Centering Youth Voice: School Climate & Culture in the Middle Grades

By Dr. Dimelza Gonzales-Flores, UVA Curry Youth-NEX

This blog post is the third in a series of three from the Remaking Middle School initiative. See the first post from the Research to Practice Design Team and the second post from the Professional Learning & Development Design Team

Highlights

  • The middle school years represent an optimal developmental period for centering youth voice and inspiring youth to take action regarding issues impacting their life, including their education.
  • The Remaking Middle School School Climate & Culture Design Team created a toolkit to help educators understand how youth voice can be a central component in building and sustaining a positive school climate and culture in the middle grades.
  • The toolkit provides a beginning set of resources and references for educators to adopt practices that center youth voice in their school, recognizing that giving early adolescents a voice in school empowers them and makes them feel like they belong, they are valued, and their contributions matter.

Explore the full toolkit here

For too long we’ve brushed aside the importance of the middle school years. Policymakers talk about the critical need for access to quality early childhood education and the necessity to graduate with real-world skills. Agreed. But what about the middle school years? To put it plainly, what we’ve done isn’t enough. Our schools are not equitable. The student experience is not optimal. We need to reimagine the middle school experience for all students – and we should start with school climate and culture.

The School Climate and Culture Design Team was tasked with taking a closer look at school climate and culture in the middle grades. The team discussed a number of core challenges related to school climate and culture, and a common theme that emerged was the influence of youth voice in shaping school climate and culture. 

What makes the period of early adolescence development unique is that youth are beginning to develop complex thinking skills and perspective taking . These skills are critical as they give young people the ability to initiate a deeper exploration of issues within their school. With these new burgeoning skills, adolescents can begin to ask questions about the world around them and how societies and institutions, like education, function. Thus, the middle school years represent an optimal developmental period for centering youth voice and inspiring youth to take action regarding issues impacting their life. Giving early adolescents a voice in school empowers them and makes them feel like they belong, they are valued, and their contributions matter. These competency feelings also help middle school youth fully engage and create space for a positive school climate and culture.

It is widely recognized that school climate and culture impacts the ways in which students successfully achieve learning outcomes. When youth are given the space for innovation and their voices are centered, the school climate can be shaped to promote equity and fairness, and the school culture can allow opportunity for youth to respond to their own learning needs. Engaging youth voice must be considered an essential element in creating a school climate and culture that promotes engagement and success for all youth.

Centering youth voice in school climate and culture requires middle school educators to think critically about when they need to step up (and step out) to best support adolescence during this critical developmental period. To truly center the voice of youth, we must create space for all youth to lead in shaping school climate and culture. This is particularly important for those youth whose voices often go unheard because they are minoritized based on race/ethnicity, gender identity, sexuality, religion, ability, or other identities. To successfully accomplish this goal, our middle schools must move beyond school clubs and siloed events emphasizing student voice, and weave specific practices into the daily fabric of school life. 

As a Design Team, we believe there is tremendous opportunity to empower young adolescents in helping to shape and improve their school culture and climate such that students are engaged and growing – academically, socially, and emotionally – to their fullest potential. With this in mind, our team created a toolkit to help educators in schools to:

  • More deeply understand the importance of youth voice in the middle grades;
  • Understand how youth voice can be a central component in building and sustaining a positive school climate and culture in the middle grades; and 
  • Provide a beginning set of resources and references for educators to adopt practices that center youth voice in their school. 

The toolkit includes several components:

  • The rationale statement helps readers to understand what youth voice is, the importance of the youth voice for young adolescents (and how it aligns to the developmental needs and capabilities of this age), and how youth voice can have an impact on school climate and culture.
  • The inspirational stories and examples illustrate youth voice in schools and specifically how youth voice can positively impact school climate and culture. 
  • The getting started section is a set of beginning prompts and resources that educators can use to advocate for and support the implementation of youth voice practices in their schools to promote positive school climate and culture.

Explore the full toolkit here.

The toolkit was designed to be utilized and implemented in any given conditions. The diversity of resources in the last part of the toolkit exemplifies the range of conditions in which this toolkit can be used. 

We recognize that we are sharing this tool during an unprecedented time in education as we navigate the complexities and challenges of COVID-19. While school may look different this year, whether virtual or in-person, one might argue that school climate matters now more than ever. We hope that this resource encourages educators to keep student voices and ideas at the core to ensure young people are getting what they need most during this time. 

We encourage you to share your feedback on the tool via the Remaking Middle School Design Teams Feedback Survey

The Remaking Middle School initiative is an emerging partnership working to build and steward a new collective effort for young adolescent learning and development. Founding partners include the University of Virginia Youth-Nex Center to Promote Effective Youth Development, the Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE), the Altria Group, and the New York Life Foundation. We are seeking to ignite conversation, action, and a movement to re-envision and remake the middle school experience in a way that recognizes the strengths of young adolescents and ensures all students thrive and grow from their experiences in the middle grades.

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