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Encouraging student voice

"Often the student has the best ideas of how we might work with them, if we take time to reflect on what they might be trying to communicate."

Outreach teacher, project interview, 2013

The best way to understand a student’s preferred way of learning is to ask them (Causton-Theoharis, 2009) and to include them in planning and assessment processes. This will mean working alongside them to understand what they want to learn and how to make learning accessible for them.

All students can communicate. Some students use their physicality (gestures, signs, eye movements) to do so, while others use augmentative technologies. Alternative communication modes such as visual representations (for example, Picture Exchange Communication) or voice activation devices enable students to develop and maintain relationships, to gain and give information, to express feelings, and to control their environment.

Classroom teachers play an important role in facilitating the development of language and communication. Encouraging all students to express their needs and concerns can be supported through strategies that identify effective ways of communicating for students. The teacher needs to consider how to support students so they feel comfortable and able to discuss their learning confidently, with both the teacher and their classmates. Underpinning this is the teacher’s knowledge of the students’ cultural backgrounds and the approaches to communication that the students are comfortable with. Successful communication outcomes allow students to achieve in their learning and in their relationships with classmates, the school, and the wider community.

Research by Dr Jude MacArthur (2009) showed that students with additional needs are eager to enter into conversations that will help teachers understand their views and their strengths and aspirations.

"Students ask to be part of the group of all children and young people at school, and they want their teachers to:

  • get to know them
  • give them opportunities to talk about what school is like for them
  • listen to their views
  • take their views into consideration when they are planning and teaching so they can learn
  • support them to make school a better place for them
  • allow them to be part of the whole peer group and to be fully involved.

For these things to happen, teachers need time:

  • to talk with their students and their families and whānau
  • to share ideas and experiences with other teachers
  • to consult with colleagues who can inform them about the effects of students’ impairments on
    their learning
  • to develop respectful and equal relationships in their school."

MacArthur (2009), page 42


In Example 5, a teacher collects student voice via text and images on a class blog. On reviewing the blog entry, he notices shifts in students’ learning and thinking in mathematics.

For authentic student voice, there needs to be a high level of trust within the classroom. This means establishing an environment and processes that feel safe and comfortable for the student. In the following example, the teacher works with a student so that he feels able to contribute to the direction of his learning.

Adam is a year 10 student. He wants to be involved in decision-making about his learning. He is able to think about and discuss his learning with some key people in his life, such as his parents, the specialist teacher, and his sister. However he is overwhelmed and anxious about attending a planning meeting with other people.

Adam works with his teacher to develop a PowerPoint to show examples of his current learning. He includes two new goals he wants to work towards. He decides that he will try to stay for five minutes to present the PowerPoint to his support team but to leave when he feels he needs to. In this way, he is involved in the process of decision making and thinking about next goals, and team members have the benefit of Adam’s insights in a way that causes him the least stress. Decisions made after Adam leaves are discussed with him before his IEP is written up.

When students like Adam see that their thoughts and opinions on learning are valued, they are more likely to let you into their world and share their hopes and aspirations. However, hearing and understanding student voice is not enough in itself – it must be acted upon. Only in this way will there be real student agency – where students feel that their voice has led to meaningful action and they will see the results of their decisions and choices. Students will hold back if they perceive that what they are saying is not going to make a difference. In the example below, the teacher tries to ensure that her students’ thoughts and ideas on learning are regularly incorporated into the classroom programme.

Gina is a year 7 student who loves to read. She is able to use symbols to make sense of most work and can read some sight words, especially the names of people she likes. Each day the teacher stops the class ten minutes before school ends and asks students to think about their day as a learner. She asks the students to think about one thing that can change to help them in their learning for the next day. Students share this information together, using either a goal diary or a visual chart. Gina uses an adapted goal diary that has visual charts. She is able to discuss this with her teacher or with her peers.


As a group, view the video clip How Teachers Can Help Me Learn and discuss:

  • What teaching strategies help to make Katrina’s school experiences positive ones?
  • What does this clip make you think about? How might you respond to it in your practice?

You may wish to then also:

Learner profiles

Learner profiles give students opportunities for self-advocacy, enabling them to express who they are and their strengths, aspirations, and passions. Learner profiles help students to address assumptions and to share what helps them learn and the challenges they face when learning. Profiles inform teachers about their students, and they help school teams to understand students’ perspectives and to build relationships with them, especially at times of transition.

Learner profiles can be developed in a range of formats – for example, as a document with photos, a video clip, a blog, or a PowerPoint. Students can create them by themselves or in collaboration with whānau and teachers. Although profiles can be a strong support for students with special education needs, note that some students may prefer to talk about themselves and what works for them in the learning environment.


In pairs or small groups, read the TKI information sheet for teachers, students, and whānau on learner profiles and reflect on how you might develop learner profiles with students in your class.


For further information and examples of learner profiles, explore the guide Developing an Inclusive Classroom Culture on the Inclusive Education site.

Next – Contributions from whānau

Published on: 02 Jun 2015