An E-newsletter on EXCELLENCE in Leadership

Effective schools have a well-organized, active form of student government that seeks to develop student leaders. Student government exists to serve the needs and interests of all students consistent with the school's mission, goals, and objectives. The principal should work in close collaboration with the student leaders and provide them a voice in the decision-making process of the school.

Given the importance of student governance to the success of a school, the principal should take extraordinary care in choosing the sponsors of student government.

November 2018 | Volume 7, No. 4

Student Government

Steven Baughman | Principal, Indiana Academy




 Thoreau once wrote, “that government is best which governs least,” and while this may ring true in a typical bureaucracy, on a school campus, when it comes to student government, I think some reconsiderations should be made. School “climate” can be a difficult thing to gauge. I often hear people make comments about a campus’ spirituality or sense of school spirit, but I struggle with how to quantify these types of ambiguous concepts. I have however come to be a firm believer in the concept that a strong student government can contribute to a sense of a strong-er school spirit.

School governments may take on a variety of iterations from school-to-school; ranging anywhere from elected Student Association positions to staff-appointed teams of identified student leaders. Regardless of the composition of the Student Government, I have found that when appropriately empowered to have a genuine influence in some of the decision making that takes place on a campus, students develop a better sense of having a “voice” in the process of the school’s operation. This type of student buy-in can be invaluable when it comes time to have to make some harder administrative decisions.

In my experience, an effective student government consists of several key components:

  • Staff/faculty sponsors who are on-board with the administration’s vision of student empowerment and are willing to coach student leaders through the process of executing a plan/vision
  • Student composition that balances proven student leaders with potential student leaders, including both upper- and under-classmen
  • At least some designated and meaningful roles and responsibilities for the student government to fulfill
  • Scheduled, regular time for the student government to meet that testifies to the school’s valuing of the group
  • Open communication between the Student Government and the appropriate administrators (ideally the Principal)
  • A “reasonable” budget (enough to help the Student Government accomplish some initiatives or to at least serve as “seed” capital for larger fundraising initiatives)

While it may not be “new light,” the impact of a functioning student government can be greatly increased with the right mix of designated responsibility and encouragement to launch new initiatives from both administration and sponsors.

Ladder of Participation

Adam Fletcher,
with introduction by Steven Baughman



There is much said about engaging students in positions of leadership, especially when it comes to Student Government. One model to assist in evaluating the type, or extent, of that engagement is sociologist Roger Hart’s Ladder of Participation, presented here with some adaptation specifically for application in an educational setting by student engagement advocate Adam Fletcher of soundout.org.

About the Ladder

Sociologist Roger Hart wrote a book called Children's Participation: The Theory And Practice Of Involving Young Citizens In Community Development And Environmental Care for UNICEF in 1997. This groundbreaking work put the work of young people and adult allies around the world in the context of a global movement for participation, offering needed guidance and criticism of many efforts. The "Ladder of Children's Participation," also called the "Ladder of Youth Participation," is one of many significant tools from the book.

Degrees of Participation

8) Young people-initiated, shared decisions with adults.
This happens when projects or programs are initiated by young people and decision-making is shared between young people and adults. These projects empower young people while at the same time enabling them to access and learn from the life experience and expertise of adults. This rung of the ladder can be embodied by youth/adult partnerships.

7) Young people-initiated and directed.
This step is when young people initiate and direct a project or program. Adults are involved only in a supportive role. This rung of the ladder can be embodied by youth-led activism.

6) Adult-initiated, shared decisions with young people.
Occurs when projects or programs are initiated by adults but the decision-making is shared with the young people. This rung of the ladder can be embodied by participatory action research.

5) Consulted and informed.
Happens when young people give advice on projects or programs designed and run by adults. The young people are informed about how their input will be used and the outcomes of the decisions made by adults. This rung of the ladder can be embodied by youth advisory councils.

4) Assigned but informed.
This is where young people are assigned a specific role and informed about how and why they are being involved. This rung of the ladder can be embodied by community youth boards.

3) Tokenism.
When young people appear to be given a voice, but in fact have little or no choice about what they do or how they participate. This rung of the ladder reflects adultism.

2) Decoration.
Happens when young people are used to help or "bolster" a cause in a relatively indirect way, although adults do not pretend that the cause is inspired by young people. This rung of the ladder reflects adultism.

1) Manipulation.
Happens where adults use young people to support causes and pretend that the causes are inspired by young people. This rung of the ladder reflects adultism.

The 7/8 Debate

Roger Hart's Ladder of Participation shows young people-initiated, shared decisions with adults as the top form of young people's participation, followed immediately by young people-initiated and directed. This is somewhat controversial an issue for many people working with and around young people. Essentially, the debate is which of these levels of participation is actually the most meaningful?

Many believe that shared decision making is most beneficial to both young people and adults. Others believe that young people are most empowered when they are making decisions without the influence of adults. Most often, this doesn't exclude adults but reduces their role to that of support.

Both arguments have merit; ultimately, it is up the each group to determine which form of decision-making best fits with the groups' needs.


Newsletter Coordinator

Steven Baughman

Indiana Academy

Newsletter Editor

Berit von Pohle, Editor

Pacific Union Conference, Director of Education

Ed Boyatt, Editorial Advisor