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Shifting Communication: Focusing on Student Voice in Districts

We hear a lot these days about the importance of student voice.

In a rapidly changing school environment, where personalized learning continues to shake up the traditional classroom dynamic, it makes sense that students want a louder say in what and how they learn.

Students are also becoming more vocal on the issues that matter to them. Last school year’s March for Our Lives rally is just one example of K-12 students putting the power of their collective voice to work for change in schools.

The growing expectation among students and parents is that they have a means to connect with school and district leaders ahead of key decisions. But the rapid evolution of communication and technology use among students and community members often makes it difficult to pinpoint where best to listen and respond to their concerns.

A new national poll of K-12 students from Common Sense Media gives us a snapshot of teens’ current communication habits, and illustrates just how much student communication has changed over the last decade.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway? A majority of students no longer value face-to-face communication.

Mobile, social, and distracted

Common Sense Media surveyed 13- to 17-year-olds throughout the country to understand their communication and social media habits. Here are some key takeaways from the report:

  1. In-person communication no longer a priority for teens
    Between 2012 and 2018, the percentage of teens who rated in-person communication as their top form of communication declined by more than 15 percent, from 49 percent to 32 percent. In the same time period, the percentage of teens who rated social media or video chatting each grew by nearly 8 percent.
  2. Texting most popular form of communication among teens
    With the decline in popularity of in-person communication, texting is now the most popular form of communication among teens. Thirty-five percent of teens said texting is their favorite channel of communication.
  3. Snapchat is the most popular social media app
    Forty-one percent of students said popular photo and messaging app Snapchat is the social media application they use the most. That’s nearly double the next most popular app, Instagram. That makes it a good idea for school leaders to understand Snapchat and how best to use it to communicate with students.
  4. Social media is distracting students from other important aspects of their lives
    More than half of respondents said that social media use often distracts them from doing homework and from paying attention to other people. Forty-two percent of teens said social media has taken them away from time they could be spending with friends in-person.

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Are you listening?

With such a drastic change in how and where students communicate, the question for school leaders is: Are we effectively listening to our student voices?

“I would caution others to be as flexible as they can, because of the nature of the technology,” says Luvelle Brown, superintendent of the Ithaca City School District in New York. The district prides itself on constantly reassessing its social media plan to ensure that it is communicating most effectively with members of its community.

At Klein ISD in Texas, the school district implemented an online system for students to report school safety issues directly to the district. Oftentimes, District Police Chief David Kimberly says he responds directly to student feedback via online channels.

Klein ISD Community Relations Manager Justin Elbert says such attentiveness gives students confidence that their voices will be heard on important school-related issues:

“When a child gets a response from the chief of police or one of the captains, there’s nothing more reassuring. We’re not going to get to see that word of mouth, but I know that kid is 100-percent going to tell their friends that they talked to the chief of police and show them the response.”

Rockbridge County Public Schools (RCPS) in Virginia has made gathering and using student feedback a top priority. To ensure students felt included in the district’s strategic plan, for example, the district conducted a strategic planning survey and encouraged student participation by setting aside time during the school day.

“Everything that we do should be focused around a student-centric model, and we want to make sure we’re aligning our beliefs with our behaviors,” says Assistant Superintendent Haywood Hand. “Students should feel validated. They have to be the central-focus of everything we do, especially when we declare new instructional initiatives and promote curriculum and program changes.”

What steps is your school or district taking to amplify student voice this year? What channels are you using to directly engage students in important conversations about their safety, or their schooling? Tell us in the comments.