How school leaders can empower their students

How school leaders can empower their students

Empowering students in their learning is an idea that has received significant attention in recent times. And now many schools and networks run programs to enhance student agency and student voice.

Monash educational leadership expert Dr Fiona Longmuir breaks down the research and strategic thinking behind these developments.

The dictionary defines empowerment as “authority or power given to someone to do something’’ and “the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights.”

What does this look like for schools?

Two ways to empower students

In schools, there are two areas where educational leaders can focus on initiatives to encourage student empowerment:

  • Re-framing the student-teacher relationship. This provides opportunities for students to lead their learning, and for teachers and students to learn together.
  • Re-framing the student-school relationship. This develops authentic adult-student collaborative partnerships across all aspects of the school, and involves students in school-wide leadership and decision making.

Both these areas are based on the recognition that students are knowledgeable experts in their own lives and their own learning. Empowering students aligns with 21st Century learning goals including enhanced creativity, entrepreneurship and citizenship.

Empowerment is also considered important for enhancing democratic principles. At its core, student empowerment is about “doing with” rather than “doing to”.

Parktone Primary School, Victoria

Laura Carolan with Parktone Primary School students.

At Parktone Primary School grade 5-6 students were entrusted with designing a new playground and organising it to be built.

It all started with grade 5-6 students designing a theoretical playground. Then an idea for a student project was born.

“We looked at the funds and thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we built it?’,” says Acting Assistant Principal and Monash alumni Laura Carolan.

“A group of students ran with it. They looked at the Department’s playground regulations. They emailed suppliers to get the prices for things. They met with our consultant and got options.

“Getting their input is amazing, because they think of things that I would never think of,” she says.

Gabe, who was one of the co-designers, says the project was really fun. “It was about student voices. There were votes, which gave everybody a say.”

He says the project gave him an appreciation of money and how much things cost. “Now, if I see a really high-tech piece of equipment I’ll be like, ‘Oooh. That really costs a lot.'”

Laura says the kids are the reason she gets out of bed in the morning.

“You are thinking about the ways you can have an impact, not just now but in the future. Just seeing them laugh and smile and learn something new, that’s the best part.”

Encourage student voice and student agency

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of The Child provides a minimum standard for how student voice and agency should be attended to in schools. Article 12 states: “Children have the right to say what they think should happen when adults are making decisions that affect them and to have their opinions taken into account.”

Visionary researcher Harry Shier – who has worked with the United Nations – has developed a useful model that benchmarks the minimum standard required to endorse this convention.

He calls it a “pathway to participation”, and he highlights the opportunities and obligations for schools and educators.

"Pathway to participation" model.

Level What happens for students What the school does
Level 1 Students are listened to Staff are open to listening, and work in a way that prioritises it
Level 2 Students are supported to express their views Students are taught to articulate their views and are supported to share them
Level 3 * Students' views are taken into account Decision making considers students' views and it is a requirement they are given due weight.
Level 4 Students are involved with the decision making process Procedures and policies are in place that enable students to participate
Level 5 Students share power and responsibility for decision making Students are supported to take control over informed decision making within their school  

*Level 3 is the minimum level that aligns with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

In this model, it is at Level 5 that student empowerment is most amplified, and benefits are maximized. These include:

  • improved practice and outcomes
  • increased student ownership and belonging
  • increased student self-esteem and self-efficacy
  • increased empathy and responsibility.

Children and young people have great potential for positive influence on their schools and their communities.

Adults around them need to be committed to organising authentic opportunities and providing support activities that prepare and train them to fully participate.

To successfully reach higher levels of student participation, students, staff and leaders need open-minded dispositions and a focus on building respectful, trusting relationships between students and adults.

Rural schools in Indonesia

Students are involved in their own learning at a school in rural Indonesia.

Non-profit organisation EQuIC works with teachers in Indonesia to improve the quality of education in rural areas. A key way they are doing that is by involving the students in their own learning.

"Students feel it's different, it's more enjoyable, there's more love in the classroom," says founder Mokhamad Iksan.

EQuIC works with teachers in Indonesia to improve the quality of education in rural areas.

Developing a school culture where students can thrive

School leaders directly contribute to establishing conditions and a school culture that promotes the empowerment of learners.

An in-depth study conducted by Michelle Anderson and colleagues in 2017 looked at the idea of entrepreneurial learning and what helped foster student empowerment in Australian schools.

Key dispositions and approaches for principals included:

  • being open to change and willing to try new things
  • having an innovative outlook and interest in embracing new thinking about schooling
  • having a “growth mindset” for the positive development of the school and encouraging this in others.
  • being willing to take risks
  • being open to being challenged
  • having a belief in the capabilities and capacities of students to

With the appropriate mind-set and opportunities, leaders can leverage the traditionally under-used resource of their students to improve their school. At the same time, students can enhance their own capacities as learners and future citizens.

Structural and organisational opportunities that encourage student empowerment include:

  • students contributing to curriculum design
  • co-teaching
  • participation in school leadership and management committees
  • participation in staff selection processes
  • employing students in school roles such as gardening or reception.

Challenges and considerations for school leaders

It is important to consider how the development of structures and strategies can support student empowerment for all students.

Empowering only a select few can enhance inequity and narrow the diversity of ideas and feedback.

Research has found that paying attention to students who may be marginalised or struggling can provide insightful and novel advice. It is often these students who benefit the most from being involved in empowerment initiatives.

Empowering learners in schools is an important challenge for leaders that requires a level of vulnerability and trust. Leaders who support high-quality relationships between students and teachers, and students and their school, with the aim of empowering students will reap the rewards of more confident and engaged learners who are also positive and proactive community members.

listening to student idea
Empowering learners in schools is an important challenge for leaders that requires a level of vulnerability and trust.

This is an edited version of a piece written for the Australian Council for Educational Leadership, Resources in Action Series. It is reprinted here with permission, and thanks.


Anderson, M., Hinz, B. & Matus, H. (2017). Paradigm shifters: Entrepreneurial learning in schools. Retrieved February 15, 2019.

Oxford University Press (n. d.). Empowerment. Retrieved February 15, 2019.

Shier, H. (2001). Pathways to Participation: Openings, opportunities and obligations. Children & Society, 15(2), 107-117.

UNICEF (n. d.). UN convention on the rights of the child. Retrieved February 15, 2019.

Further Reading

Mitra, D. (2018). Student voice in secondary schools: The possibility for deeper change. Journal of Educational Administration, 56.