The following is a summary of the chapter, Students as Co-creators of Educational Environments, from the Handbook of School Mental Health, co-authored by Peer Health Exchange CEO Dr. Angela Glymph. Dr. Glymph had the privilege to put the contents of the chapter in to practice by co-authoring the chapter with Treasure Joiner and Reanna Bhagwandeen, two of the young people who have helped shape our work at Peer Health Exchange.
The chapter is summarized here by Mira Nathanson:
Education needs an improved way of doing and being – one that recognizes young people’s capabilities, leverages their knowledge and wisdom, and utilizes their contributions. Students achieve at higher levels when schools teach them how to see, name and challenge oppressive and unjust systems. A whole person, whole school culture involves creating an environment in which students partner with adults in the design and implementation of curricula, programs, practices, and policies.
Student voice involves incorporating students’ ideas, beliefs, perspectives, values, cultural backgrounds, interests, desires, choices, aspirations and solutions into their education.
Putting student voice into practice involves adults and students collaborating to co-determine the content and process of learning, along with indicators of success and how they are measured. School reform literature suggests that student voice, agency, and leadership can improve school systems and structures, as well as student outcomes; students can achieve at higher levels when schools teach them how to see, name, and challenge oppressive and unjust systems. Partnering with students to co-identify problems and co-determine solutions prompts adults to realize and remember that students are experts, with valuable perspectives and exceptional knowledge of school and their experiences.
The chapter offers three frameworks through which to consider co-creation with young people including:
- Hart’s Ladder - an eight-rung ladder of participation in student-adult partnerships, in which the bottom three rungs indicate non-participation and the upper five rungs indicate active participation. Rungs range from 1) Young people are manipulated to 8) Young people and adults share decision making
- Spectrum of Student Voice - a spectrum representing an increase from left to right in student involvement as stakeholders and collaborators ranging from Expression to Leadership.
- Positive Youth Development (PYD)-centered development assets - An asset-based framework that focuses on strengths and solutions. PYD is rooted in the belief that young people grow and thrive if supported and offered opportunities to:
- actively participate and make choices about their life
- exercise leadership
- foster positive relationships
- develop healthy mindsets
- cultivate the skills needed to build on their leadership skills.
Co-Creation of Services and Supports
Historically we have provided services and supports to or for students rather than with them. In co-creation, adults are not simply listening to young people, but opportunities are created to power with young people, rather than power over them. Students will be more engaged and more likely to adopt a practice or service they helped create. This is an opportunity for young people and adults to understand each other’s needs and reimagine their desired educational experience together.
PHE’s Work: A Case Study
PHE’s school-based curricula are informed by 17 years of experience, evidence-based best practices, and findings from internal and external evaluations. They rely heavily on PYD frameworks in curriculum and programmatic activities, and show a statistically significant effect on mental health, knowledge, skills, and help-seeking behavior.
Research on social and emotional learning and PYD demonstrates that teaching young people to make decisions, and developing their positive personal competencies, social skills, and attitudes has positive effects on mental health, social skills, and academic achievement.
Co-creating a digital solution for PHE
PHE recruited and hired eight young people to co-design a digital solution to connect young people to mental health resources and care. They worked alongside PHE staff and digital solutions firm, Late Checkout, to co-develop a digital platform based solely on young people’s collective input and feedback. The features young people asked for related to key features of PYD including:
- Agency to access mental health care independent of adults
- Opportunity to connect with peers who share similar identities and mental health challenges and experiences
Young people applied SEL skills like reflection, assertive communication, thoughtful decision-making and advocacy to their work designing the platform. As a collective, they made decisions about which features to showcase, and were given explicit decision-making power to approve the final prototype. They collectively advocated for more responsive and youth-centered mental health resources.
Recommendations for Creating Effective Adult-student Co-creation spaces:
- Acknowledge and affirm the reality of adultism, and challenge directly
- Build authentic relationships with student co-creators
- Authentically affirm young people’s contributions to co-creation
- Get clear on expertise of both young people and adults
- Co-create plans and measures of success and co-implement
- Allow students to identify and create their own systems and policies
- Apply an identity-centered equity lens
- Examine and address issues of power and control
- Apply an asset frame
- Create a culture of inquiry, reflection, bidirectional feedback, and failing forward