About the Researcher

Gretchen Brion-Meisels

Gretchen Brion-Meisels is a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and an expert in adolescent development. Her research explores how relationships between youth and adults can support a positive school climate. She also studies and teaches about partnering with youth in educational research, preventing bullying, and creating holistic student support systems. See full bio

Provide authentic leadership opportunities for students to contribute ideas and create change

By Gretchen Brion-Meisels

Superintendent Mary Wegner asked, “What practices have the greatest impact when facilitating youth leadership in schools, especially when thinking about being sensitive to and supporting all student demographics?”

This is a great question! I’m excited to see it posed here!

Before I talk about youth leadership specifically, I want to just take a moment to talk about motivation. I think a lot of folks believe that motivating young people to be leaders is about lighting some “inspirational fire.” But, in my experience, most young people are inherently driven to create positive change and to be leaders. Unfortunately, we don’t always make it easy for young people to see their inherent motivation as something useful for, or related to, school. In fact, sometimes we go so far as to send them messages that they shouldn’t have power. So, any natural leadership that would surface is squelched by their interactions with adult systems.

I think the first part of this question is: How can schools become places that are meaningful and have something authentic to offer to young people? How can we foster young people’s natural capacities to be leaders, in ways that are equitable and collectively beneficial?

It makes me think about a piece of motivation theory called self-determination theory by Edward Desi and Richard Ryan, which says that all people need three things to feel intrinsically motivated: a sense of relatedness to the people and the situation around them; a sense of autonomy or agency; and a sense of competence.

In addition to ensuring the everyday practices of school integrate opportunities for relatedness, autonomy, and competence, I think the best practices around youth leadership require that schools provide young people with:

  • Input around what positive change would look like in their schools and communities;
  • Access to tools and opportunities that foster positive change;
  • Autonomy and agency over their own learning; and
  • Relevant content and skills that young people can use in ways that they see are important to the world.

As adults, we have to ask ourselves: How can we provide students with a set of tools or skills that help them be the leaders they want to be?

One way to implement these ideas is by thinking about more authentic forms of student leadership. Too often, student government is a group elected by peers (sometimes based on social popularity) that works on surface-level initiatives, like dances and pep rallies. But student government can be a more authentic governing body. If this group is designed in ways that fully represents the demographics of the school and the interests of students, then it can play a fundamental role in shaping the school’s values and structures. This type of shift requires that adults give up some of their power, and that they scaffold opportunities where youth can contribute authentic ideas and input. It requires adults to ask, “How can we build a reciprocally beneficial relationship with our student body?”

A representative group of students could also collect data from their peers about what they want, and then share these data with adults. This process would allow students to think about their needs and desires, and how these connect to the heart of the school’s pedagogy. For example, I know of a youth research team that has been collecting data on their school and consequently saying to their school leaders, “We want curriculum that is more relevant to the jobs we’re going to get when we leave here, and we want pedagogy that’s more engaging.”

This form of student leadership can be particularly empowering for marginalized students. In my experience, a representative group of young people who are given the chance to articulate the things they care about will usually bring up issues of power, fairness, and identity. Collecting data from a representative sample also ensures that kids who don’t always get heard will have their perspectives shared. And when teachers perceive the differences among students as something that contributes to the community, rather than as a problem to be solved, then they are less likely to provide one-size-fits-all teaching.

For all young people, but particularly for young people who have been oppressed in society, getting the tools and opportunities to create change can start to help undo the trauma of feeling powerless.


Resources for Further Learning

  • Motivation & Self-Determination Theory

    This video shares three strategies from Edward Deci and Richard Ryan’s self-determination theory that help students get and stay motivated.