovative tool is useful for understanding, identifying, and monitoring the places and qualities of student voice activities in schools, its tick-box format produces a nominal measurement only (i.e., the student voice indicator is either present or not) and does not produce a quantitative scale, which limits its use for research and practice.

Existing Quantitative Scales to Measure Participation

Recently, a range of quantitative scales have been developed which are aimed at measuring children’s and young people’s participation at school or in decision making more broadly. Some scales, with unknown reliability and validity, have been developed for program evaluation and professional development purposes (e.g., Feinstein & O’Kane, 2005; Welsh Government, 2011; Wu, Weiss, Kornbluh, & Roddy, 2014; Youth and Adults Transforming Schools Together, n.d.). Other scales and specific items to measure participation have been developed for research focused on investigating the association between participation and various outcome variables. For example, de Roiste et al., (2012) used a self-report survey of 10,334 students aged 10-17 years in Ireland to investigate the association between student participation, health, and wellbeing. To measure student participation, survey respondents rated the extent to which they agreed/disagreed with three items: “In our school students take part in making the rules”; “I am encouraged to express my own views in my class(es)”; and “Students get involved in organising school events.” These three items were each analyzed independently. According to the domain sampling model of scale construction, measurement of complex, multifaceted, and abstract constructs such as student participation are best measured using multiple items to measure each facet (Kaplan & Saccuzzo, 2013). Using only a single item to measure each of de Roiste et al.’s three aspects of participation limits the content validity of the analyses. Furthermore, as demonstrated above in the overview of models of participation, a wider and systematically derived range of spaces and elements of participation would be beneficial to achieve comprehensive content validity.

The Child and Adolescent Participation in Decision Making Questionnaire (CAP-DMQ; O’Hare, Santin, Winter, & McGuiness, 2016) is a 10-item self-report scale developed in Ireland and provides a generalized measure of children and young people’s participation in decision making. The scale items were mapped against Lundy’s (2007) four elements of participation (space, voice, audience, and influence) and was found to have good reliability and validity and to be invariant across age and gender. Although the brief length of this scale has benefits of being simple and quick to administer, the 10 items formed a single factor, which limits measurement of participation to an overall composite score and generalized construct. Development of a slightly longer scale that remains simple and still relatively quick to administer would have the benefit of allowing multiple items to be developed for each of the theorized spaces and/or elements of participation. Such a scale would enable researchers to reliably and validly investigate the role played by various elements of participation in their association with a variety of outcome variables, such as student wellbeing, academic performance, and engagement with school.

The Current Study

The present article reports development of the Student Participation Scale (SPS), which aims to reliably and validly measure the elements of student participation in school settings using multiple items for each element and producing continuous scores. The results reported here are one aspect of a large research project: Improving Wellbeing through Student Participation at School. The project was supported by an Australian Research Council Linkage grant, and had partners from education and government organizations (New South Wales Department of Education, Lismore Catholic Schools Office, and the New South Wales Advocate for Children and Young People). The research team was assisted by an expert advisory group of 15 members—four representatives from the partner organizations, two school principals, two teachers, and seven secondary school students. The involvement of students in guiding the research is ethically and methodologically significant, as it endeavors to utilize their expertise while reflexively engaging with the strengths and complexities of implementing student participation in a meaningful and authentic way.

The research project used a mixed-methods approach. The study explored how student participation is currently understood, practiced, and experienced in government and non-government schools in NSW, Australia. The first stage of the project analyzed policy surrounding student participation, and the second used qualitative methods consisting of interviews with policy makers, school principals, and teachers, as well as focus groups with Year 7-10 students, to explore how student participation was understood and practiced. The third and fourth stages are the focus of this article. The aim of Stage 3 was the development of a psychometrically sound quantitative scale to measure student participation, which was then developed further and used in the final stage. Stage 4 tested the relationships between student participation, recognition, and wellbeing at school. The present article briefly describes the processes of Stage 3 and reports the final structure, reliability, and validity of the SPS from a large sample gathered from an online survey in Stage 4.

Development of the Student Participation Scale

The SPS was developed using dual methods. First, deductive methods were used to create an initial bank of survey items to measure student participation. Then empirical methods were employed in Stages 3 and 4 of the study to test and refine the psychometric properties of the scale. The deductive methods involved drawing on existing theories and models of participation, including those positing spaces of participation, particularly Mannion et al. (2015), and those presenting multiple elements of participation, particularly Hart (1997), Holdsworth (2000), Lundy (2007), Mitra (2005), and Shier (2001). Further, the qualitative data from the interviews and focus groups informed the structure and content of items in the scale. Specifically, the qualitative stage found that students experienced participation at school in four key ways: having voice, having influence, having choice, and working together. It also identified five spaces for participation at school: in the classroom, school activities outside of class, formal participatory opportunities, student-teacher relationships, and educational policy development. These models and research findings directly informed construction of a matrix of student participation, which consisted of a 4 x 5 cell table with the four key elements from Stage 2 of the study across the horizontal axis and five key arenas or spaces for student participation down the vertical axis. This matrix was used as a scaffold for the research team and project advisory group to create the initial bank of 57 survey items.

The initial 57-item scale was piloted for feedback on its content, administration, phrasing, and formatting, with two samples: (1) a school-based sample of 61 students evenly distributed from Years 7-10, from a Catholic school and a Government school in NSW, and (2) the 12 members of the NSW Advocate for Children and Young People’s Youth Advisory Council, aged between 12 and 24 years. The pilot study involved administration of the scale to the pilot samples, followed by an invitation to provide written feedback and discussion as a group. In response to the pilot feedback five scale items were edited for clarity, and two items were omitted due to redundancy, leaving 55 items.

In Stage 3 of the study, the structure of the SPS was then tested and refined on two separate samples from seven schools (three Catholic schools and four State schools) ranging in size from 129 students to 1200 students in regional and metropolitan NSW. Principal Components Analysis (PCA) on sample 1 (N = 253, age range 11 – 17, Mage = 13.40, SDage = 1.22) and sample 2 (N = 283, age range 11 – 17, Mage = 13.81, SDage = 1.22) supported a 40-item scale with six components of participation. The six components of participation were: working together, having voice about schooling, having a say with influential people at school, having voice about activities outside the classroom, having influence on decisions made at school, and having choice at school. During Stage 3 the phrasing of items was also adjusted based on both statistical analyses (i.e., PCA, confirmatory factor analyses, reliability analyses, and validity analyses) and rigorous discussion with the research team and project advisory group. In the second sample of Stage 3 the SPS appeared to have good internal consistency within each element of participation, sound content and construct validity, and an invariant structure across demographic groups (gender, grade, or year at school; Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander [Australian Indigenous] status; Cultural and Linguistic Diversity status [CALD status]; and disability status). At this point the 40-item scale was ready to be administered in Stage 4 of the study, with further analysis conducted on a larger sample. These results from Stage 4 are reported below.



Purposive sampling was used to recruit a diverse range of schools to take part in the project. Potential schools were identified via the My Schools website (, which provides details of each Australian school’s demographic and academic performance characteristics. Diversity was sought in terms of school size, socioeconomic status, geographic and cultural characteristics, whether schools were single sex or co-educational, and also schools taking differing approaches to student participation. Some schools identified as “lighthouse schools” for their leadership in the area of student participation were also invited. The Stage 4 sample was recruited from 16 secondary schools (nine Catholic schools and seven government schools) from regional and metropolitan NSW, ranging in size from 379 to 1,065 students. In total, 1,481 participants started the survey, and 1,435 completed it. Participant ages ranged from 11 to 17 years with a median age of 14 years (M = 13.88, SD = 1.26). Table 1 reports the frequencies and percentages of the participants in demographic categories.

Table 1: Frequencies and Percentage of the Sample in Demographic Categories

    N (% of sample)
  Male 624 (43.5)
  Female 742 (51.7)
  I describe my gender in a different way 47 (3.3)
  I’d rather not say right now 22 (1.5)
  7 455 (31.7)
  8 418 (29.1)
  9 276 (19.2)
  10 286 (19.9)
CALD status  
  English only 1205 (84.0)
  English + other language 186 (12.9)
  Other language only 13 (0.9)
  I’d rather not say right now 31 (2.2)


  N (% of sample)
Australian Indigenous status  
  Aboriginal 123 (8.6)
  Torres Strait Islander 15 (1.0)
  Both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander 11 (0.8)
  Neither Aboriginal nor Torres Strait Islander 1225 (85.4)
  I’d rather not say right now 61 (4.3)
  Missing data 0 (0)
Disability status  
Has a disability 97 (6.8)
Does not have a disability 1098 (76.5)
Not sure 195 (13.6)
I’d rather not say right now 45 (3.1)


Participants in the online survey responded to demographic items first, followed by measures of wellbeing at school, recognition at school, the student participation scale, and validity items. The wellbeing and recognition items will be reported in a separate article.

Demographic items. Demographic items asked about gender (male/female/I describe my gender in another way/I’d rather not say right now); age (11-17 years); year at school (7/8/9/10); Indigenous status (Australian Aboriginal/ Torres Strait Islander/Both/Neither/I’d rather not say right now); language spoken at home [CALD] (English only/English and another language/ Another language only/I’d rather not say right now); and disability status (Yes/ No/Not sure/I’d rather not say right now); “Does your school have a Student Representative Council (SRC)?” (Yes/No/ Not sure); and, “If Yes, Are you a member of your school’s SRC?” (Yes/No).

Student Participation Scale. The SPS consisted of 40 items measuring six elements of participation: working together (9 items), voice about schooling (9 items), having a say with influential people (7 items), voice about activities outside the classroom (3 items), having influence (7 items), and having choice (5 items). Table 2 shows all 40 items, which were responded to using 5-point Likert scales, where 1 indicated “strongly disagree,” 2 indicated “disagree,” 3 indicated “neither agree nor disagree,” 4 indicated “agree,” and 5 indicated “strongly agree.” The factor structure, reliability, and validity of the SPS are reported in the Results section.

Validity items. To test the convergent validity of the SPS, engagement with school was measured using a 19-item validated scale by Fredericks, Blumenfeld, Friedel, and Paris (2005). Fredericks et al.’s scale has three subscales: behavioral engagement (five items, e.g., “I follow the rules at school”), emotional engagement (six items, e.g., “I like being at school”), and cognitive engagement (eight items, e.g., “I check my school work for mistakes”). Fredericks et al. reported good internal consistency for the behavioral (α = .72 – .77), affective (α = .83 – .86), and cognitive (α = .82) sub-scales.


After obtaining ethics approval from the university and all relevant school systems, school principals were telephoned by relevant research partners from either the government or Catholic school system. If principals verbally agreed that their school could take part in the study, an email invitation was then formally issued. The principal or their designated personnel recruited teachers to facilitate administration of the survey in their classes. Facilitating teachers received an instruction page which introduced the project and survey process as well as provided the link to the survey. Teachers gave each student in their class opt-out parent and student consent forms and information letters. Only students who did not return any opt-out form took part in the study. All participation was voluntary, anonymous, and confidential. Students completed the online survey in a classroom setting where privacy was emphasized. Submission of survey responses was deemed consent. On average, the survey took participants around 12 minutes to complete. Participating schools were sent a summary of key results.


Quantitative data was analyzed using IBM-SPSS Statistics 20 and AMOS Version 20.

The Structure of the SPS

Exploratory Factor Analysis (EFA) using Maximum Likelihood method was conducted on a randomly selected half (N = 717) of the responses to the 40 items of the SPS. The second random half of the sample was used in Confirmatory Factor Analysis (CFA; see below). The data were factorable, with several strong inter-correlations; the KMO was .97’ and Bartlett’s test of Sphericity was significant, p < .001. EFA revealed the presence of six factors with eigenvalues exceeding 1. Cattell’s (1966) scree plot revealed four potential breaks – at one factor, two, five and six factors. The Monte Carlo Parallel Analysis procedure (Watkins, 2000) supported five factors. Various extractions were attempted, including two, five, and six extracted factors with direct oblimin rotation procedures employed. The clearest pattern matrix to interpret was when six factors were extracted. Loadings above .40 were retained. There were no cross-loadings, and all but two items loaded above .40 (see Table 2). The six factors were labeled as follows and after extraction explained 61.11% of total variance:

  1. Working Together (9 items): 44.51%
  2. Voice about Schooling (9 items): 5.53%
  3. Having a Say with Influential People (5 items): 3.24%
  4. Having Influence (7 items): 2.64%
  5. Voice about Activities (3 items): 2.45%
  6. Having Choice (5 items): 2.74%

The two items that did not load above .40 (see Note, Table 2) were not retained. Cronbach’s alpha showed internal consistency of the six factors was excellent (see Table 2). Table 3 shows the correlations between the six factors ranged from moderate to strong, supporting the use of an oblique rotation method.

Table 2: Exploratory Factor Analysis: Cronbach’s Alpha and Item Loadings for Six Factors of the Student Participation Scale (N = 717)

  SPS Item Loading M SD
Factor 1: Working together (α = .91)
1 At my school: Students work with teachers outside of class time to make things happen at school .74 2.99 1.04
2 At my school: Students work together outside of class time to get things changed at school .72 2.89 1.02
3 At my school: Students work with teachers to find a positive way forward .64 3.23 1.02
4 At my school: Students usually make decisions with teachers in meetings .61 2.86 1.07
5 In school activities such as sporting teams, clubs, excursions, camps, fundraising and socials: My classmates and I often make decisions together .61 3.38 0.98
6 In the classroom: My classmates and I often make decisions together about our learning .56 3.17 1.07
7 In school activities such as sporting teams, clubs, excursions, camps, fundraising and socials: Students sometimes contribute to the wider community (businesses, organisations, other schools etc…) .55 3.26 0.96
8 In school activities such as sporting teams, clubs, excursions, camps, fundraising and socials: My teachers and I often make decisions together .52 2.94 1.01
9 In the classroom: My teachers and I often make decisions together about my learning .52 3.01 1.03
Factor 2: Voice about schooling (α = .95)  
10 At school, I usually get to say what I think about: How my work is assessed -.88 2.82 1.14
11 At school, I usually get to say what I think about: How I am taught -.84 2.84 1.12


SPS Item Loading M SD
12 At school, I usually get to say what I think about: What I learn -.83 2.89 1.12
13 At school, I usually get to say what I think about: Classroom rules -.82 2.90 1.15
14 At school, I usually get to say what I think about: Homework -.79 2.72 1.15
15 At school, I usually get to say what I think about: How students are disciplined -.73 2.64 1.13
16 At school, I usually get to say what I think about: How the school supports students -.67 2.90 1.11
17 At school, I usually get to say what I think about: What happens in home rooms or roll call groups -.65 2.97 1.13
18 At school, I usually get to say what I think about: How the classroom space is organised -.63 2.67 1.09
Factor 3: Having a say about influential people (α = .89)
19 At school, I get the chance to say what I think…To the Deputy -.95 2.97 1.10
20 At school, I get the chance to say what I think…To the Principal -.86 2.86 1.14
21 At school, I get the chance to say what I think…To the SRC and/or student leaders -.59 3.13 1.09
22 At school, I get the chance to say what I think: In year group or house meetings -.58 3.07 1.08
23 At school, I get the chance to say what I think: To my teachers outside of class time (such as in the playground, or in the teacher’s office) -.45 3.37 1.06
Factor 4: Voice about activities (α = .92)  
24 In school activities, such as sporting teams, clubs, excursions, camps, fundraising and socials, I usually get to say what I think about: How the activities are organised -.89 2.91 1.05


SPS Item Loading M SD
25 In school activities, such as sporting teams, clubs, excursions, camps, fundraising and socials, I usually get to say what I think about: Which activities are offered -.76 3.04 1.06
26 In school activities, such as sporting teams, clubs, excursions, camps, fundraising and socials, I usually get to say what I think about: How often the activities happen -.76 2.84 1.07
Factor 5: Having influence (α = .92)  
27 Most of the time in the classroom: My opinion is considered by teachers -.89 3.28 1.00
28 Most of the time in the classroom: My opinion is listened to by teachers -.85 3.36 1.05
29 Most of the time in the classroom: The teachers tell me how my opinion was used -.77 3.02 1.05
30 Most of the time in the classroom: My opinion makes a difference and things change -.69 2.87 1.05
31 Most of the time in school activities, such as sporting teams, clubs, excursions, camps, fundraising, and socials: The teachers tell me how my opinion was used -.48 2.90 1.02
32 At my school: Staff take students’ opinions seriously -.46 3.06 1.06
33 At my school: Staff take notice of what students say to them -.45 3.28 1.03
Factor 6: Having choice (α = .81)  
34 At my school I usually get a lot of choice about: How much I get involved in school activities (such as sports, camps, socials, plays…) .71 3.55 1.08
35 At my school I usually get a lot of choice about: The type of school activities I do (such as sports, camps, socials, plays…) .69 3.42 1.13
36 At my school I usually get a lot of choice about: Who I sit near .53 3.44 1.07


SPS Item Loading M SD
37 At my school I usually get a lot of choice about: How I present my school work (e.g., as an essay or poster) .43 3.37 1.07
38 At my school I usually get a lot of choice about: How I look .40 2.99 1.24

Note. Items that did not load on any factors above .4 were ‘At my school: The Principal or Deputy takes notice of what I say’ and ‘At my school: My views inform the work of the SRC or school leaders’.

Table 3: Inter-correlations of the Six Factors of the Student Participation Scale

1. Working Together  2. Voice about schooling 3. Having a say with influential people 4. Voice about Activities 5. Having Influence 6. Having Choice
1 -.58 -.54 -.52 -.66 .45
2 .55 .66 .56 -.38
3 .50 .56 -.40
4 .45 -.37
5 -.45


CFA was conducted on the second random half of the Phase 4 sample (N = 717). Model 1 tested the six participation factors and their 38 relevant observed items based on the EFA results reported above. All factors were allowed to covary based on the correlation results between factors in the EFA. The model fit indices showed mixed results (Table 4). The chi-square (χ2) value for Model 1 was large and significant, p < .001, indicating a poor fit of the data to the model. The normed chi-square value (χ2/df) exceeded all guidelines regarding its acceptable value of 2, 3, or 5 (Kline, 2005) and indicated poor fit of the data to the model. In Model 1, the Adjusted GFI (AGFI) indicated a fairly good fit of the data to the model as values close to 1.00 indicate good fit (Byrne, 2001). The Comparative Fit Index (CFI) was below .95, indicating poor fit (Hu & Bentler, 1999). The Standardized Root Mean Square Residual (SRMR), which shows perfect fit of the model to the data when residuals are zero, was lower than the criterion of .10 (Kline, 2005), indicating the model fitted the data well. The Root Mean Square Error of Approximation (RMSEA) value suggested reasonable fit based on Brown and Cudeck’s (1993) rule of thumb that that RMSEA less than or equal to .05 indicates a close approximate fit, values between .05 and .08 represent reasonable error of approximation, and values above .10 suggest poor fit. The narrow confidence interval (95% CI) suggested excellent precision of the RMSEA. In sum, the RMSEA and SRMR supported model fit, while the other indices suggested re-specification would be beneficial.

Table 4: Model Fit Indices for the Measurement of the Six Elements of Student Participation

Model χ2 df p χ2/df AGFI CFI SRMR RMSEA 90% CI for RMSEA
1 4281.34 650 .001 6.59 .82 .91 .05 .06 .06,.06
2 2757.77 641 .001 4.30 .88 .95 .04 .05 .05,.05

Large modification indices (i.e., above 80) for the covariances between error terms were inspected. As it made substantive sense that nine pairs of error terms would be associated due to item content with very similar meaning and the pairs of items loaded on the same factor, they were re-specified to covary in Model 2. For example, on the “Having influence” factor, the errors associated with “My opinion is listened to by my teachers” and “My opinion is considered by teachers”; “Staff take notice of what students say to them” and “Staff take students’ opinions seriously”; and “The teachers tell me how my opinion was used in the classroom” and “My opinion makes a difference and things change,” were allowed to covary. Similarly, four pairs of errors were allowed to covary on the “Working together” factor, and one pair was allowed to covary on both the “Having a say with influential people” factor and the “Voice about schooling” factor. Error terms that covaried across different factors were not respecified. The Model 2 fit indices are reported in Table 4. The change in chi square was significant, p < .001, however the chi-square test was still significant at p < .001, indicating poor fit. However, all the practical indices suggested the model was fitting the data well, and no further modifications were conducted.

Invariance of the Model Across Demographic Groups

The CFA Model 2 was tested on the whole sample (N = 1434) for both configural and metric invariance across several demographic categories (see Table 5). The whole sample was used as some group sizes were too small when using just half the sample. Configural invariance refers to the number of factors and the pattern of factor-indicator relationships being identical across groups. Metric invariance refers to a model in which the factor loadings are equal across groups. As the chi square test is impacted by large sample sizes (van de Schoot, Lugtig, & Hox, 2012) and CFI is independent of sample size, both indices and other fit indices are reported in Table 5.The results show that the model achieved both configural invariance and metric invariance for gender, Australian Indigenous status, CALD status, disability status, and year level. The CFI, normed chi square (χ2/df), and RMSEA all indicated good model fit. Therefore, configural invariance was supported. There were no significant changes in the chi square value (p >.05), therefore metric invariance was also achieved. In sum, the factor structure of the measure of participation was invariant across demographic groups.

Table 5: Tests of Demographic Invariance for the Student Participation Scale

Variable Model χ2 df Δχ2 Δdf χ2/df CFI RMSEA 90% CI for RMSEA
Gender Configural 3344.91* 1280 2.61 .94 .03 .03 -.04
  Metric 3380.58* 1318 35.66 38 2.57 .94 .03 .03 -.04
Australian Indigenous status Configural 3767.01* 1282 2.94 .94 .04 .04 -.04
  Metric 3808.86* 1320 41.85 38 2.89 .94 .04 .04 -.04
CALD status Configural 3709.39* 1282 2.89 .94 .04 .04 -.04
  Metric 3756.53* 1320 47.14 38 2.85 .94 .04 .04 -.04
Disability status Configural 3535.62* 1282 2.76 .94 .04 .04 -.04
  Metric 3594.48* 1320 58.86 38 2.72 .94 .04 .04 -.04
Year at school Configural 5700.58* 2564 2.22 .92 .03 .03 -.03
Metric 5837.68* 2678 137.10 114 2.18 .92 .03 .03 -.03

Notes. *p < .001. To interpret the change in chi square (Δχ2) values the critical value for chi square with 40 degrees of freedom is 55.76, p < .05, and for 120 degrees of freedom is 146.57, p < .05. All RMSEA values were not significant, p = 1.00.

Convergent Validity

Composite scores for the six elements of participation were calculated by averaging the relevant items on each sub-scale. To test the construct validity of the SPS, these mean sub-scale scores were correlated with Fredericks et al.’s (2005) three dimensions of student engagement (see Table 6). All correlations were positive and statistically significant at p < .001 and ranged from weak (behavioral engagement), to moderate (cognitive engagement), to strong (emotional engagement). The convergent results for emotional and cognitive engagement support the construct validity of the SPS. Correlations between individual items of the behavioral engagement scale with the SPS variables were explored (see Table 6, bottom section). Removal of two items on the behavioral engagement scale which were not associated with the SPS variables, “I get into trouble at school” (reversed) and “When I am in class I just act as if I’m working” (reversed), increased the strength of the correlations between the behavioral engagement dimension and the SPS factors (see bottom row of Table 6). These results support the construct validity of the SPS.

Table 6: Pearson’s Correlations Between the Mean Scores for the Elements of Participation with Student Engagement Sub-Scales

  Elements of Participation
  Having influence Voice about schooling Having a say with influential people Having choice Working together Voice about activities
Engagement sub-scales (Fredericks et al., 2005)
Behavioural engagement (N = 1433) .28 .18 .21 .27 .25 .12
Affective engagement (N = 1432) .60 .55 .50 .51 .58 .46
Cognitive engagement (N = 1424) .39 .40 .36 .32 .44 .30
Behavioural engagement items (Fredericks et al., 2005) (N = 1426)
1. I follow the rules at school .35 .24 .28 .32 .33 .17
2. I get into trouble at school (reversed) .07 .00 .01 .07 .00 -.05
3. When I am in class I just act as if I’m working (reversed) .05 .01 .02 .03 .03 -.02
4. I pay attention in class .31 .23 .27 .32 .32 .19


Elements of Participation
Having influence Voice about schooling Having a say with influential people Having choice Working together Voice about activities
5. I complete my work on time .27 .21 .23 .27 .27 .16
Mean of items 1, 4 and 5 .36 .26 .30 .35 .36 .21

Note. All correlations were statistically significant at p < .001.

Discriminant Validity

A one-way between groups analysis of variance (ANOVA) showed that SRC members (M = 3.20, SD = 0.71, 95% CI [3.07 – 3.33], n = 110), who were assumed to have greater experience with student participation, scored significantly higher on the mean total participation score compared with non-SRC members (M = 3.05, SD = 0.70, 95% CI [3.01 – 3.09], n = 1187), F(1, 1295) = 4.89, p = .027, ηp2 = .004. The effect size was very small.

Multiple analysis of variance on the six mean scores for the elements of participation showed there was a significant but small difference between those who were members of the SRC and those who were not, Wilk’s Λ = .99, F(6, 1290) = 2.39, p = .026, multivariate η2 = .011. Inspection of mean scores indicated that SRC members scored higher on all six elements of participation than non-SRC members (see Figure 2). However, one-way ANOVA showed that only “Having a say with influential people” reached statistical significance, with SRC members (M = 3.41, SD = 0.83, 95% CI [3.24 – 3.58]) scoring significantly higher than non-SRC members (M = 3.09, SD = 0.89, 95% CI [3.04 -.3.14]), F(1, 1295) = 12.76, p< .001, ηp2 = .01. The effect size was small.

Mean elements of participation ratings of SRC and Non-SRC members. Error bars represent +/- 1SE.

Figure 2. Mean elements of participation ratings of SRC and Non-SRC members. Error bars represent +/- 1SE.


Development of the Student Participation Scale using deductive and empirical methods has produced a reliable and valid 38-item self-report scale to measure student participation at school in both the government and non-government sectors. The SPS was developed in consultation with young people, which is uncommon in quantitative research (see Lundy & McEvoy, 2009). The SPS is easy and quick to administer to individual students, whole classes or the entire student population of a school. The SPS provides a means for schools to collect students’ voice about their experience of participation at school and will provide schools with a tool to measure, monitor, and improve their implementation of student participation.

The factor analysis results support a robust factor structure of the SPS, with six elements of participation accounting for a large proportion of total variance (61%). The six elements of participation are, in order from largest to smallest: working together, having voice about schooling, having a say with influential people at school, having voice about activities outside the classroom, having influence, and having choice. This factor structure and the loading of each item onto each factor was shown to be invariant across several demographic categories: gender, year level at school, Australian Indigenous status, CALD status, and disability status. The reliability of the six factors was shown to be excellent, as demonstrated by strong internal consistency.

Construct validity of the SPS was supported by convergent validity of the six elements of participation with student engagement with school sub-scales (Fredericks et al., 2005). Of particular note is the strong positive correlation between the participation variables and emotional engagement with school —suggesting that students who reported greater participatory experiences also enjoyed school more, and vice versa. The correlations between the participation variables and cognitive engagement were positive and moderate, which supports construct validity of the SPS. While the correlations between the participation variables and behavioral engagement were initially weak, omission of two reverse-scored items from the behavioral engagement scale (“I get into trouble at school” and “When I am in class I just act as if I’m working”) increased the correlations to moderate strength for most sub-scales and the mean total participation score. In some schools where participation is practiced routinely, children in “trouble” may be provided with more opportunities for voice than those not in trouble, while in other schools such students may have less voice, leading to the near-zero correlations reported between this item and the SPS. Importantly, student conformity with regard to following rules and student participation are not expected to be highly correlated, as in some instances participation may involve going beyond rules to make a change at school. In sum, the correlation results support the convergent validity of the SPS.

The significant results comparing Student Representative Council (SRC) members with non-members on mean total participation scores and sub-scale scores for having a say with influential people at school support the construct validity of the SPS by providing evidence of the scale’s ability to discriminate a group known to have greater experience of student voice with influential people at school. The non-significant results for the difference between SRC and non-SRC members on the other SPS sub-scales are most likely due to lack of statistical power due to the relatively small number of SRC members compared to non-SRC members. The relatively small mean differences and small effect sizes between SRC and non-SRC members on all sub-scale scores resonate with a key finding from the qualitative stage of the Participation study. That is, SRCs were heavily criticized by students (both SRC and non-SRC members), and thus the small actual differences in scores most likely do not indicate lack of validity of the SPS, but rather poor, transient, or inconsistent delivery of participation within SRCs.

Content validity of the SPS was supported by use of deductive methods to create the original item pool. The initial item pool was devised by consulting the UNCRC Article 12 (United Nations, 1989); various established multi-component models of the spaces (Holdsworth, 2000; Mannion et al., 2015) and components (Hart, 1997; Holdsworth, 2000; Lundy, 2007; Mitra 2005; Shier, 2001) of participation; as well as consultation with the project advisory group which included school principals, teachers, and students from both state and Catholic school systems. The research team members also included four international experts on children and young people’s participation. Drawing on these academic, theoretical, and practical sources of information guided the content domain of the initial item pool, ensuring it was both systematically derived and comprehensive.

Alignment of the factor analyses results with the models of participation (see Figure 1) further supports the content validity and structure of the SPS. For example, the elements of participation in the SPS refer to voice about schooling and voice about activities, which conceptually aligns with Lundy’s (2007) “voice,” Holdsworth’s (1986) “youth/student voice,” and Shier’s (2001) “children are supported in expressing their views.” The SPS element of “having a say with influential people at school” intersects with Mitra’s (2005) “building leadership capacity” and Holdsworth’s “being listened to seriously and with respect.” The SPS element of “having influence” aligns with Lundy’s “influence,” Holdsworth’s “incorporating youth/student views into action taken by others,” Hart’s (1997) “adult initiated, shared decisions with children” and Shier’s “children’s views are taken into account.” The element of “having choice” resonates as a form of being consulted (Hart) and “children are involved in decision making processes” (Shier). “Working together” coincides with Hart’s “child initiated, shared decisions with adults,” Holdsworth’s “sharing decision making,” Mitra’s “collaborating with adults,” and Shier’s “children share power and responsibility for decision making” aspects of participation. Working together was the largest element of participation in the factor analysis results. These results resonate with the models of participation which place shared decisions with adults toward the higher end of the hierarchies. Working together, both in our data and in the theoretical models of participation, is the “capstone” of authentic student participation.

Implications and Limitations

The SPS provides a multi-dimensional quantitative scale to measure the extent of student participation at school. It will provide researchers with a means to investigate research questions focused on the impact of student participation on various outcomes, such as on children and young people themselves, on institutions, on polices, services and communities (Crowley & Skeels, 2009; Mager & Nowak, 2012). Such evidence will progress implementation of Article 12 of the UNCRC (Skeels & Thomas, 2007). Given the cross-sectional design used to develop the SPS and the correlational nature of the results, future studies need to use longitudinal designs and control studies (see also Kirby & Bryson, 2002) so that predictive validity of the SPS can be tested. Future research also needs to test the factor structure of the scale in other settings, including other education systems and school cultures. Such further studies are important as they will add to the extant evidence of the psychometric soundness of the SPS in international settings. The factor analysis results support a multi-dimensional model of student participation, with six key elements, and thus, models or theories of student participation should reflect a multifaceted structure in order to capture student participation in a comprehensive way.

In school settings, the SPS will provide a useful tool to measure, monitor, and improve their implementation of student participation. This takes on increased significance in contemporary educational environments where the potential benefits of participation, including for school effectiveness and improvement and for student wellbeing, are now broadly recognized, but valid and reliable measurement has been lacking. An information pack, which includes instructions on administering, scoring, and interpreting the SPS, will be available at no cost to schools, along with a complementary Good Practice Guide which provides practical suggestions, resources, insights from schools and reflective questions for school leaders, teachers, and students on how to build effective student participation and embed it as an integral part of the culture within schools (see

In sum, the results reported in this article support the SPS as a reliable and valid tool with which to measure multiple dimensions of student participation at school.


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A Pedagogical Design to Surface Student Voice by Integrating Youth Participatory Action Research, Restorative Practices, and Critical Service Learning

International Journal of Student Voice

A peer-reviewed, independent, open-access journal

Pennsylvania State University

Volume 5                            IJSV                           September, 2019

A Pedagogical Design to Surface Student Voice by Integrating Youth Participatory Action Research, Restorative Practices, and Critical Service Learning

Colby T. KervickUniversity of Vermont

Lance C. Smith University of Vermont

Bernice Garnett University of Vermont

Mika Moore University of Vermont

Tracy A. Ballysingh University of Vermont

Citation: Kervick, C. T., Smith, L. C., Garnett, B., Moore, M., & Ballysingh, T. A. (2019). A pedagogical design for surfacing student voice by integrating youth participatory action research, restorative practices, and critical service learning. International Journal of Student Voice, Volume 5(2).

Abstract: In this article, we describe the design and implementation of a graduate education course intended to promote student voice by weaving together three pedagogical models of emancipation: Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR), Restorative Practices (RP), and Critical Service Learning, (CSL). What has thus far gone unaddressed in the literature on student voice is how these three approaches can be integrated to empower graduate students and high school students alike to realize greater agency and undergird student engagement in school reform efforts. This article describes the theoretical and pedagogical practices that worked in tandem to impart the transformational knowledge, skills, and critical dispositions connected to YPAR, RP, and CSL within a community-based graduate-level course involving graduate students and high school students. The article outlines key features of RP, YPAR, and CSL as described in the literature and offers an argument for why RP and YPAR could be effective tools within CSL. We then conclude by reflecting on both the successes and struggles of implementing the graduate-level service-learning course. Through description of this course design and implementation, we hope to offer the field an example of how to use these pedagogical practices within a service-learning designated graduate course in order to elevate student voice.

Keywords: Student voice, youth participatory action research, restorative practices, service learning, school reform

Online Discussion Questions:

  • In what ways can YPAR and RP be utilized as tools for elevating student voice in school reform efforts?
  • After reading this article, what have been the salient learning outcomes for you related to the integration of RP, YPAR and CSL?
  • How might Universities interested in engaging in critical service-learning opportunities for their students, utilize YPAR and/or RP as vehicles for engaging in university partnerships and elevating student voice in school reform efforts?



Youth participatory action research (YPAR), Restorative practices (RP), and critical service learning (CSL) are three discrete emancipatory approaches that aim to amplify the voice of those who have been historically marginalized and under-represented in order to interrupt hegemonic structures and promote a more equitable society (Butin, 2015; Cammarota & Fine, 2008; Kline, 2016). A robust body of literature positions YPAR as an evidenced-based research methodology that promises to simultaneously empower youth while provoking institutional transformation (Cammarota & Fine, 2008; Ozer, 2016). Emerging research and data have defined and illustrated the positive effects of RP on school liberation efforts (González, 2012; Gregory, Clawson, Davis, & Gerewitz, 2016; Kline, 2016; Lewis, 2009), while a substantive literature base has advanced the role of critical service learning as a pedagogy of transformation (Butin, 2015; Carrington, Mercer, Iyer, & Selva, 2015; Mitchell, 2015).

This article details the incorporation of all three approaches in the construction and implementation of a graduate education course for school practitioners that wove together these three models of emancipation with the goals of raising critical consciousness, empowering graduate students and high school students alike, bolstering student voice, undergirding student engagement in school reform efforts, and pushing social structures toward a more just and democratic society. Here we present a description of the course and explores how YPAR, RP, and CSL elements were woven together. While data related to course outcomes are presented, this article does not report on a formal research study, but rather offers a practitioner lens on how universities might partner with a local school district to design learning opportunities that elevate student voice through the integration of YPAR, RP, and CSL. We begin with a brief overview of the university-school district partnership that inspired the creation of such a course. We then describe the major tenets of YPAR, RP, and CSL that expressly informed the course design and implementation. We also discuss the pedagogical practices and curriculum strategies we employed to: (a) raise the critical consciousness and skill sets of graduate students by training them in YPAR and RP; and (b) apply a CSL model to engage high school students in YPAR and RP to enhance their voices and level of influence in school reform. To this end, we provide examples from student work and student school reform ideas, and describe summative feedback from participating graduate and high school students about the course. We conclude by reflecting upon the struggles and successes of using CSL to engage both graduate student pre-service educators and high school students in RP and YPAR principles as a platform for fostering student voice in school reform efforts.


Our partnering school district is situated in a politically progressive small city in a northern New England U.S. state that includes a diverse urban high school with a large population of students from refugee families. The school district, like many across the United States, is struggling to equitably meet the needs of students of color, students from under-resourced families, and students with disabilities. Data from the 2016 district-wide equity report show that while students who are eligible for free and reduced lunch represent 46.7% of the student body for 2015-16, they represent 79.1% of those suspended in 2016-17. Moreover, while Black and Brown children represent 14% of the student body, they comprise 37% of students suspended in 2015-16. Nationally, Black and Brown children represent 17.1% of all U.S. public school students, yet they account for 37.4% of total suspensions (González, 2012). To the point, the racial disparities in punitive discipline within our partner school district are higher than the U.S. national average. As a result of these inequities, the school district has experienced walk-outs by students of color, employee turnover, and various community organizing efforts in recent years as the school district struggles to mitigate inequalities along racial, ability status, and economic class lines.

To address documented disparities in exclusionary discipline procedures (i.e. suspension or expulsion) among students of color, students with an identified disability, and low-income students across the district, the partner high school identified RP as an evidence-based approach to reduce exclusionary discipline and improve school climate (Diaz, 2015). Additionally, during the 2016 legislative session, the state’s legislature signed a law that called upon the state education department to explore the impact of RP on schools and to consider pursuing research on RP regarding suspensions, expulsions, and improved educational outcomes. In their effort to implement RP district-wide, and moreover to evaluate the effectiveness of RP, the school district reached out to local university faculty and the authors of this article for research and program evaluation support. In the spring of 2017, we signed a comprehensive memorandum of understanding with the school district that details a multi-year community-based participatory research (CBPR) partnership to evaluate the efficacy of RP implementation.

The emerging literature on successful RP implementation prescribes authentic engagement with youth in the design and implementation stages (Thorsborne & Blood, 2013). To address this component, YPAR was identified as a methodology to promote student voice in RP implementation and evaluation efforts. Therefore, university faculty began holding discussions with the partner school district early in the relationship to identify a platform through which faculty could connect with youth through a YPAR project. The creation of a stand-alone YPAR elective course within the high school curriculum, initiation of a YPAR after-school club, and the hiring of high school students for a YPAR school-to-work apprenticeship program were all discussed. After thoughtful deliberation, it was decided that the partner high school’s year-end exploratory learning program, which we will refer to in this article as the End of Courses Program (ECP), would be the ideal starting point for YPAR implementation.

The ECP is a two-week learning block that occurs at the conclusion of the school year, wherein teachers and community partners design a variety of interest-based classes to engage students in experiential learning. Students complete their core curriculum high school course credits by May and spend the final two weeks of the academic year in classes that are highly engaging and tailored to student and faculty interests. Examples of ECP classes offered by our partnering high school include: yoga, fishing, film studies, dance, and overseas travel. Due to budgetary and time constraints, university faculty determined the ECP class platform would be a prudent and effective way to introduce YPAR and RP to the high school student community. As such, university faculty developed an ECP class offering titled “Change Your School” that was tied to a graduate-level service-learning summer course at the university. The ECP class was intended to be a stepping off point to explore how YPAR and RP could work in tandem. Simultaneously, the class met both university faculty’s desire to engage graduate students in critical service learning and the school district’s desire to connect high school students to community partners and introduce them to both RP and YPAR with the goal of sparking student engagement. The class itself was not part of research study, as school officials felt strongly that the strength of ECP was that students could elect into classes of their choice and therefore did not want the added requirement of consenting into a research study. Faculty were comfortable with this decision as the course itself provided the opportunity to pilot integration of YPAR and RP to gain insight into how these practices might work in tandem in a future YPAR/RP related project as part of the MOU related to evaluating RP implementation in the district. We therefore offer a pedagogical overview of the course and our own insights based on participant feedback about the synchronicity between RP and YPAR within the context of critical service learning.


From the standpoint of graduate education, the purpose of the project was to train graduate students in both YPAR and RP and to provide them opportunities to apply their new knowledge in vivo with youth eager for school reform. From the standpoint of youth engagement and community transformation, the purpose was to engage high school students in: (a) learning about RP as it relates to school reform efforts, (b) experiencing talking circles as a mechanism for elevating student voice, and (c) discovering YPAR as a means to transform voice to action regarding student-identified priorities for change. More broadly our aims in presenting the components of the course design are to illustrate how we blended RP and YPAR into a service-learning course to highlight the potential for utilizing these practices to elevate student voice.

Theoretical Frameworks

We now explain the theoretical foundation of the course.

Youth Participatory Action Research

YPAR is a rigorous youth-centered research methodology that brings together youth community members and professional researchers to raise and examine issues relevant to youth needs and experiences, and to create action plans in response to the knowledge that is generated through the work (Smith, Davis, & Bhowmik, 2010). The empirical literature suggests that YPAR fosters identity development (race, gender, sexual orientation), learning skills, executive functioning skills, advocacy skills, and critical consciousness among participating youth (Schensul & Berg, 2004). Other outcomes are development of leadership, critical-thinking, decision-making, and conflict resolution skills while enhancing self-efficacy, self-respect, community awareness, civic responsibility, and awareness of social factors that shape life outcomes (California Department of Public Health, 2012; Ozer, 2016; Ozer & Wright, 2012).

YPAR has been an effective methodology among adolescents in school transformation initiatives. Integral to YPAR is the emphasis on elevating student voice (Brion-Meisels, 2014; Rodríguez & Brown, 2009). In the words of student voice researcher Alison Cook-Sather (2006), “young people have unique perspectives on learning, teaching, and schooling; that their insights warrant not only the attention but also the responses of adults; and that they should be afforded opportunities to actively shape their education” (p. 359). YPAR scholars contend that, beyond just unique perspectives, youth possess expert knowledge and authority on matters related to their educational experiences (Cammarota & Fine, 2008; Rodríguez & Brown, 2009). Moreover, it is well documented that one of the primary effects of White supremacy on youth of color is that their voices and stories are silenced and ignored (Cammarota & Romero, 2006; Haviland, 2008; Savage, 2008). YPAR is expressly political in that a significant portion of YPAR work has explicitly confronted youth issues related to racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, and cultural biases (Bertrand, 2018; Cammarota & Fine, 2008). Internationally, YPAR research teams have tackled educational opportunity gaps in poor communities, urban violence, sexual harassment, drug use, stress, restrictive school rules, discrimination against sexual minority youth of color, and the educational effects of neighborhood gentrification (Cahill, Rios-Moore, & Threatts, 2008; Fine et al., 2004; McIntyre, 2000; Schensul & Berg, 2004).

YPAR is both outcome and process oriented. More than just an apparatus for data-informed transformational change, it is a pedagogical tool. YPAR is a developmentally attuned, multi-culturally appropriate educational program that fosters developmental growth amongst students and motivates them to shape their schools and communities. In traditional education research, adult researchers observe and study various elements of schools that are important to adults. They are also solely responsible for the research design, data collection, and analysis. In contrast, in YPAR research, students themselves are part of the research team. Youth are recruited as research partners at the outset of the program to collaboratively assess the assets/needs of their community, to inform program design and implementation, and to assist in data analysis and dissemination activities (Dolan, Christens, & Lin, 2015; Ozer, 2016). YPAR projects are time-intensive and involve lengthy collaborations that are reflective of the four phases of YPAR: (a) problem identification, (b) data collection, (c) data analysis, and (d) action (Kornbluh, Ozer, Allen, & Kirshner, 2015). At the conclusion of the article, we offer a reflection on our ability to actualize all four of these phases into our course.

Restorative Practices

RP is emerging internationally as an alternative to exclusionary and punitive discipline practices in school settings. The emergent literature suggests that schools that implement RP with fidelity experience a 44 to 87% reduction in out-of-school suspensions. Furthermore, the burgeoning literature on RP also suggests that this school-wide framework improves school climate for students and staff by encouraging school engagement, connection, and transparency in accountability measures (Gregory et al., 2016; Ortega, Lyubansky, Nettles, & Espelage, 2016). A report by the International Institute of Restorative Practices examined RP implementation in schools in the United States, Canada, and United Kingdom. Data from the report suggest significant reductions in suspension rates and improvements in school climates in multiple schools and districts across the three countries (Lewis, 2009).

RP stems from a restorative justice worldview held by many non-western, indigenous peoples around the world that view crime and wrongdoing as harm done to people and communities (Cameron & Thorsborne, 2001; Fronius, Persson, Guckenburg, Hurley, & Petrosino, 2016; Zehr, 2014). When wrongdoing occurs within a school that practices RP, all stakeholders involved with the harm are given the opportunity to participate in discussions about the incident, to process who was affected and how it has impacted the community, and to determine collectively what needs to be done to repair the harm (Zehr, 2014).

RP is an overarching philosophical catchment encompassing a variety of tools that school staff and faculty can use for prevention, to establish positive relationships with all school stakeholders, and to repair relations that have been damaged by conflict and harm (Kline, 2016). Talking circles are an example of a universal strategy used as a primary prevention tool to promote understanding and self-responsibility, and to establish a critical space for youth voice and leadership (Ortega et al., 2016). Our implementation of RP within the high school ECP course relied heavily upon the principles and practices of talking circles. We applied various talking circle strategies currently being implemented in a variety of school systems with established RP philosophies and structures (Clifford, 2013; Gregory et al., 2016). Talking circles are typically characterized by these components: centerpiece, talking piece, mindfulness moment, question rounds, and closing. The centerpiece is an item that is placed in the middle of the circle that enables the participants to have a focal point. The centerpiece can be an item of meaning to the participants and/or can represent values that have been developed by the participants. The talking piece is used to signify who has the floor. It identifies the speaker with the expectation that only the individual with the talking piece is speaking while other participants are listeners. A mindfulness moment often marks the opening of the circle as a way to center participants and to support transition into the circle space. The question rounds can vary in content depending on the nature of the circle. Some circles may focus on community building, while other circles may be centered on problem-solving. Regardless, the goal of the circle is to provide a structure and format that promotes equity among the participants in that everyone has the opportunity to respond and share their perspective (Boyes-Watson & Pranis, 2015). Using talking circles enabled us to foster relationships between the high school students, graduate students, and university instructors; decentralize power; and promote equity among all who participated. This was a central feature of how we designed the course, and we used talking circles as a mechanism for high school students to voice problems of interest that would form the basis for the YPAR projects that they would explore with the graduate students.

The theoretical foundations of RP and YPAR are similar, drawing on the fields of youth organization, youth leadership, and social justice (Fox et al., 2010; Weitekamp & Kerner, 2002). As described by Fox et al. (2010), the theoretical underpinnings of YPAR create a mechanism for critical youth engagement. Thus, we intentionally combined these methodological and ideological approaches to create a socio-political platform to critically engage youth to collectively and collaboratively identify issues within their school community that were pressing, relevant, and key to student engagement and success. Further, we believe integrating these approaches fostered a critical approach to service learning for the graduate students involved.

Critical Service Learning

          Service-learning is “a form of experiential education in which students engage in activities that address human and community needs, together with structured opportunities for reflection designed to achieve desired learning outcomes” (Jacoby, 2015, p. 2). Stemming directly from John Dewey’s philosophical integration of experience, education, and democracy (Saltmarsh, 1996), service learning emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a means to integrate theory with practice by addressing pressing social issues. Operating on this foundation, the majority of service-learning courses aim, in part, to promote democratic ideals by instilling within students the values of community, social responsibility, and civic engagement (Mitchell, 2008). Research on the outcomes of traditional service-learning courses suggest moderate to significant gains in civic responsibility and pro-social attitudes (Fenzel & Peyrot, 2005); increases in levels of societal locus of control (Myers-Lipton, 1998); and the development of leadership skills, communication skills, and cultural awareness (Densmore, 2000; Kezar, 2002; Mitchell, 2008). While service learning is rooted in the beneficent ideals of social responsibility and civic engagement, social justice scholars have critiqued traditional models of service learning as reinforcing inequalities by engaging in charity models of learning that address the question regarding, “How can we help these people?” without interrogating “How did we create a society that causes such conditions in the first place?” (Bickford & Reynolds, 2002; Mitchell, 2007). Indeed, a charity model of service learning is more likely to buttress the privilege and power of the service-learning students rather than to empower the community that is being served (Verjee, 2010)

When service learning was transplanted into Freirean soil, it became critical (Freire, 1970). Brazilian educator Paulo Freire was the progenitor of critical consciousness or “conscientização.” The construct of critical consciousness can be defined as the knowledge of how resources and power are distributed in society, followed by the skills to take activist action towards a more equitable society (Freire, 1970). Freire taught that if oppressed and oppressor groups can learn to critically identify the dehumanizing social conditions that marginalize some and privilege others, the plight of the oppressed will then be understood as socially constructed rather than immutable. Therefore critical service learning, unlike traditional service learning, seeks social change in part by questioning how resources and power are distributed in society, and embracing the premise that authentic, mutually fulfilling, non-hierarchical relationships between higher education institutions and community partners are essential. By radically flipping priorities, CSL prioritizes the social justice outcomes for the community over learning outcomes for college students. A trenchant statement by Mitchell (2008), states the emancipatory aims of CSL are to “deconstruct systems of power so the need for service and the inequalities that create and sustain them are dismantled” (p. 50). Within this pedagogical model, students are challenged to identify, question, and challenge oppression, hierarchies of power, and the beliefs and practices that support the subordination of the traditionally marginalized and under-represented groups to transform oppressive structures within schools and throughout society (Kajner, Chovanec, Underwood, & Mian, 2013; Deans, 1999; Nouri & Sajjadi, 2014).

Its lofty ideals notwithstanding, CSL has not evaded critique. Allen and Rossatto (2009) pose the question regarding whether middle- and upper-class White students possess the capacity to achieve the aims of CSL. Without great care and thoughtful intention, the “border crossing” of the highly privileged into the lived experience of the oppressed can reinforce deficit perceptions (Deans, 1999). In an attempt to address these concerns, Rosenberger (2000) proposes a three-step process. First, students need to focus on their own communities, experiencing local concerns that are connected to course content. Second, the process must be extremely relational. Students develop authentic relationships with community stakeholders to gain an understanding of the problem and to form action steps. Third, students must be challenged to identify and problematize the invisible social, political, and economic issues that embody the issue. When these steps are taken together, they promote the consciousness raising that is necessary for decolonized activism.

We posit that integrating the fundamental elements and structures of RP and the framework of YPAR offers an opportunity to design CSL pedagogy grounded in relationship building and student-led action steps. YPAR as a methodological approach, and RP as a relational paradigm align closely with Rosenberger’s (2000) three steps of CSL. By design, YPAR engages participants in the examination of issues of importance within their own communities. By design, RP fosters relationships among stakeholders. Together, YPAR and RP promote a collaborative process of problem identification, and advance examination of the invisible factors that underscore identified areas of concern. Therefore introducing both the graduate students and high school students to YPAR methodology and RP ways of engaging enhanced our service-learning course design.

Course Design and Implementation

To recruit high school students, the faculty disseminated electronic fliers widely throughout the high school promoting the ECP course titled “Change Your School.” Below is an excerpt from the course description.

This course will connect [partnering high school] students to [university] graduate students through two weeks of fun and interactive sessions dedicated to social justice, youth advocacy, leadership, student voice and restorative practices all centered around student led change at [partnering high school]. [Partnering high school] students will be working with [university] graduate students in fun and interactive activities designed to foster [high school] students’ ability to be positive change agents within their school. Through interactive activities, students will identify desired areas of change within their school community. Through leadership skill building, training in research and restorative practices, [partnering high school] students will then be equipped with the tools to advance the positive change that they are passionate about.

The university summer semester schedule allowed for an ideal pairing of a service-learning graduate course and the high school ECP class. Graduate students began their course in May and received five days of advance training in RP and YPAR. They learned the theoretical roots and philosophical assumptions of both models, engaged with experts who held experience implementing YPAR and RP with youth, and role-played skills sets while jointly planning lessons with faculty for the youth. As the graduate course was designated by the university as a service-learning course, we intentionally fostered graduate student voice by inviting them to map out the curriculum and activities for the high school student participants. Following the graduate student advanced training, 16 high school students joined us on the university campus in early June for nine days of experiential learning with graduate students. During this time the graduate and high school students used core components of RP and YPAR. The course culminated in public showcases that highlighted four identified areas of needed school reform and proposed further data gathering and action steps.


The graduate course was co-taught by two graduate faculty members from special education and school counseling programs. The five participating graduate students came from an interdisciplinary master’s program, a master’s-level counseling program, and am educational leadership and policy studies doctoral program. Graduate students enrolled in a course titled “Restorative Practices and Youth Participatory Action Research” to earn three graduate credits. The course was formally designated by the university as a service-learning course. One of the faculty members attended training in service-learning course design offered through the university and upon completion of that training submitted the course syllabus for official approval for service-learning designation. The 16 high school ECP students represented ninth through twelfth grades and came from a variety of demographic backgrounds, representing diversity in ethnicity, gender identity, socio-economic status, and ability. High school students received .25 credits from their school as part of a graduation requirement. High school students were met at the participating high school by a faculty member and graduate student representative each morning to take attendance and ensure that students connected with transportation paid through university-awarded grant funds to travel to campus. Upon arriving on campus the high school students were greeted by the other faculty member and the remaining graduate student course participants. A university faculty member communicated daily with a teacher leader at the participating high school to document attendance. At the end of the course session, all high school students were transported back to the partner high school via the prearranged transportation.

Graduate Course and ECP Class Goals and Description

The goal of the graduate course was to conduct a CSL course with graduate students by training them to implement YPAR and RP in an applied manner with the high school students in order to foster their voice in needed areas of school reform. Broadly, the graduate students considered the concrete ways in which they might use YPAR or RP in future professional contexts and in authentic service-learning fashion, and they experienced how RP and YPAR can create more equitable learning structures, leveling the playing field between adult facilitators and youth. The high school students were engaged in a transformative learning experience consisting of opportunities to share their experiences and ideas related to school reform priorities. Specifically, the graduate students used talking circles to facilitate relationships and dialogue with the high school students, which enabled them to honestly discuss and reflect upon challenges related to school climate at the high school. The ideas generated through the circle processes were then leveraged to inform the problem identification phase of the YPAR process. We intentionally designed talking circles and learning activities to maximize student engagement, elevate student voice and choice, and facilitate student-led school reform action planning. Talking circle prompts ranged from “What should be the cell phone norms for our group?” to “What have you heard recently that made you laugh?” to “What are the values that you are bringing to this work?” Table 1 outlines the course description provided in the syllabus for the graduate course and the ECP class description provided to the high school students.

Table 1: Graduate Course and High School ECP Class Descriptions

Restorative Practices and Youth Participatory Action Research

*enrolled in by the graduate students

Change Your School

*enrolled in by the high school students

This course will rest upon two pillars of learning. Pillar number 1 will introduce graduate students to a theoretical knowledge of both Restorative Practices (RP) within school settings and Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) methodology. Pillar number 2 will then allow students the opportunity to apply these models through direct engagement with you from a local high school. It is our hope that upon completion of this course, these two pillars will undergird a transformative experience for all involved: one in which local youth will be empowered to take up the tools of RP and YPAR to be agents of positive, even liberatory change within their school; and that graduate students will advance their critical consciousness along with gaining the skills to advance critical research and pedagogy in their future professional lives.


Come to campus and work with graduate students to learn how to use restorative practices to change your school. Through two weeks of fun hands on learning focused on social justice and youth advocacy, students will use digital storytelling, social media and performance art create action plans to improve school climate.

Graduate Course Structure

Table 2 provides an overview of each phase of the graduate course design and implementation. Prior to delivering the 10-day ECP class to high school students, the first phase of the endeavor consisted of five days of YPAR and RP training by the participating graduate students and university faculty. Graduate students then had the opportunity to apply what they learned through facilitation of daily learning activities for the high school students under the supervision of the university faculty instructors.

Table 2: Phases of Graduate Course and ECP Class Implementation

Phase Activities

Phase 1: Professional Development for graduate students and ECP Class Preparation

Training of Graduate Students and Faculty in RP and YPAR

Initial Planning of YES Course daily lessons

Gathering materials and setting up the classroom space



Phase 2: ECP Class Implementation on the University Campus











Phase 3: Project Presentations

 Community Building

Introduction to RP and YPAR

Change Initiative Brainstorm and Problem Identification

Self-selection into 4 Prioritized Change Initiatives

High School Student work groups on self-selected change initiatives with emphasis on data collection

Daily debrief with high school students through a closing circle, and with graduate students on revising daily lessons as needed


Presenting projects to the school community and community partners as part of the ECP Presentation of Learning



Table 3 provides an overview of the content, activities, and themes from these five days of professional development. Specifically, the graduate students were provided an overview of RP principles and learned about how to lead community-building talking circles. In addition, they learned about the four phases of YPAR, explored examples of YPAR projects, and worked with university faculty to design how YPAR would be introduced to the high school students as part of the ECP class. In order to decentralize power, faculty also modeled the principles and practices of RP and YPAR that would be central to the ECP class design by encouraging the graduate students to take the lead in planning talking circles, warm-up activities, and content lessons. Faculty committed to leading specific content lessons and ECP activities in which graduate students requested they take a more active role. Daily debriefing circles were led by graduate students and faculty in order to reflect on the day’s activities, what we learned from the high school students, and how we might adapt lessons based on their feedback. Specific changes resulting from these debriefing circles included adding more recreational time in the morning, allowing students to group themselves based on their top choice of “change project,” and building more time in for planning their culminating public showcases to the school community.

Table 3: Five Days of Graduate Student Training Prior to ECP Implementation

Content Topic Activities
Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) Direct instruction on foundations and critical elements of YPAR

Icebreakers and trust games

Restorative Practices (RP) Direct instruction on principles and critical elements of RP

Defined RP in small groups

Led and/or participated in a 30 minute community-building circle

Created plan for implementation of a restorative circle

Planning for ECP Class Implementation Co-constructed course norms and individual roles

Defined YPAR in own words

Designed first five days of ECP class using a daily lesson plan format

Infused aspects of YPAR and RP into daily ECP class content


High School ECP Lessons

Following the initial five days of training and planning, the high school ECP class began and the 16 enrolled high school students joined the ECP instructional team on the university campus. Students arrived on campus at 9:30 in the morning, were engaged in team building and learning activities through 11:30, and then ate lunch in the university dining hall prior to returning to their high school. The first two days were spent building community with intention, introducing students to the foundations of RP, and engaging in talking circles. On the third day, students worked in small groups and then as a whole to generate a comprehensive list of challenges present in their school. From over 25 identified issues, four broad change projects were prioritized by the students: advisory period, school schedule, teacher evaluation, and restorative practices integration into the school handbook. After direct instruction on YPAR and research methodology, students self-selected into one of the four change project groups and began to develop a research strategy that would either highlight the importance of this topic for the school community or begin the initial change process. Working in small groups facilitated by graduate students and/or university faculty, the high school students assumed full responsibility for their change project’s approach, including gathering background information, developing data collection methods, and designing their final product for a presentation showcase. Throughout the 10 days, talking circles were used as a mechanism to elevate student voice and build community and as a vehicle to facilitate discussion on the issues that students had prioritized. Information on daily content, learning objectives, activities, and example circle prompts can be found in Table 4.

Table 4: Daily Lesson Plans for Ten-Day High School ECP Class


Day  Topic Objective Activity Example Circle Prompts
Day One Introduction to Course and Participants Build rapport, trust, and construct norms Whole group circle for course introduction, names, why are we here?


Musical conversations (team building game)

What is your name?


Make a movement or action to pair with your name


What is your preferred gender pronoun?

Day Two Introduction to RP Continue to build rapport and trust, introduce RP through circle process and principles Opening whole group circle


Direct instruction on RP


Small group processing of how students see RP applying to their high school

What is a strength you bring to this group?


What is one value you would want in your dream school?


What is something you heard from someone else today that you connected with?

Day Three Identifying an Issue Team building, generate student ideas for issues to address with change project, engage in small group restorative circle Team building activity in small groups


Brainstorm issues currently facing high school


Engage in small group restorative circles focused on student-generated issues

How do you know this is an issue that needs to be changed at your school?


How would more social engagement and less social control foster change around this issue?

Day Four Introduction to YPAR Connect YPAR practices with identified issues to elevate student voice, engage in small group restorative circle, gather student feedback on course Direct instruction on YPAR


Group brainstorm on project ideas


Midway course feedback

What questions do you have about YPAR?


What are your doubts about this process?


What do you want to know?

Day Five Introduction to Research Methods Overview of qualitative and quantitative research methodology, provide opportunities for students to practice different methods, individually select change issues Group energizer: Rock-Paper-Scissors tournament


Direct instruction on research methods


Creation and implementation of mini survey


Creation and implementation of focus group


Sign up for preferred change issue

Day Six (full day) Exploration of Selected Issue Create a research question, team building, map out change process for project Whole group restorative circle


University scavenger hunt in issue groups


Determine a guiding research question in issue groups


Group work time to generate ideas for how to make change

What do you need from others in a group to be successful?


Why is this issue important to you?


What are positive aspects of the issue you’ve identified?


Day Seven Data Collection Tools Develop a data collection tool to pilot, engage in restorative circle Group work time to brainstorm ideas on tool and begin developing a tool


Whole group restorative circle

If you could have any superpower, what would it be and why?


Give an appreciation to anyone in the circle.

Day Eight Project Development Pilot data collection tool, refine tools based on initial round of data collection Group work time on data tools (surveys
Day Nine Finalize Projects Analyze data collected during pilot round of collection, finalize visual product for project, practice for presentation at the high school, engage in restorative circle Group work time to finalize projects and visuals


Whole group restorative circle to close out course


Complete course feedback survey

Pick one of our values from the centerpiece and tell about a time when you or someone in your group demonstrated that value.


What do you feel you contributed to your group?


What are your hopes for your high school?

Day Ten Presentation of Learning Present change initiative projects to school stakeholders Presentation of Learning at the high school N/A



The primary outcome of the high school ECP component of the course was that high school students presented their change project designs, initial data, and proposed action steps to members of the school community. Again, the four school reform change projects that emerged from this group were: advisory period, school schedule, teacher evaluation, and restorative practices integration into the school handbook. This public showcase was held at the partnering high school campus. Each of the four groups of high school students planned and delivered a 25-minute presentation on their YPAR project. Over 30 peers, staff members, administrators and local university faculty attended the “Change Your School” showcase. Presentations highlighted examples of how students applied the principles of RP and YPAR to better understand issues deserving attention within their school and action steps they believed would be necessary to begin to address those challenges. During the showcase, students engaged in dialogue about their chosen change initiative with school administrators, teachers, and peers. Descriptions of each of the four YPAR projects are outlined below and Figures 1, 2, 3, and 4 provide photos and highlight aspects of each change initiative project.

Advisory Period

The student advisory period group decided to collect feedback from peers on their experience during the advisory process. Although the high school administration indicated student feedback was regularly collected about the advisory period program, the ECP participants felt there was a disconnect between how students experienced advisory period and teacher or administrator perceptions. They used the ECP class time to develop questions they wanted to ask their peers about goals and structure for advisory time and at the public showcase gathered responses to their questions from their peers. (See Figure 1 for this group’s poster poll.)

The advisory period group polled audience members to gather different perspectives on advisory.

Figure 1. The advisory period group polled audience members to gather different perspectives on advisory.

School Schedule

The school schedule group was concerned that efforts to change the daily school schedule had been initiated by school administrators with little student input. The students in this group wanted to draft a survey to gain feedback from their peers about the strengths and limitations of the current school schedule so that information could inform potential schedule changes. The students applied what they learned in the ECP class about survey design to draft a series of questions. They then learned about the need to pilot survey questions and make revisions to refine questions. The students piloted the survey with their ECP peers. They displayed the data on a poster. They also incorporated feedback from their peers to refine their questions. During the public showcase of their learning, they not only displayed their poster with the data collected from ECP peers, but also set up iPads with the revised survey and invited peers attending the presentation to take the survey. The information collected was shared with administrators. (See Figure 2 for this group’s preliminary survey results.)

The school schedule group displayed examples of responses gathered from a questionnaire they had begun drafting and piloting with their ECP classmates that asked about satisfaction with the school schedule.

Figure 2. The school schedule group displayed examples of responses gathered from a questionnaire they had begun drafting and piloting with their ECP classmates that asked about satisfaction with the school schedule.

Teacher Evaluation

The high school students who identified teacher evaluation as an area of needed school reform spoke eloquently about their desire to be able to provide feedback on their experiences in classes. They referenced the practice of teacher evaluation on college campuses and felt that as high school students they too would like to be able to provide their instructors with feedback. To begin to take action steps, the students realized that they needed to do some research to understand if the practice of teacher evaluation by students in high schools existed in any other schools within their state. Their research revealed that in fact there are practices of students completing teacher evaluations in several local high schools. They began to gather data on the nature of the evaluation processes using social media to reach out to peers attending those identified high schools. Their final presentation focused on documenting the degree to which student evaluation of teachers is present in neighboring high schools and providing a rationale for why they felt it was important. This was an important learning opportunity in phase one of the YPAR process of gaining more clarity on the problem they were identifying as a school reform need. (See this group’s preliminary findings in Figure 3.)

The teacher evaluation group displayed examples of polls they had begun drafting and piloting with each other to become more informed about how students provide feedback to teachers.

Figure 3. The teacher evaluation group displayed examples of polls they had begun drafting and piloting with each other to become more informed about how students provide feedback to teachers.

Handbook Revision

The final group expressed an interest in revising the high school student handbook to reflect language and principles of restorative practices. This group spent a significant amount of time reading through the student handbook and were amazed to discover how little they knew about the content within the handbook and the nature of how discipline was enacted. Although they acknowledged that high school students are provided links to the student handbook, they admitted that they had not ever taken the time to read it. They engaged in dialogue about several disciplinary issues that had risen to the surface during the school year that raised questions about how disciplinary policies outlined in the handbook were implemented. In particular they focused on elements within the dress code that reinforced structural sexism and contributed to educational barriers for women and girls. For their presentation the students highlighted sections of the existing handbook and then engaged audience members in a rich discussion about how the existing language could be changed to reflect principles of RP. Attending administrators were particularly struck by the importance of the conversation, as prior to the initiation of the ECP class, handbook revision had been identified as a school reform priority. The students in this group learned the importance of researching and understanding an issue fully in order to enact change. Their close read of the existing handbook raised many questions yet also provided them with insights and ideas about how to move forward.

The handbook revision project sparked an unanticipated but welcomed outcome that reinforces YPAR’s potential in provoking institutional transformation. From that work group, two of the high school student participants and one of the graduate student participants expressed interest in continuing the YPAR project they initiated in the ECP class into the following academic year. The two high school students were specifically interested in examining the school handbook, and gathering student voice school wide in order to explore ways in which the policies could be revised to reflect RP principles. The idea to reform the handbook through the lens of RP was also identified as a priority by school administrators. Extension of this YPAR project is underway. Following an explanatory sequential mixed-methods research design, the high school student researchers have completed the data collection phase in conjunction with the university graduate student, and they currently are engaged in data analysis. Their goal is to present recommendations to the school administration for revising the handbook and then to actively participate in drafting a new restorative handbook. (See Figure 4 for an excerpt of this group’s presentation.)

The handbook group engaged audience members in discussion around the current handbook’s language and how principles of RP could be reflected in a new version of the handbook.

Figure 4. The handbook group engaged audience members in discussion around the current handbook’s language and how principles of RP could be reflected in a new version of the handbook.

Participant Feedback

Anonymous high school student feedback regarding their ECP class experience was obtained through course evaluations. Feedback indicated that the high school students felt positively about the experience and were interested in engaging in YPAR more deeply in the future. Specifically, over 75% of the students expressed satisfaction with the ECP class and found the content valuable. Additional narrative comments indicated that the high school participants valued the circle processes, appreciated having a space to discuss their concerns, enjoyed building relationships, and benefited from learning more about RP. Table 5 summarizes selected student feedback.

Table 5: High School Students Feedback on ECP CLASS

Question Selected Feedback
I’m glad I took this course. Nine out of 16 participants indicated positive responses.
This course provided valuable learning opportunities. Nine out of 16 participants indicated positive responses.


What were your favorite parts of the course? “Meeting new people”

“Circles- being given a voice”

“Being able to talk freely about my concerns for the school”

“The circles were really helpful when building a friendship and trust”

“The freedom we had to work allowed me to be productive and have fun”

“Meeting new people”

If there were a YPAR course offered at your high school, would you take it?


Twelve out of 16 students would be interested in taking a YPAR course at their high school


Anecdotally, the potential for personal transformation that is possible with these pedagogical models was on full display with a few of the high school students. Not only did several high school teachers express appreciation about the thoughtful way all the students engaged in problem identification, they were moved by the students’ affect and engagement. The enthusiasm in the showcase room was palpable. In particular, two of the students, described as “disengaged” and reluctant to participate in their regular academic classes, were unrecognizable to the teachers who attended the showcase. The high school teachers were deeply affected by seeing how these two students were empowered to take on leadership roles as they confidently and enthusiastically presented their project. University faculty felt these anecdotal comments reinforced what the high school students expressed in talking circles about how they felt motivated through the ECP class experience because their voices were invited and valued: they were given space to discuss issues they felt were important, experienced adults as respectful listeners, and the tools of RP and YPAR motivated them to become active participants in designing and sharing their projects.

Graduate students were evaluated by the university instructors on three measures: participation, online journal reflections, and a competency checklist based upon observation of RP and YPAR implementation. Feedback from the graduate students via course evaluations indicated that the course was positive if not transformative and contributed to their learning in significant ways. Graduate students also indicated that the content was highly applicable, and they appreciated a structure that enabled them to collaborate with faculty while applying skills learned with the high school students through a unique service-learning opportunity. Graduate students expressed wanting to apply YPAR and RP tools in their future professional settings, and over the course of the three weeks anecdotally shared with faculty several ideas about how they might use talking circles to build relationships with students in the future.


This article illustrates a pedagogical approach that surfaces student voice by equipping both graduate students and high school youth with skills to use RP and YPAR in tandem in order to take action towards implementing school reform through a critical service-learning course. It demonstrates how universities and public schools can partner through a critical service-learning model to achieve shared goals for school change while positioning student voice centrally in these efforts. It also offers a model for ways in which RP and YPAR implementation might effectively engage youth in school reform.

For those readers who may be considering taking on such a project themselves, we want to duly note the struggles and complications that we encountered while taking on this university/community partnership. The first issue that arose was a tension between school district officials and the university faculty regarding the goals of the course. In good faith, and with a desire for school reform, the school district felt strongly that high school students needed training in leadership and executive function skills prior to engaging in school reform efforts. There was concern that if the high school students could not show up to meetings on time, adhere to timelines, and engage respectfully, then the reform work would fail to launch. University faculty empathized with the school administration concerns, but they felt determined to “trust the process” of RP and held their ground that training would be rooted in YPAR, and students would drive the goals for their learning.

The logistics of coordinating the course were also nothing trivial. This endeavor entailed lobbying for funding; coordinating between two different academic units within the university; recruiting graduate students from multiple disciplines, and working with university student services to provide the physical space (learning and play spaces), the meals, and the insurance coverage to host 16 high school students on the university campus. Our most stressful logistical oversight occurred on the very first day that the high school students were scheduled to arrive on campus. The high school students began their morning at their high school, where they were met by one faculty member and one graduate student and packed into a van provided by a local cab company to be transported to the university campus. On the other end, at the university campus drop-off spot, waited the second faculty member and the other graduate students, eager to meet and welcome the high school students. The high school students boarded the van and left their high school on time. The awaiting team at the university, puzzled by the length of time it was taking for the high school students to arrive, eventually realized that the cab company dropped the high school students off at the wrong location, on the other side of campus, without an adult chaperone. We had failed to consider that a graduate student should have ridden in the van with the students—an issue we corrected in subsequent days of the program.

Finally, perhaps the most significant lesson that we learned from this endeavor was that if all four phases of YPAR are expected to be realized, significantly more time is required. Due to both our enthusiasm and naivete, we initially attempted to integrate all four of these cornerstones into the ten half-days of the ECP class. As the course unfolded, it became evident that the timeframe of the course would inhibit comprehensive implementation of all four phases of the YPAR process with the students. In the end, the time we had allowed us to introduce the theoretical components of YPAR in a substantive manner, thoroughly engage the students in problem identification, and advise them in developing research questions and methodology. Following the first week of class, we needed to shift into more expeditious processes where participants were introduced to data analysis methods, and then encouraged to construct a project presentation, even if they never made it to the data collection phase.

Upon conclusion of the course, the advisory period team was able to develop its survey instrument and used the public showcase to gather initial data from peers in attendance. The school schedule team piloted its survey data with their ECP peers, and also used the showcase platform to gather additional data from peers in attendance. The teacher evaluation team gathered and analyzed pilot data from a convenience sample of peers from other schools. The handbook team needed the full 10 days to deconstruct and code the student handbook, and then used the showcase to highlight discrepancies between the current handbook that is grounded in a punitive paradigm and the school’s intent to shift to a restorative paradigm. For the handbook team, the showcase generated a great deal of enthusiasm and support for a year-long YPAR project that would continue the following year.

In spite of these struggles and lessons learned, the project did accomplish the goals of partnering with the school district to offer a year-end learning opportunity that introduced both graduate students and community high school students to RP and YPAR. Based on student feedback it also provided them with a learning experience that elevated their voice and empowered them to examine issues that they identified as important related to school reform. Moreover, this service-learning initiative sparked a longer term YPAR project, revising the student handbook according to restorative principles, as an important element of RP implementation within the district. It also enhanced the university and public school community partnership through supporting student engagement in school reform efforts.

From a broader policy perspective, this article offers potential strategies for schools and communities that are interested in interrupting hegemonic social structures and building capacity to elevate student voice and cultivate buy-in for RP implementation through YPAR. YPAR is an important tool for promoting youth engagement to identify problems and initiate transformation efforts. Specifically, YPAR can be a vehicle through which youth can “(a) expand their knowledge and contribute to local knowledge production process; (b) develop their critical thinking and experience consciousness raising; and (c) inspire and/or pursue action” (Foster-Fishman, Law, Lichty, & Aoun, 2010, p. 67). In the words of Fine (2008), the practice of inviting student expertise to the table of school reform:

to generate questions, gather and analyze data and determine products, created a dynamic plurality of expertise, coalescing around points of agreement, dissensus, and surprise. Collective expertise was chiseled and achieved—not determined a priori, by race, class, age, gender, status, or standardized test scores. As new bodies were brought to the table as researchers, a transformative sense of expertise evolved. (p. 223)

Moreover, using relational and community-building processes from RP enhances the YPAR process. As a key RP tool, the structure of the talking circle promotes equitable participation and the opportunity for all voices to be heard. Using talking circles to elevate student voice through the university-partner school district ECP class enhanced the experiences of the high school students and parallels emerging research on the outcomes of RP talking circles. Empirical work suggests that talking circles improve student-teacher relationships, encourage student ownership and meaningful classroom dialogue, and influence social and academic outcomes for participating high school youth (Ortega et al., 2016).

Lastly, Rosenberger (2000) describes three central steps to enact CSL: (a) focus on participants’ own community; (b) relational process; and (c) identification and problematizing the invisible social, political, and economic issues. RP talking circles can provide a forum for drawing out the relevant issues, exploring more deeply the hidden social, identity, economic, and political issues that underscore the problems at hand, while building relationships and trust among participants. Through this process, participants can also engage the tools of YPAR to authentically bring about desired school reform initiatives.


This article describes a pedagogical approach to designing and implementing a course that aims to foster student voice and school reform by employing both RP and YPAR to engage graduate and high school students within a critical service-learning model. The article outlines how RP can be integrated as a strategy for elevating youth voice and decentralizing power within a YPAR project that co-occurs with critical service learning. Examples of daily content, circle processes, and student work are provided to showcase the structure of the course. Feedback from the participants’ experiences indicate there is promise for using RP and YPAR as mechanisms to engage youth in school reform efforts. Moreover, these tools appear to be naturally suited for application within a service-learning course.

Empirical research is needed to more fully understand the benefits, limitations, and outcomes of a pedagogical approach that incorporates RP and YPAR with CSL. Specifically, we envision studies that investigate the degree to which RP practices enhance youth participation and engagement in YPAR. Furthermore, we are curious about evaluating alignment between RP and YPAR within a CSL framework. Although formal research was not conducted on the course implementation itself, this article highlights how higher education instructors might consider the unique ways RP and YPAR naturally align and support critical service-learning efforts. It provides examples of how such a learning experience might be structured through a university and public school partnership, and reflects upon struggles that were encountered.

Our nation’s schools mirror and often operationalize entrenched social disparities and inequities among historically marginalized youth. We believe that addressing these disparities requires elevating the voices of those most impacted, the students themselves, in intentional ways. Based upon our experience, we believe student voice can be bolstered through CSL university and public school partnerships that embed YPAR and RP as core components. In short, school reform efforts that expressly aim to advance social justice through school climate improvement and reduction in exclusionary discipline policies should consider intentional integration of RP and YPAR as philosophical and methodological cornerstones that hold the power to elevate student voice and deconstruct reified school-based structures of power and privilege.


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More Reasons to Listen: Learning Lessons from Pupil Voice for Psychology and Education

International Journal of Student Voice

A peer-reviewed, independent, open-access journal

Pennsylvania State University

Volume 5                            IJSV                           September, 2019

More Reasons to Listen: Learning Lessons from Pupil Voice for Psychology and Education

Helen A. Demetriou  University of Cambridge

Citation: Demetriou, H. A. (2019). More reasons to listen: Learning lessons from pupil voice for psychology and education. International Journal of Student Voice, 5(3).

Abstract: Pupil voice has highlighted the importance and impact of listening to children about a multitude of school-related matters. Whilst gaining an insight into pupils’ thoughts about school, listening to pupil voice relays to pupils that their opinions matter, and more importantly, that the pupils themselves matter. As a consequence, a number of factors increase and improve, such as self-esteem and experiences at school including learning and relationships with teachers. This paper draws parallels with psychological theories of attitudes and attachment, where the need to engage with the child in both teaching and parenting is paramount in order to create an environment where the child feels they are listened to and respected in order to thrive. Bringing together psychology and education, recounted here are personal and professional experiences of the effects of listening and what these disciplines can learn from pupil voice.

Keywords: listening, attitudes, attachment, pupil voice, psychology, education, teaching, learning.

Online Discussion Questions:

  • To what extent can the disciplines of psychology and education learn from each other in terms of our attachments with children as parents and teachers?
  • Rejection and neglect are often features of parenting and teaching. What can we learn from the study of attitudes about the importance of reviewing our perceptions and preconceptions of children?
  • Dewey proposed that pupils should take an active, child-led role in their learning. If he were around today, would he be impressed?
  • The voice of even very young pupils should be listened to. What implications are there for their social, emotional and cognitive development?


We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak. (Epictetus, Greek philosopher, circa 50AD)


What happens when we stop and listen to the voices of the people we nurture … and what happens when we don’t listen? In the context of teaching, pupil voice refers to ways of listening to the views of pupils and/or involving them in decision making. Consulting and listening to pupils about things that matter in school and which invariably affect them offers pupils a stronger sense of membership—the organizational dimension—so that they feel positive about school; a stronger sense of respect and self worth—the personal dimensionso that they feel positive about themselves; a stronger sense of self-as-learner—the pedagogic dimensionso that they are better able to manage their own progress in learning; and a stronger sense of agency—the political dimensionso that they see as worthwhile becoming involved in school matters and contributing to the improvement of teaching and learning. In the context of parenting also, these four dimensional goals are relevant where listening to the voice of the child should be no less prominent and efficacious. Where parents are the gatekeepers and determiners of change in the home, teachers are likewise in the school. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC; United Nations, 1989) and the subsequent Childrenemphasized the importance of children’s views being heard and taken seriously, as does UNICEF in its program of Rights Respecting Schools. Since the pioneering research at the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education that focused on the effects of pupil consultation, the concept of pupil voice has become integrated within education worldwide. Pupils, as a consequence of this approach to teaching and learning, are themselves the agents of pedagogical change. The result is a transformed and democratically aligned school structure in which pupils are proactive agents in their learning (Storey, 2007); and where teacher-pupil relationships are transfrormed with improvements in teachers’ practices and pupils’ experiences of themselves as learners (Rudduck & McIntyre, 2007).

I have researched and consulted in psychology and education for organizations such as the UK Department for Education (DfE), Ofsted (UK school inspectorate), QCA, the Gatsby foundation, and the Houses of Parliament (Shipton & Bermingham, 2018), and the outcomes have emphasized the importance and practice of listening to the pupil voice and using social and emotional skills in the classroom for the benefit of both teacher and learner. Listening to pupils talk about their experiences as learners has challenged assumptions and attitudes and provoked reflection and led to changes in schools, both nationally and internationally (Arnot, McIntyre, Pedder, & Reay, 2004; Demetriou & Wilson, 2010; Fielding, 2004; Flutter & Rudduck, 2004; MacBeath, Myers & Demetriou, 2001). Listening to the pupil voice, as proposed in the Cambridge Primary Review (Alexander, Doddington, Gray, Hargreaves, & Kershner, 2010), has shown that increased involvement of pupils in the day to day business of the school as a learning community is likely to enhance their engagement with learning and their progress as learners. Ofsted and the government department for education (DfE, 2014) have since included pupil voice in their agendas. The outcomes are now reflected in present day teaching with recognition by Ofsted (2016) that considers the quality of attachments in children among its inspection framework. The parallels with parenting suggest that we as teachers also need to develop and use our social and emotional skills for the benefit of the learner in order that learners feel valued and respected and believe in themselves and their social, emotional, and cognitive capabilities.

It all begins though with the important act of listening, and interestingly, the old English word for “listen” was “hlysnan,” which meant to “pay attention to.” In this reflective article, I cite both personal and professional experiences of listening to young people’s voices. My aim is to emphasize the importance of engaging with the young person through listening and increasing our understanding of their needs and thereby highlighting the impact of educators and caregivers alike. From social psychology’s study of attitudes, to developmental psychology’s focus on attachments, together with education’s more recent acknowledgment of pupil voice—all three theories and practices can learn from one another. As humans, we have the power to shape the outcomes of those we nurture. Paying attention to others, the attitudes we hold of them, and the attachments we form have an indelible and indefatigable effect on their outcomes. Moreover, these attitudes and attachments can be adjusted when we attempt to view young people in a new light.

Our Attitudes and Their Developmental Outcomes

Psychological research from experiments to observations has shown the direct effect that the quality and quantity of parenting can have on a child, resulting in varying degrees of security within relationships. “Too Much Mother Love” was the title of a chapter by Watson (1928) as a warning to mothers. In it he wrote:

When you are tempted to pet your child remember that mother love is a dangerous instrument. An instrument which may inflict a never-healing wound, a wound which may make infancy unhappy, adolescence a nightmare, an instrument which may wreck your adult son or daughter’s vocational future and their chances for marital happiness. Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight. Shake hands with them in the morning. (p. 87)

Such a stark view of parenting was subsequently overruled by a flurry of theorists and researchers. With little scope for leniency, Freud (1940/1979) reflected on the nature of the mother-child relationship, emphasising its profound influence in later life, as forming the blueprint for and determining the nature of all future relationships for the child: unique, without parallel, established unalterably for a whole lifetime and as the prototype of all later love relationships (p. 45). Many of Freud’s followers were in favor of the effect of nurturing, as were other famous names associated with attachment-related theories including Harlow (1961), Bowlby (1969), Ainsworth (1978) and Fonagy (2012), whose works resonate with the importance of the infant’s first emotional attachment to a caregiver as a prerequisite for subsequent healthy capacity to empathize and thus, in turn, form healthy relationships of their own.

We know that from a very young age children are impressionable and responsive to social cues (Demetriou & Hay, 2004; Sorce & Emde, 1981) and their social and emotional skills are developed through the significant adults they encounter. Moreover, the nature and quality of the mother-child relationship has been shown to determine the nature and quality of the relationships that the child itself will go on to form. Freud (1940/1979), for example, envisioned the mother-child attachment relationship as being the prototype or blueprint to all future relationships and being predictive of the child’s own parenting skills. In keeping with theories of psychoanalysis, Bowlby (1969) agreed with Freud that mental health and behavioral problems were direct outcomes of early childhood experiences, and in particular, attachment quality. Our attitudes and attachments are as vital in teaching, as is the potential severity of outcomes when we miss or misuse opportunities exhibited by learners. Coopersmith (1967) investigated the powerful effect of a parent’s unconditional positive regard on the development of self-esteem and the importance of that self-esteem in turn for that child’s development. In his study, the self-esteem of hundreds of nine- to ten-year-old boys was measured, and he found the boys with high self-esteem to be the most expressive and active but also the most successful and confident group, both academically and socially. In addition to this, Coopersmith found that these boys were also the ones who received positive affection from parents with firm boundaries on acceptable behavior, whereas low self-esteem was related to harsh or unloving parenting with a lack of parenting restrictions. Moreover, the longitudinal dimension of this research into adulthood revealed that it was the high self-esteem boys who were the most successful in their careers and relationships, thus confirming that healthy attachments during childhood are positively associated with more balanced and successful individuals, but also provide the blueprint with which children can go on to form their own successful relationships and life events.

I have witnessed both privately and professionally, in the context of both parenting and teaching, instances of neglect, rejection, and aggression on the part of the adult which have had enduring and pervasive effects. When a young child says she has had a nightmare, and the parent flippantly brushes the remark off by saying, “There are no such things as nightmares” (and it could be that the parent is trying to protect the child by saying this), the child interprets the parent’s response as dismissive and rejecting and internalizes their experience, and indeed themselves, as having little credence and credibility. As well as the nightmare scenario being left unresolved for the child, more significant are the feelings of worthlessness, anxiety, and rejection that are life-long, with the constant wish to please and avoid awkward situations. Another debilitating effect on a child’s development is the consequence of being rejected for as long as they can remember by the parent. In this scenario, when the parent has been rejected herself, sometimes the only course of action is to reject her own daughter. The daughter is eager to please, but the mother does not respond to any of her daughter’s well-meaning and altruistic actions. The result is trying to please other people they encounter and resolve challenging situations so that they are deemed worthy and to prove to themselves that they have a role in life and can take control. Both these instances resulted in the individuals experiencing psychological issues centered around control (due to the lack of control and structure in their younger years) that have endured as adults and which will probably be with them for the rest of their lives. The question marks and gaps in their early relationships, through lack of explanation and/or total rejection, have made the children query themselves and their own self-worth with feelings of inadequacy. The lack of parental response or attention can lead to feelings of worthlessness and dejection. The basic human need for acceptance has been denied, and the natural reaction is to seek that acceptance and approval elsewhere and/or constantly maintain control of situations, and repetitively aim to please through to adulthood and beyond when there is a constant need to prove to themselves that they are worthy to be accepted and approved by themselves and society.

At the other extreme, aggressive or dismissive parenting can lead to switching a child’s emotions off completely, so that they experience difficulties in loving themselves and forming stable relationships with other people. Such cases range from borderline personality disorder to psychopathy (Baron-Cohen, 2011), where, despite being able to have an empathic understanding of the other’s situation, there is a lack of emotional empathy for the other person. Again, because there has been a dearth of structure and control, this is sought after, but often with serious repercussions. Doing away with a “tick-box” system, the developing individual should be allowed to question and fail, as well as succeed, without being rushed or insulted, and to live where sympathy, support, and understanding are cultivated between parent and child. As Ginott (2003) claimed: “It is essential that a child’s life not be ruled by the adult’s need for efficiency. Efficiency is the enemy of infancy. It is too costly in terms of the child’s emotional economy” (p. 169).

Much of what makes a secure attachment relationship, whether it be child-parent or child-teacher in nature, is the importance of listening to the child, taking them seriously and respecting their views. Pupil voice research has escalated and shown the importance of listening to pupils for teaching and learning. As we can learn from attachment theory for teaching, we can likewise learn from pupil voice for parenting. Learners, like anyone else, not least children with their parents, want to be heard and validated. As a result, they are more proactive about their learning and themselves as confident and autonomous individuals. If someone can make them feel important through the mere act of listening, but also of course, acting on that listening, then they can feel good about themselves and their own learning, and teachers should not be afraid to listen (Cook-Sather, 2009). Indeed, student voice is most successful when it enables students to feel that they are members of a learning community, that they matter, and that they have something valuable to offer. Similarly, allowing children to have a voice and be heard within parenting, enables them to feel valued in the family context, where their concerns are heard and their opinions matter as much as any other person in that relationship.

“Seeing” Young People Differently: Moving Away from Preconceptions

Teacher expectations can influence student performance, and at one level can be explained through the Pygmalion effect. Pygmalion was a sculptor in Cypriot mythology who, despite being disillusioned with women, fell in love with an ivory statue of his own making. Begging the gods to give him a wife in the likeness of the statue, they grant the request, and the statue comes to life. From mythology to psychology, from shaping a sculpture to shaping the future and development of children, the “Pygmalion effect” was coined in 1968 by Rosenthal and Jacobsen (also called the “Rosenthal effect”), who showed that biased perceptions through teacher expectations can affect reality and influence pupil performance. Thus, whereas positive expectations influence performance positively, negative expectations influence performance negatively: “When we expect certain behaviours of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behaviour more likely to occur” (Rosenthal & Babad, 1985).

From the hurdles and challenges of our often-biased perceptions towards others, such stories and studies alike have shown that our initially tainted negative expectations have an effect on performance and outcome and can be overcome by changing our attitudes and the nature of our attachments. Even if we are not in possession of the full facts, if we value pupils’ abilities, we can create a climate of success. Teacher expectations can influence pupil achievement, and they may subconsciously behave in ways that facilitate and encourage pupils’ success. Rosenthal believed that even a mere attitude or mood could positively affect the pupils when the teacher was made aware of the “bloomers.” The teacher may pay closer attention to and even treat the child differently in times of difficulty. If we expect enhanced performance from children, then children’s performance will be enhanced, thereby supporting the idea that reality can be positively or negatively influenced by the expectations of others. This phenomenon is called the “observer-expectancy effect,” (Rosenthal, 1966) such that Rosenthal argued that biased expectancies can affect reality and create self-fulfilling prophecies. The attachments that teachers form as a result of their attitudes toward pupils can compound the effect of the learner feeling valued and worthy of the attention. Just as parents can learn from the Pygmalion effect in the classroom, so teachers can learn about the impact and relevance of attachment theory for teaching.

In education, Dewey (1933) practiced attachment teaching when he wrote of the necessity to address students’ emotions in education: There is no education when ideas and knowledge are not translated into emotion, interest, and volition” (p. 189). Moreover, Dewey (1899) prioritized the needs of the child when considering the curriculum, and his astronomical analogy places the child centre stage in education:

The change which is coming into our education is the shifting of the center of gravity. It is a change, a revolution, not unlike that introduced by Copernicus when the astronomical center shifted from the earth to the sun. In this case the child becomes the sun about which the appliances of education revolve; he is the center about which they are organized. (p. 151)

Dewey advocated the need for children to have the freedom to be at the center of their learning, where the teacher, content and secure in themselves can relinquish such a role to the child, while still having overall control and mastery, so that the child does not feel neglected or rejected, but rather gain enough autonomy and ownership of their learning, and where inspirations and aspirations can be fulfilled. Important also is seeing the learner as a social and emotional being (as well as cognitively adept), and realizing that the social and emotional aspects of a person change with time and are directly and sometimes adversely affected by and influenced by the educator. Such pupil-teacher relationships and their consequences for attachment are a mirror image of child-parent attachment relationships. The parallels with teaching are clear. In order to unlock the transformative potential of pupil perspective and participation teachers need to “see” pupils differently (Cook-Sather, 2014; Demetriou & Wilson, 2010; Mati, Gatumu, & Chandi, 2016). Moreover, as pupils develop a more “professional” language for discussing their learning, they are less likely to disengage, they are able to contribute effectively to the agenda for school improvement, and are more committed and effective learners.

But when teachers in their efficient, tick-box mode do not stop to reassess the situation and address the learner, the repercussions of the attachments are tangible, and the learners are very aware that they are seen but not heard. More often than not, children and learners are open to change, something that often teachers are not. I have experienced first hand such resistance to change with some of the teachers at crucial times during a pupil’s education. It serves as a warning to teachers and educators of the potential harm of sticking with a label of a pupil formed from first impressions. We try to instill the concept of the growth mindset in pupils, and yet often we are the culprits. Perhaps in this instance, it should be “do as I say and do as I do.” Admittedly, this particular pupil tended to be disengaged in certain lessons, and understandably, teachers would become frustrated. He lacked focus at GCSE and hence put very little effort into his exams. Having gained a focus and interest in his subjects at A Level, and also I suspect through maturity and development, by sixth form he became very driven and focused. In fact I am still amazed by the transformation and wonder whether it is indeed the same person! He excelled at A level and is now studying chemistry at his first choice of university. However, the journey to this point was not smooth as the new-found motivation, while being beneficial for the pupil to thrive and believe in himself as a learner and achiever, was not appreciated and cultivated by some of his teachers. The pupil was moving on, but the teachers were not moving with him. The teachers were the ones with the fixed mindsets. They had known him as a disengaged pupil, saw the pupil of old, and it seemed were not willing to give him the benefit of the doubt as a new learner. He said at one point: “It makes me regret staying at the sixth form because the labels stick.” And, having worked very hard and making good progress, he did not feel this was being recognized and was in vain. He told me: “It makes me feel I’ve worked all this time for nothing.” Even when he tried to change his ways, teachers’ unchanging, avoidant, and rejecting attitude led to a deflated, questioning pupil, whose self-esteem and motivation suffered, and who found himself in a hopeless and helpless situation.

Interestingly, the teachers who had not taught this pupil pre-A Level, worked with him, encouraged him and praised him, saw the potential, and gave support. He said: “It’s no coincidence that [teacher] is treating me differently.” Such treatment by the supportive teachers led directly to a greater motivation and self-esteem and determination to succeed. It really is no coincidence therefore, and I really want to emphasize the attitudes of teachers—and not just from main school to sixth form but also from day to day through the school career —seeing pupils afresh, not blinkered in their perceptions of pupils and giving them that room for maneuver. As with parents who move with their children as they grow, teachers also need to move with their students, listen to their needs and new-found voices and aspirations.

When a learner, or indeed any human being, is not listened to, they interpret this as being at the least inconsiderate and lazy and at worst rejecting and dismissive of themselves and their needs. Another case in point shows that such behaviors can happen at any point in a person’s education, and the responses of an educator who is not tuned into and listening to the learner has an effect on the learner, their perceptions of the teachers, and the outcomes of their learning. I have witnessed the direct effect of such teacher unavailability during my career when lecturers have been unavailable, rejecting, and dismissive with their students. When teachers do not listen to students’ needs— and in these instances, students’ specific requirements were not addressed, just like the young child who wanted her nightmare explained—students become confused and frustrated. If one’s needs are not met from a knowledgeable other whose task it is to provide the answers or at least some guidance, and especially when one has specific requirements, then the person feels rejected, unworthy of time spent helping them, and internalizes such responses with frustration, questioning themselves, when it is the teacher who is in the wrong. For these students in these circumstances, it proved a waste of time and inappropriate, they felt unguided and unsupported, and as a direct result, their assignments suffered.

The aforementioned examples reveal that from secondary school to university (and indeed before and after these time points in a learner’s education) teachers should attend to and adjust their responses to the needs of their students. In keeping with parenting where attitudes and attachments count and avoidance and rejection lead to confusion and uncertainty, teaching also should not be a guessing game where there is room for error and perplexity. Instead, the social and emotional skills that we try hard to instil in our young people from an early age should be exhibited by the influential adults in our lives. Ultimately, teachers (as with parents with their children) want to command respect from their learners. Much of that respect is garnered through listening to their learner, not dismissing and rejecting or neglecting—and such respect for the student leads in turn to respect by the student for the teacher. From the early years through to adulthood, during the impressionable years of learning, we are all receptive to the ways in which we are taught and this has an impact on our responses to that person, as well as our own self-esteem and learning outcomes. Across most, if not all, stages of education, it would be unacceptable to ignore or talk back to a teacher; the same is true for a teacher who does likewise to a pupil. Autonomy and independence should be encouraged, but guidance should always be at hand, regardless of age and ability.

What Pupils Say About Not Listening

The powerful Chinese proverb, “Tell me, I’ll forget; show me, I may remember; involve me, and I’ll understand,” fits well within a collaborative educational framework. When pupils are given a voice, they speak volumes, and not least about instances of bias, preconceptions, and when their voices and ideas are ignored or quashed. My research with Rudduck and associates (2005) has shown that pupils are very aware of the biases that teachers exhibit, and their ensuing resistance to change once they have formed an image of the learner. A 13-year-old girl described her teacher’s biased behavior:

One of my teachers, she is completely biased to girls. She doesn’t like boys and it’s not really very good because the boys never get asked for questions.

Issues of trust were expressed by a boy who described the differential treatment between girls and boys:

In my English class, it will be like a table full of girls that are always talking.… We talk quite a lot but they will move people from my table, but when the girls are talking they won’t move them. If a boy like [name] is late (because he has to get his brothers ready for school in the morning) then they would be in quite a lot of trouble. If you’re late they think you’ve been walking and mucking around. But one girl in class was always late and always left her bag on the table: if a boy did that he gets in trouble straight away.

Consulting pupils reveals the complex ways in which different groups of pupils in the same classroom understand notions of fairness in terms of gaining teachers’ attention (Arnot et al., 2004; Demetriou & Hopper, 2007). A year 5 boy said:

Our English teacher, he likes the three clever girls a lot because they are always answering questions. He never gives the other people a chance to talk.

Some pupils’ astute observations led them to speak passionately about the need for teachers to pay more attention to them when they were confronted with arrogant and hostile behavior:

I think teachers should pay attention to you more. Because I was telling one of our teachersI won’t name any namesabout someone bullying me, pulling my hair. But she wasn’t actually listening to me. She just said, “Oh run along and play now then. They should listen to kids a bit more. They should keep an eye out for you. There is one teacher who listens to you more than anyoneshe always comes and sorts it out straight away. When the bully is making sure that you can’t get your way to the teacher, the teachers should spot that. (year 3 girl)

Through engaging with pupils, taking their perspective and learning from their perspective, teachers can learn about what makes pupils tick, but also learn about themselves as teachers. Schools therefore should be encouraged to engage with their learners and enable them to express themselves about their experiences of school, thereby involving them in a partnership within a democratic community that inspires both teachers and learners alike and results in a transformative approach to teaching and learning. Disengagement and disillusionment as a child in the home and as a learner in the classroom is prevented by inclusion and acceptance. As pupils develop a more “professional” language for discussing their learning, they are less likely to disengage; they are able to contribute effectively to the agenda for school improvement and are more committed and effective learners. But it is important to have a good relationship with young people in which both teachers (and indeed parents) and learners can establish confidentiality, trust, respect, and empathy. Results of consultation have shown that pupils recognize ownership of their work and their learning, merely asking pupils about their learning improved it, pupils feel empowered, it equips them with a sophisticated dialogue, pupils respond better to staff, and pupils view consultation as an entitlement. A year 7 girl claimed:

We make the targets for us now and that’s better because I think we know more about ourselves than the teachers in a way, because we know more what our strengths and weaknesses are.

Such examples reflect the power of teaching, and indeed parenting, that emerges when we stop to listen to child as the voice develops and becomes powerful in its own right.

The Impact of the Voice for Teachers and Parents

Teachers have shared with us their genuine surprise at the process and outcomes of pupil consultation:

I think what’s been so interesting about this project has been the children’s perceptions…, actually listening and taking account of children’s views. We tend to make assumptions and think, “Oh that’s fine for them or That’s hard for them and we don’t necessarily get their views right. I think the project’s shown that children really think far more than we give them credit for. (head teacher)

This teacher’s realization is not so surprising, perhaps, if we transfer the impressionable and pervasive effects and lessons from attachment theory. Listening to the student voice enables students to take on an active role in their own education, where they are able to work directly with school leaders and teachers to develop better learning experiences. Some teachers mentioned the empowering effect of pupil voice and its transformative potential in harnessing teachers’ views about important issues in school, as reflected in the words of these three head teachers:

Merely the expectation that their views will be listened to and acted upon empowers pupils. They become aware of their capacity to change teacher perceptions and that teachers will listen to their views on the curriculum.

Our levels of achievement at the end of the cohort year were truly tremendous… I know this was due to the work we had been undertaking as part of this project because these children saw themselves as successful and had developed considerably their self-esteem. Three years ago, just after I arrived at the school, the results were some of the worst in the county (17% at level 4 in maths and English). This year we were fourth in the national league tables.

I think it’s essential to consult pupils about their learning… It’s educational in its own sense, it develops their ability to take responsibility for their learning.

Consulting and listening to pupils in school—but also children in the home—are essential. It is educational for teachers and parents alike—talking about issues that affect children, from nightmares, to bullying, and of course the positive experiences, too—responding effectively and listening develops confidence and responsibility in the child.

The fact that children are impressionable and hang on to every word means that, in teaching also, the response of teachers can have a deep-rooted effect. This is particularly salient in early years, but also arguably at any age where we form attachments with teachers. As a learner, experiences of rejection and neglect can be internalized as feelings of worthlessness, low self-esteem, and lack of motivation. In an effort to connect with and motivate pupils to enjoy and achieve in their subject, I have often heard teachers saying despairingly: “What can I do? I have tried everything.” Typically, such teachers have not in fact tried “everything” and have been too efficient, going by the book and tick-box approach, and have not stopped to listen and understand the pupil’s needs.

When teachers do stop and take time to empathize with their learners, the results are striking. Teachers have told us about the importance of connecting with pupils for teaching and learning (Demetriou, Wilson & Winterbottom, 2009). One teacher reflected on her own relationships with her own teachers when she was at school and the degree to which these relationships helped her with her learning. She spoke of the need to move the goal posts, appreciating that for her it was important to have camaraderie with her teachers, but also understanding that different pupils require different types of relationships with their teachers. This appreciation led her to tailor her own teaching to her pupils’ individual needs as “being more social with them … helps with teaching.” Another teacher attributed her success to the interest she showed in her pupils’ interests that were unrelated to her subject of science, as in the girls who liked dance, made baby outfits, had fluffy pens, or wore glitter. Making an effort to appreciate and empathize with her pupils’ interests transformed these quiet and disengaged pupils to gregarious and more motivated learners. Such approaches take time to reap results, but through circumnavigating the learner with a keen interest, these teachers were able to reach the learners, while at the same time learning about themselves:

I think I’m probably still learning about myself and teaching. I think I am becoming more reflective. Looking at students and asking why they think it is okay to do certain things … what has made you like that? So I start thinking about me and what made me do things and motivate and encourage me.

Another teacher I spoke to recognized the importance of tapping into the mindset of the learner first and foremost:

I’ve become less interested in science and more interested in learning and people…. We teach children, not chemistry…. Science is a vehicle…. It is a means to the same end, which is developing children.

The world of teaching is therefore not immune from the effects of attachment theory, and is arguably even more salient as teaching occurs with new attachments at different stages and ages. The learner is a beginner at any age—impressionable and tIe recipient of newly acquired knowledge. The way therefore that the teacher guides, instructs, and responds will have direct consequences on the learner’s impressions of the subject matter. Dismissive, avoidant, preoccupied, resistant teaching with unrealistic expectations or no expectations at all will not harbor respect, and learning will be stunted. Punitive measures also, as in parenting, will enrage children and build up hatred for themselves and the teacher. This reaction will obscure their listening or concentration—instead of the subject matter being the target of interest, rather, the teacher and their behavior will be the focus. The generation of rage should be avoided, and anything that enhances self-confidence and respect for oneself and others should be fostered. Relationships by their nature can be destructive. The nature of the teaching approach, as with parenting, will make or break the relationship and the learning processes therein. Instead of retaliating, teachers need to take a step back and listen to what the pupil has to say.

Stepping into the shoes of the child and taking their perspective goes a long way to understanding their point of view. Such responses provide support, inspiration, and respect. Attachments that quash self-esteem are hostile, aloof, and distant in nature. In them the caregiver struggles to express affection and is overly critical, and discipline is restrictive and authoritarian or permissive and inconsistent, and encourages dependency. In contrast, positive attachments that promote self-esteem are affectionate, warm, and accepting; include praise, encouragement, constructive help; provide discipline that is firm but fair; and give explanations for unacceptable behavior and the encouragement of independence. The latter will garner respect for the teacher or parent and inspire the individual. Successful parenting and teaching requires doing this with rather than at the child. The former makes the child realize that they matter, thereby energizing their internal working models for relationships and learning, and giving them the license for authority and involvement in their learning and development.

As educators, we should emphasize the importance of change and growth, both in the learning and the learner. Indeed, the word education comes from the Latin word educare meaning to train, to nourish. By listening as parents and teachers, we nourish and empower the child. However, sometimes when teachers do not listen to the learner, they restrict the nourishment and stunt this growth. Similar to the parent, whose response to the child will make or break the child’s outcome, so the teacher’s actions of ignoring, rejecting, or neglecting a learner will prove pivotal. Researchers have paid much attention to teachers’ emotional experiences and their impact on teaching and learning (Cross & Hong, 2012; Demetriou et al., 2009; Hargreaves, 1998, 2000; Zembylas, 2005). The field of education has acknowledged the importance of emotional intelligence and encouraged a focus beyond that of the acquisition of content knowledge. Coined by Salovey and Mayer (1990), they defined “emotional intelligence” as: “the ability to monitor one’s own and other’s feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and use this information to guide one’s thinking and action” (p. 189). It has been propelled to the forefront of education and has been recognized as being beneficial for children’s professional aspirations, as the more accurate understanding of emotion is believed to lead to better problem solving and, along with cultural and social intelligence, has been associated with positive and balanced work attitudes (Crowne, 2009). Practices such as listening to the pupil voice has been shown to enhance such holistic learning and has implications and lessons in turn for parenting.

Just as we should parent with and not at, teaching also should be with, not at. My involvement in the teacher professional development programme in Kazakhstan at the Nazarbayev University Graduate School of Education saw the country embrace Western styles of teaching. Some of my time in Kazakhstan was spent talking to the teachers on the training program. I gave talks about pupil voice: the concept, the research, and the applications, all of which were very positively received. But I also discussed teaching and learning with the teachers and the reasons they wanted to adopt Western styles of teaching. Despite growing up in a country with a very different education ethos, the teachers relished the thought of being able to teach with fresh, interactive, and formative approaches rather than the traditional rote-oriented, didactic, and summative methods. One teacher told me of her plans to implement peer support: “I have ideas to make weak students more active and to think critically. I asked the active students to help the weak student to work together and then weak student was to present presentation and I let them speak more than the active student.” And another teacher asserted: “We should educate pupils from their perspectives.”

The teachers took on the role, determined that it should work. “Our task is to make new teachers in a new world,” said one teacher, although another realized that it would take time: “Even though we all realize the necessity of the changes, and we realize this intervention is timely and useful, it takes time for us to change our mentality, but we should.” Such practices across continents ultimately reflect the words of a Chinese proverb: “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for the rest of his life.” The efficient but limited nature of the former cannot compete with the boundless potential of the latter.

Conclusion: Lessons from Pupil Voice from Psychology to Education

Disciplines have much to learn from each other, and psychology and education are no exception. For many decades we have known about the psychological implications of the parent-child attachment on a child’s social and emotional development. More recently, we have learned about the effectiveness of listening to the pupil voice in teaching and learning. Establishing and optimizing attachments between parent-child and teacher-learner make for successful relationships where respect and self-esteem are activated and nurtured. This process creates is a healthy social and emotional balance that nourishes the child and learner, as well as the parent and teacher. The aim is to reap autonomous, confident individuals who are socially and emotionally aware and adept. Two theories and practices in psychology and education—attachment theory and pupil voice, respectively—have been much researched and implemented, but mostly within their respective disciplines. When we bring the respective practices of constructive responding and effective listening together within each context, where we teach and parent along with the individual, rather than at the individual, then parenting and teaching are invariably enhanced and transcended.

And so it is that, just as teachers can learn from psychology’s attachment theory, parents can learn from education’s pupil voice. Both approaches advocate listening, respecting and prioritizing the child, allowing for freedom with rules and boundaries to explore in order to reap respect and responsibility. Both relationships involve a holistic approach of social, emotional, and cognitive skills, and appreciating the child’s perspective, allowing for choice and voice, so that their needs are understood. In order to “develop” children, we as adults should exhibit the empathy, respect, attention, patience, guidance, validation, and inclusion that we expect from the impressionable child or learner. A warning, therefore, is that rejection, resistance, neglect, and avoidance may damage your and others’ social and emotional health. The effects of parenting and teaching have a direct effect on the baby/child/pupil/learner at any age and are therefore powerful, often irreversible, and moreover replay with the next generation of people and learners. Parenting and teaching a child with the social and emotional skills that we want to procure from them is right from the outset and will lay down the foundations and equip the child with the resilience, enthusiasm, and confidence for healthy internal working models for future relationships and learning. The overall message is that pupil voice reinforces the attachments we make. Even when we struggle to empathize with the other’s plight and instead say, “I can’t imagine what you’ve been through,” just those words as a result of listening can be a weight off the shoulders, because the person is at least trying to understand. The act of listening, by parent or teacher, is of paramount importance for children to become better social, emotional and learning beings.

When adults stop and listen, the power is evident: listening and moving in synchrony with our young people as they move enhances development and informs parents and teachers equally. From the secure to the insecure attached parent-child relationship, attachment status is also apparent throughout the school years and beyond education when we form our attitudes of others through their attitudes to us. From mythology to reality, from being disillusioned with people and making an exquisite sculpture, to being disillusioned in the classroom and making exceptional learners, listening transforms our attitudes and behavior. For parenting and teaching, listening nourishes pupils and young people alike with self-esteem and gusto for life and learning, so that the nature of our attachments, which includes the degree to which our voices are heard, have a significant impact on the people we become.


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