Listening to Elementary Student Voice: A Compass for Leading Their Learning and Creating Feelings of Connectedness

Young elementary students know what they want as learners, and they are fully capable and able to lead in contexts where adults are typically the leader – in classrooms and in research. The purpose of this case study was to explore whether and how providing authentic leadership opportunities for elementary students in two democratically oriented classrooms created feelings of connectedness and belonging. Both third grade classrooms could be defined as democratic: learning was student-centered, and student voice was heard and implemented throughout the day. Focus group students selected for this study were from two third grade classrooms that each operationalized democratic learning and distributed leadership practices where student voice was both solicited and valued. I asked very young people to explain what helps them feel listened to and understood in classrooms - to say what helps them be seen and understood and to define that for adults. Prior researchers have not asked young people to lead us in this. This case study research informs educators of how to listen and respond to young elementary students so their voices lead their learning and thereby create feelings of connectedness. Data analysis showed classroom moments of inviting student voice, providing leadership opportunity, and creating feelings of connected. Teachers were intentional in positioning themselves as facilitators of learning and modeled genuine questioning of student thinking. This study revealed that sharing authority and acting with humility created a reciprocal relationship between teachers and students. Students then used talk to deepen each other’s thinking, to advocate for each other, and to lead as co-teachers, but this only happened when they were in an environment that prioritized student voice. Students felt connected to their class community because they came to rely on and trust each other as resources.