‘My Voice Matters’ – What happens when children have equal say in shaping their school

‘My Voice Matters’ – What happens when children have equal say in shaping their school

A poster created by a primary school's participants in an Appreciative Inquiry Summit, showing some of the "Dream" phase ideas one group came up with.
© 2024 Frederika Roberts Part of a "Dream" stage representation from one of the groups at AmazingSchool

As someone who is really into wellbeing in education, I’ve been so frustrated by the challenges of trying to make a difference in a broken system. I’ve realised that trying to introduce new programmes and models for wellbeing can backfire: there is often a mismatch to the school’s unique culture and needs, teachers and school leaders get annoyed with yet another thing on their plate, and nothing really changes. And children’s voices are all but silenced in the process!

But then, the “Appreciative Inquiry” module on my MSc in Applied Positive Psychology blew my mind! This weird and wonderful process (brainchild of David Cooperrider) focusing on strengths and hopeful expectations of a better future really resonated with me.  What particularly excited me was the idea of children being empowered to make a difference, their voices being just as important as those of their teachers and parents. Appreciative Inquiry includes everyone. You don’t need buy-in, because the changes come from the people who are directly impacted.

So, when I started my doctoral research, I thought, let’s try this! I found a fantastic school in the North of England that was up for the challenge, and we embarked on a journey together to make wellbeing even better for them. “AmazingSchool” (I can’t reveal the real name, but trust me, “amazing” is a good substitute!) is a two-form entry primary school with around 330 children (nursery to Year 6, i.e 3-11 years old) and 40 staff members (about 30 of them are teachers and learning support assistants). This school has an incredible sense of community, using the #TeamAmazingSchool (changed for privacy) tag in their everyday conversations. I wondered, what could I possibly help them improve? But I kept reminding myself, “It’s all data!” Even if the Appreciative Inquiry didn’t show any major improvements, there would still be valuable lessons to learn and share from the process. I’ve been working with AmazingSchoolsince September 2022, and let me tell you, there have been some incredible improvements that have made a real impact. And the best part? Some of these changes weren’t even planned!

So, in line with this year's Children's Mental Health Week theme of "My Voice Matters," I want to share some of the children’s feedback from my research interviews:

  • “Adults let everyone talk.”
  • “I don’t usually have conversations with adults”, said this child, telling me that it’s good to share ideas with adults.
  • One child told me that they liked having a choice and not being forced to say or do anything.
  • According to another, the activities were “funner” than sitting in school and learning!
  • Children liked the mix of children and adults as “children may get silly and have fewer ideas” on their own.
  • One child said they would recommend Appreciative Inquiry to other schools because it makes schools more creative.
  • Another told me they noticed changes “in friend ways”.
  • And one very enthusiastic child can’t wait to fundraise for projects and told me they want to raise at least £2k!

And what did the school staff, leaders, and parents tell me?

  • Lots of staff members (and parents) used words like “buzz” and “excitement” to describe how they felt about the process.
  • One teacher told me that the work they were already doing to support children’s wellbeing and emotional regulation is happening faster because of the Appreciative Inquiry process.
  • Another staff member told me that people are more patient with and tolerant of each other, and that school feels calmer.
  • Many told me they’d noticed that relationships had improved. They now talk to people they hadn’t really talked to before, they have deeper conversations about things that really matter, they listen better.
  • When looking at the children’s work, they look for positives far more than they did before.  In class, they ask more probing questions that get the best out of the children and spark their curiosity.
  • Parents have told me they feel even more appreciated and listened to, and that the school is now more pro-active in seeking out their views.

If you’ve made it this far and you’re thinking “this is awesome – how can I do this in my school?”, book an informal chat with me.  If you’re curious and want to learn more about Appreciative Inquiry, keep reading 😊.

Typically, Appreciative Inquiry follows a 4D/5D process.

Appreciative Inquiry 4/5D Process
Adapted from AI Commons (click image for link)

The AI Summit brings together a bigger group (39 people at AmazingSchool, including 16 children). During the Discovery and Dream stages of the Summit, powerful questions help uncover what’s already brilliant (the “Positive Core”) and dream of inspiring future possibilities.

A page from the Appreciative Inquiry Interview Guide at my research school, showing the questions and space for note-taking for part of the "Discovery" stage.
A page from the "Interview Guide" - the booklet used during the AI Summit
A page from the Appreciative Inquiry Interview Guide at my research school, showing the questions and space for note-taking for part of the "Dream" stage.
Another "Interview Guide" page, showing questions on the "Amazing Aspirations" topic

They then get down to the nitty-gritty in the Design stage, writing powerful statements (“Possibility Propositions”) to make those positive visions feel more real. After the Summit comes the Destiny stage, where dreams turn to reality.  This is where AmazingSchool is now.

The projects are starting to come together under three main areas (“AmazingSchool Outdoor Wellbeing”, “AmazingSchool’s Community Hub” and “Life Skills: Build, Sustain, Enrich”) are beginning to take shape.  Some will happen faster than others, but here’s what’s on the list so far: an “AmazingSchool Experiences Passport” for all children, a compost bin to help with future planting projects, friendship benches with rainbow paths leading to them, an outdoor book exchange hut for children and adults, parent-led learning sessions that anyone in the local community can join, and a shared calendar of events between the school, local library, church, and community centre to better connect the school with the community.

Right from the start, children were fully involved in the Appreciative Inquiry at AmazingSchool. They were involved in planning every detail of the AI Summit and their ideas were just as important as the adults’.

People had fun, even though some of it was “a bit weird” at first! There is so much excitement about the next steps, and everyone is even more proud of #TeamAmazingSchool than before.  Children and adults have learnt new skills, gained in confidence, and built stronger friendships and professional relationships. The sense of community is stronger than ever.

Appreciative Inquiry takes time and commitment. The school leadership team has to be dedicated to seeing it through. But when they do, it’s truly magical!

As for me, I still have another year and a half of data-gathering to do, but I’m super-excited to see these projects grow! I’ll have to find a way to write about this inspiring adventure more academically for my EdD (Professional Doctorate in Education), but for now, I’m enjoying the wild ride. And I have to say, I’m really proud of everyone at AmazingSchool (and maybe a little bit proud of myself, too)!

If you want to learn more about Appreciative Inquiry, take a look at AI Commons.  And if you’re interested in my research or need some support with Appreciative inquiry or any other wellbeing improvements for your school (or other organisation), get in touch and let’s chat!

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