Student Voice and Adult SEL 

By Denine A Goolsby, M.Ed.

It was the third food fight that year.  It was close to the end of the school year and as the weather got warmer, I recognized the restlessness of the approaching summer break that was developing in students.  As I walked into the cafeteria during the eighth grade lunch, I was stunned by the intensity of this one.  When I entered the room, voices were silenced.  I looked around the café, and was deeply disturbed by the amount of food, juice and milk on the floors, tables and yes, walls.  I simply stated to them to clean it up and stood watching them as they cleaned the room.  As I stood there, stoically, not speaking, I was trying to determine what my next move would be.  I had suspended, instituted silent lunches, called parents, sent to in-school suspension, you know, the general discipline approaches.  They had not worked.  I was the Principal…I was supposed to have the answers.

I spent the weekend contemplating how I would handle the situation.  I decided to enlist the voices of my students.  What did I have to lose?  During the first period on Monday, I called all my eighth graders into a convening room.  I asked the teachers to leave, simply because I wanted to talk to my children directly. We discussed the lunchroom and why food fights were dangerous.  They shared that they were fun.  I then asked a question that turned the focus in the room.  I asked them to brainstorm other things they could do that would be fun.  The students enjoyed sharing ideas and writing their thoughts on poster board.  As we a eliminated the impossible things, we established and implemented a doable list.  The food fights stopped, and we ended the year peaceably, as the students participated in facilitating their list of no-cost, fun activities.  One of their ideas was to have the opportunity to go outside during the lunch period for ten minutes!  Imagine that!

Even though I had garnered input from my students previously at the elementary level, it was on that day in the Middle that I fully understood the impact of student voice. Including students in setting norms and solving challenges in the school environment is priceless.  This allows them to practice leadership skills and see their voices in action.  It bonds them to the environment.  Didn’t we think that we had something to contribute as young people?  The children of today are no different.  I continued to use this practice as I continued my professional career as an educator.  Involving students in the decision-making and allowing them to see their ideas in action made a difference.  Engaging student voice as we address challenging situations in schools, especially today could prove beneficial.  After all, what do we have to lose?


The approach I took to solve this problem came to me as I analyzed the situation.  This was the third food fight that year and nothing was working.  The consequences of silent lunch, detentions, and/or Saturday School were ineffective.  The only recourse was to connect with my students.  The teachers wanted to stay, but I felt a need to connect directly to my students. 

We started with a brainstorming session.  Two students volunteered to assist.  One wrote the thoughts as they were generated alternately with me.  The other student facilitated as peers shared thoughts.  As we went through the session, eliminated items and created a list that was possible, students were engaged and respected the roles of the student leaders.  The students were excited about the ideas that were shared, so of course, they had to be implemented.  One student shared that it make her feel important to be involved in what was going to happen in the school.  Many agreed.

The funny thing is that they wanted very simple things.  They wanted to go outside once they finished eating.  For the second half of their lunch period, they were given permission to go outside to the courtyard.  We purchased hula hoops, footballs and jump ropes for them, but most of them just wanted to stand around and talk.  Another request was to be able to sit with their friends during lunch twice a week.  As you can see, these ideas were easy fixes.  We finished the year food fight free.

Student voice can be very powerful in a school environment.  They are experiencing the programs that we provide.  They have ideas about how the school environment can be improved or enhanced.  Even students at the primary level have thoughts!  When students have voice, they become more connected and engaged.  When we were in school, we thought we had something to say.  Why would the young people of today be any different?

In the end, we had a win for both students and staff, the students felt heard and valued. As I learned here, using my own social and emotional skills to reflect on what was happening, consider new solutions, and listen deeply to others – all these skills help me create a more productive outcome for all. 

Denine A. Goolsby has served as an educator for forty-one years. Her position included teacher, principal (Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District) and Executive Director of Social and Emotional Learning and Closing the Achievement Gap at Cleveland Metropolitan School District. Ms. Goolsby is a Board Member of CREATE, and serves as an SEL consultant and adjunct professor at Cleveland State University.


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