How Youth Empowerment Leads to a Positive School Climate and Academic Success

By Diana Curtin, CEO Community Matters

When effective youth empowerment is integrated as an integral way of operating, it is transformative for students, adults and schools. National best practices and current research validates that when schools make youth empowerment a cornerstone of their comprehensive school climate efforts, schools become communities where staff and students feel connected. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that feeling connected at school is the strongest protective factor for students to decrease substance use, school absenteeism, early sexual initiation, and violence; and notes the strong correlation between school connectedness and academic success.

We define youth empowerment as an attitudinal, structural, and cultural process whereby young people gain the ability, authority, and agency to make decisions and implement change in their own lives and the lives of others, including youth and adults. In schools where young people are empowered to have influence on decisions and afforded opportunities to lead and serve, they naturally feel more self-confident and have an increased sense of pride, ownership and connectedness for and at their school. This sense of empowerment naturally leads to a more positive school climate that supports increased competence, academic achievement and overall student success.

Best practices for increasing student voice and empowerment in schools include offering a variety of opportunities for students to have influence in decision making in the classroom, on the playground, for the campus and for the school. Even the youngest of students have valuable insight and can provide input and ideas, they just need the avenue and encouragement to be contributors and to be heard and acknowledged. It makes sense to consider and value the opinions of the largest population on campus – the students. The following youth empowerment opportunities incorporate leadership, service, input and decision making:

  • Serving on a climate committee, site council, parent-student organization etc.
  • Student Council and committees
  • Student led clubs and initiatives that they drive
  • Student led campaigns that promote a value or initiative they stand behind
  • Leadership opportunities for more than just the leadership classes (consider the playground/campus, classrooms, and projects)
  • Community service opportunities for the school and community that include a service-learning component
  • Peer mediating, mentoring and tutoring
  • Restorative Practice leaders
  • Serving as a Safe School Ambassador

As the CEO for Community Matters, I am a firm believer and advocate of our evidence-based Safe School Ambassadors® (SSA) Program as a best practice youth empowerment platform that has been active in 2,000 school across the US and five countries. I have witnessed how this program transforms the lives of students and schools by empowering and equipping young people to find and use their voice to effect positive change.

The SSA Program fosters school safety by empowering influential students to safely intervene when they witness mistreatment such as bullying, cyberbullying and other harmful behaviors that can lead to tragedies such as suicide and gun violence. Consider this incredible statistic: on average, student Ambassadors intervene with actions two or more times per week. During a school year, these individual actions add up to more than 2,400 interventions, which impacts the entire school by establishing a more positive climate and culture.

SSA is a long-term prevention and early intervention program. Because climate and social norms in a school are created over time, it requires a concentrated and time-oriented approach to change the established norms. Therefore, the SSA Program is most successful when it is implemented and championed with a long-term strategic approach in mind. It is most effective when implemented over a 3-year timeframe, allowing it to develop strong roots that anchor it firmly into school culture and practice. After the first three years of Community Matters providing the SSA Training, schools are provided the opportunity to move into a sustainability model whereby the school takes over implementation and leadership of the program. With this approach, the SSA Program and the premise of effective youth empowerment become embedded into the school practices as a way of thinking, communicating and behaving.

When effective youth empowerment becomes the way of operating, school climate becomes more positive; one built on relationships, inclusivity and connection. As the school climate warms, students feel safer, more engaged, and are better equipped to lean in and learn. When these conditions are present, we see academic achievement and overall student success increase.