On an early morning school climate team meeting, a group of ten educators crowd around a conference table sipping coffee and crafting a plan. They are discussing a kick-off event for their new character education initiative with the theme “kindness counts.” A buzz of excited chatter ensues as staff discuss various ideas for recognizing students for kind behavior. Then, a teacher raises a concern, “Will students like the idea of being recognized during morning announcements? Perhaps they would prefer to receive a certificate and applause at our monthly assembly?” Another teacher chimes in, “Shy kids might not like that kind of attention. What about giving out kindness wristbands?” The discussion around recognition continues another 10 minutes until the meeting adjourns. As a next step, the Principal requests that team members do some online research about kindness campaigns.
Principle 1 of the 11 Principles promotes core ethical values. We can see this principle evident all over the country as hundreds of educators have conversations just like the one above. They share a noble goal: to ignite the enthusiasm of their students around core values such as kindness, respect, responsibility and service. At some point in the meeting, this question arise:
Will the initiative we have planned excite and engage the students? There is one sure way to get the answer to this question, and it’s not through more research or thoughtful planning on the part of adults. The way to get to the answer is simple: ask the kids. Unfortunately, this obvious solution is all too often overlooked. But I believe that student voice is an essential part of successful character education initiatives.
Student voice matters.
The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning defines student voice as referring to the “ideas, opinions, attitudes, knowledge and actions of young people.” Student voice provides access to the authentic experiences and wisdom of students. Students have firsthand knowledge of the most pressing problems their peers face. They have ideas about how to address those problems in a way that is cool, not "corny". Without student voice, adults are left to guess about student thoughts, feelings and reality. When we apply an adult lens to understanding student problems or to crafting a character campaign, we’re likely to miss important pieces of the puzzle that are needed to ensure success.
Student voice needs an invitation.
Students spend most of their day in spaces designed and managed by adults. These spaces prioritize adult voices. They are accustomed to teachers setting the daily conversation agenda. Students are trained to follow rules about when and how to speak. And in some cases, students encounter adults who minimize or criticize their everyday hopes and concerns. Therefore, students may hesitate to speak openly about their ideas. If they have not previously been invited to participate in decision-making about school programs, they may question whether or not their opinions will be taken seriously. To overcome these barriers, we must make a concerted effort to invite student voice and to create a welcoming, nonjudgmental space for their ideas.
Student voice is strengthened when we allow it to guide change from the start.
Be sure students are involved in character education in a way that is respectful and meaningful to them. Recruiting students to carry out an adult-planned initiative is not student voice. Students can and should be included from the very first discussions, during which issues and solutions are discussed. They can help to identify problems, brainstorm solutions, plan campaigns, implement programs, generate interest and participation, communicate with parents, teachers, students and community members, and evaluate the impact of character education efforts in an ongoing way.
I propose three steps for supporting student voice. 1) Ask the students. 2) Listen to what students say. 3) Foster students’ leadership abilities and give them the freedom to act. The creation of a student character committee, made up entirely of students- and advised by an adult- can help educators omplement these three steps. Students of any age can participate on the committee to plan and carry out character education programs that meet student needs.
For example, I observed an elementary school student committee deal with the issue of teasing and rule-breaking on the bus. This was identified by students as a problem of concern on a school climate survey that was given to the entire student body. The results of the survey were presented back- not just to school staff- but to the students themselves. Then, students on the committee brainstormed ways to address this issue. Their ideas included: making posters that illustrated good citizenship on the bus, making morning announcement reminders about respectful bus behavior and making sure that everyone knew how to get help if they were being teased. They also considered the idea of “bus buddies.” These would be older elementary students (in this case, 4th graders) who would be trained to assist the bus drivers in modeling kindness and in recognizing positive behaviors, such as friendly greetings. The students were able to provide meaningful leadership in character education because they had a space to voice their concerns, plan a course of action, and carry it out themselves. The staff to whom the students presented these ideas agreed: the students came up with a more effective and creative solution to the problem that anything adults would have planned themselves.
So, the next time you find yourself in a room full of adults planning a bullying prevention program, school spirit assembly, or ‘kindness counts’ campaign: Stop. Ask, what are we planning? Is it for the students? Could the students be involved in deciding what to do and how to do it? (Yes!) Character education initiatives will be more successful and sustainable when we let students lead the way.
Learn more about character education and the 11 Principles at the 2018 National Forum!
Christa M. Tinari is a nationally recognized school climate consultant with expertise in bullying prevention, character education and social-emotional learning. She is owner of PeacePraxis Educational consulting and co-author of Create a Culture of Kindness in Middle School: 48 Character-Building Lessons to Foster Respect and Prevent Bullying. www.peacepraxis.com