Youth Empowerment: An Essential Driver for Reducing Discipline and Creating Safer Schools

March 1 2016


As educators and caring adults, we’re always looking for ways to reduce students’ risky behavior, increase their attendance and improve their achievement. What we have often failed to recognize is that student empowerment is the most effective strategy for reaching these desired outcomes. Having students be the “change agents and peace makers” on school campuses goes a long way to optimizing the conditions for learning and positive behavior to occur.

In far too many schools, students play a passive role, being treated as consumers, rather than contributors. Many studies support our experience which has shown that when given the opportunity, support and necessary skills, most young people are ready and eager to speak up and intervene in bullying situations as “upstanders”, rather than condoning the behavior by being passive bystanders.

Empowering youth requires seeing students through a strength-based lens, not a deficit-based one; viewing young people as assets and not problems. Too often schools view “youth voice” as a means to recruit student leaders from the more traditional pool of student council and student leadership representatives (high GPA, positive role models, etc.).

In doing so, their efforts often fall short of the desired results, leaving nontraditional student-leaders on the outside, looking in. These marginalized students can turn out to be “diamonds in the rough” and “leaders in waiting”. In our experience, they’re a powerful and untapped resource for improving school climate and safety.

Comprehensive youth empowerment begins by cultivating a fundamental belief in the ability of children and youth to accomplish great things - a belief in the inherent strength of young people. This belief must be enacted in the ways we live, relate, and behave; in these ways, the belief becomes systemic rather than situational.

When we provide young people with the opportunity to plug in to their developmental needs for purpose and power, they are not only less likely to choose high-risk or anti-social behavior, but also more likely to grow up to be the leaders and citizens we need them to become.

Here are a few comments from some of the diverse student leaders we’ve worked with that affirm this perspective:

“We can make a change. We have power. We are not insignificant”- Student, Benicia High School, CA

“I am so filled with knowledge and tools- I’m ready to take on the world!” - Student, Temple High School, TX

At the end of the day, schools can achieve so much more of what they want when they see their students not as empty bottles to be filled, but as candles to be lit.

Imagine your schools being places where your students are treated as allies, working with adults to create campuses where every student feels welcome, safe, cared for and included, and helping reduce incidents of bullying, harassment and cyberbullying.

For more specific ideas on how to “wake up the courage” of young people in your schools and communities, please contact us at Community Matters.

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