Teach By Design
Jan 12, 2021

Including Student Voice in Your PBIS Implementation

​Give students ownership over the way their school feels and center their voices in your school's PBIS implementation.

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As we continue this series exploring the five core components of culturally responsive practices in PBIS implementation, it’s time to take a closer look at the role student voice plays in your implementation.

I first started thinking about this article during our November Expert Instruction podcast episode. Athena Vernon told a story about an afterschool program she used to teach. Every year, she and her co-teacher sat down with their group of students and asked them to fill out a blank behavioral matrix with the behaviors they expected to see from each other. Athena did this every year. She and her colleague put their students in the driver’s seat right from the beginning. In turn, students took ownership over the program’s climate and culture. On the days when things went sideways, Athena directed students back to the agreements they made, the plan they created, and talked with them about what was going on. The implementation centered students’ voices in determining how the classroom looked and felt.

The more she told me about her process, the more I started to recognize a feeling creeping up on me. It was confusion and – if I’m being honest – discomfort.

The students filled out the matrix?

Like…the students?

Of course it makes sense to ask students about the expectations they have for each other and embed those in the matrix. So, why was I uncomfortable?

For me, the answer is in an excerpt from Dr. Christopher Emdin’s book, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood and the Rest of Y’all Too (emphasis my own):

“Within the urban classroom, valuing voice means providing students with an opportunity to have their thoughts, words, and ideas about the classroom and the world beyond it heard and incorporated into the approach to instruction. By accepting that student voice will be a major part of the structure of the classroom, the teacher must be prepared for a number of possible scenarios that may initially be uncomfortable for the teacher, will challenge both the structure of the traditional classroom and the teacher’s authority, but will ultimately positively affect the teacher’s instruction, and the students’ learning.”[1]

I was uncomfortable because Athena’s implementation was different from the traditional implementation I knew. Up until that moment, I thought typical PBIS implementation was for the adults to define misbehaviors, identify expected behaviors, and develop a plan to teach students about their role upholding all of it. Athena took that whole process and reversed it. With some guidance from her and her co-teacher, students were the ones who defined misbehaviors, identified expected behaviors, and implemented the plan to put it all in place.

Recruiting students’ opinions about your implementation will challenge existing dynamics in your school. AND. Providing students with authority over their education and ownership over the way their school feels is exactly why including their voices is an essential component to implementing culturally responsive practices in your building.

Embedding Student Voices in PBIS Implementation

The Center on PBIS’ Cultural Responsiveness Field Guide says for there to be authentic student, family, or community engagement, schools must provide “families, students, and community members with meaningful opportunities to be heard, voice their opinions, and exercise leadership within the school system.”[2] Your students need to see themselves reflected throughout the school. Maybe more importantly, you have to connect with those who are underserved and draw them into meaningful, two-way conversations about how to ensure school is a place where they feel welcome and successful.

There are a lots of ways to engage with students and families in your PBIS implementation. One place to start is by using data. (You didn’t think you’d get an article without hearing about data, did you?)

School Climate Survey

The School Climate Survey is one way to cast a wide net and get a general sense of how things are working, or not working, for your students and their families. The School Climate Survey is a set of surveys measuring student, family, and staff perceptions of school climate. Asking students to take this survey is not the same as adding their voice to your implementation. However, it gives you a topic or two to start your initial conversations. For example, let’s say your middle schoolers took the survey and when you looked at the data, you saw this:

Climate Survey Example.png

Question 9 stands out, doesn’t it…and maybe question 7, too. These questions in the School Climate Survey - Middle/High are:

  • Question 7: Students are frequently recognized for good behavior.
  • Question 9: I know an adult at the school I can talk with if I need help.

What would you do next? Would you start talking as a team about how to improve relationships between students and teachers? Would you decide who was going to present at the next staff meeting about the value of acknowledging students for doing the right things?

Maybe…but what if instead, you asked your students what they think you should do about it?

The PBIS team at Indian Springs High School in San Bernardino, CA decided to do just that. They asked a small sample of students one question: “If your teacher needed to know one thing, what would it be?” Their goal was to give staff a glimpse into student life and student perspectives in order to inspire a change.

Imagine if questions like this and the honest, vulnerable responses that followed were regular conversations you had as part of your implementation. The result is something Dr. Emdin calls an “emancipatory new practice.”

What he saw that day surprised him not because it was happening, but because of who was involved. He saw three students from his classroom; each could not have been more different from the other. In his class, these students never interacted with each other. Out here, the cypher brought them all together.

Cogenerative Dialogues: Lessons From a Cypher

In hip-hop, a cypher is a practice where a group of people stand in a circle and take turns rapping, exchanging verses one at a time until everyone has a chance to perform. Cyphers happen as competition, as practice, or just because they’re fun to do. From the outside, they look a little like this:

One day, on a walk through the cafeteria, Dr. Emdin happened upon a group of students going back and forth in a rap cypher. What he saw that day surprised him not because it was happening, but because of who was involved. He saw three students from his classroom; each could not have been more different from the other. In his class, these students never interacted with each other. Out here, the cypher brought them all together. If the cypher could do that out here, maybe it could do it inside his classroom, too. “The more I studied cyphers, the more I realized how they could benefit teachers who are looking for ways to effectively engage with students. More importantly, it became clear that the structure of the cypher could be merged with the culture of schools to create truly emancipatory new practices in classrooms.”

Dr. Emdin saw the cypher as a way to get his students talking about how to improve the culture and structure of his classroom. The emancipatory practice he implemented is called a cogenerative dialogue.

A cogenerative dialogue (cogen) is “a form of structured discourse in which teachers and students engage in a collaborative effort to help identify and implement positive changes in classroom teaching and learning practices.”[3] Essentially, a cogen is a conversation between students and their teacher where everyone gets the space to share their perspectives and ultimately change the way the classroom looks and feels. In Dr. Emdin’s classroom, he blended the structure of the cypher his students already understood with the purpose of the cogen. In his book, Dr. Emdin describes the power of cogens as being the way "they allow teachers to more effectively deliver complex subject matter to students from different cultures, because they allow teachers and students to bridge their cultural divides before addressing content.”

The way his cogen worked and the lessons he learned from it translate beautifully to any practice you implement in your building where you want to illicit student voice. Keeping in mind your context, grade levels, and existing practices, here are a few ideas to get you thinking about how you can capture student perspectives in your implementation.

The Preparation

GIF of Dan Levy taking a deep, cleansing breath.

Including students’ voices in your implementation means you’ll hear how they experience the school you’ve helped to create. You’ll hear all the ways your implementation works and all the ways it doesn’t. Receiving critical feedback is difficult even when it’s important to hear. Before you jump into this exercise, prepare yourself to hear some things that might sting. Plan ahead for how you’ll handle yourself gracefully when they do.

The Selection

Identify students as possible participants based on the different social, ethnic, or academic groups they're part of. The group of students you select to participate should be a diverse sample of your school’s population. A group like this gives you a broader perspective. Consider how a student who has been referred a few times this year might experience school differently from a student who hasn’t been referred a day in their life. What about including a student who is an English Language Learner? Or a student who receives targeted supports? How would these students’ experiences shift the conversations you have as a team? As you consider who to invite to your group, look for ways their unique experiences will shape the decisions you make.

The Invitations

How you invite students to participate is critical. You don’t want anyone to feel singled out and you definitely don’t want their participation to feel obligatory or punishing. They might be skeptical – if their experience in school is less than stellar, you might even expect that skepticism. Meet their skepticism with reassurance that their voice is important, valued, and necessary to the process. Dr. Emdin says the value of bringing students together in conversation lies in the way you “welcome self-expression and value the voice of the student and student critiques of the classroom and school. When teachers engage in dialogues with students that privilege their unique voices, the students feel validated for who they are rather than who the teacher expects or desires them to be.” Make sure your invitation aligns with this value, too.

The Space

GIF of a person spinning a globe and saying "Everyone is welcome."

The physical setup of the space is important. Dr. Emdin took his cue from the cypher and arranged the chairs for his cogen in a circle. The circle allowed everyone see each other and positioned the teacher as part of the group rather than someone in charge of the group. If music would help students feel welcome, play some in the background. Bring food for everyone. Not only are snacks universally beloved, for some reason, they also serve as a natural ice breaker and get people chatting.

The Introductions

There are two primary goals for the first meeting. The first goal is to get students excited about what they’re about to do. At his first cogen, Dr. Emdin let students know they were part of something different. Before they entered the room, the school’s administrator met with the cogen’s four students, shook their hands, and gave them each a certificate naming them as part of an “advisory panel to the teacher.” At this point, Dr. Emdin says the students didn’t even know what they were going to do in that room, but they knew their participation was special.  

Beyond their excitement, make sure students understand how their participation can help the group be successful. Let them know the ground rules and expectations apply just as much to the adults in the room as they do to the students. Everyone is there to listen, to learn, and to share their experiences. Three guiding rules to include in your process come from the cypher:

  • No voice is privileged over another. Every perspective is valuable to the discussion.
  • There’s only one mic. Only one person speaks at a time.
  • The process always results in a plan of action for improving the school.

The First Topic

I didn’t forget. There are two primary goals for the first meeting.

The second goal is to deliver a win…even if it’s small. Dr. Emdin suggests presenting a small issue that’s pretty obvious and easily answered. In his cogens, some topics he’s discussed during that first meeting include:

  • Suggestions of something he can do in the first or last five minutes of class to open or close the lesson.
  • Identification of something positive he can do more often in class.
  • Identification of something the cogen can do to engage students in the next class.

Whatever topic you dive into during that first meeting, it’s important to implement the students’ recommendation immediately and in a way where they can see it implemented. Other students in the school won’t know why you’re doing something new, but this particular group of students will. Show them the impact their voices have on the way their school runs and they will be more likely to share their perspectives when you start talking about complicated issues.

The Repetition

GIF of Steve Carrel waving his hand in the air and saying "Let's do it again!"

Including students’ voices in your implementation doesn’t end after one meeting. It’s continual. Maintain the same student voices in your meetings for at least the next three meetings. Dr. Emdin suggests this creates a ritual out of the process and helps students understand their participation isn’t just a fad; it’s a commitment. During the third meeting, Dr. Emdin asked one of the students to invite a friend to the next meeting. At the next meeting, the students introduced the newest member to the process and revealed how some of the positive changes implemented in school were because of the recommendations from this group. Ultimately, the student who invited their friend is asked to switch out of the group and into a new role in the school’s implementation. The new group meets three times and the cycle repeats itself…indefinitely.

You don’t have to conduct a cogen in your building to be able to embed student voices in your implementation. Culturally responsive practices require you to go beyond surveying students and calling it a day; they require 2-way conversations where student voices are valued, their self-expression is welcome, and their feedback is heard. As you plan the ways you’ll incorporate student voices into your PBIS implementation, start by preparing yourself for the critique you’ll likely hear. Select a diverse group of students who represent your whole school. Then, invite them to participate in a way that makes them feel like their participation will be valuable…not just for the school, but for them as well. Teach students the group expectations and pick an easy win for the first conversation. Choose a topic based on the data you collect and ask students to help you figure out one way to make even a small improvement. Don’t limit this practice to a one-and-done thing. Center your students perspectives and make connecting with them a continual practice.

1.  Emdin, C. (2016). For white folks who teach in the hood - and the rest of y'all too. Boston: Beacon Press Books.
2.  Leverson, M., Smith, K., McIntosh, K., Rose, J., & Pinkelman, S. (2019). PBIS Cultural Responsiveness Field Guide: Resources for trainers and coaches. OSEP Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. www.pbis.org.
3.  Martin, S. (2006). Where practice and theory intersect in the chemistry classroom: Using cogenerative dialogue to identify the critical point in science education. Cultural Studies Of Science Education, 1(4), 693-720. doi: 10.1007/s11422-006-9031-z

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Megan Cave


Megan Cave

Megan Cave is a member of the PBISApps Marketing and Communication team. She is the writer behind the user manuals, scripted video tutorials, and news articles for PBISApps. She also writes a monthly article for Teach by Design and contributes to its accompanying Expert Instruction podcast episode. Megan has completed four half marathons – three of which happened unintentionally – and in all likelihood, will run another in the future.

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