Student Civic Engagement and School Climate Improvement: Two (or More) Birds with One Stone

Changing individuals, the relationships among them, and the systems that create opportunities for safe and supportive school experiences are all part of the equation for school climate improvement. One strategy that has promise for addressing all of these levels of intervention at once is student civic engagement.

Student civic engagement refers to activities that allow young people to participate in the civic life of their schools and communities, giving them an opportunity to contribute to a common good larger than themselves. This engagement can encompass a variety of behaviors and activities—from membership in a school committee to participating in a service project to informal helping behavior. Civically engaged young people stand to improve their settings through their efforts, and as a byproduct of their work, they may develop individual skills and positive relationships with other community members.

The value of student civic engagement for positive school climate in urban middle schools is supported by two new research studies published in the journal Applied Developmental Science by my colleagues and myself. One study provides evidence for the link between student civic involvement and individual competencies that contribute to positive school climate. In that study, we found that students who are frequently engaged in civic activities—like student government, leadership in groups or clubs, and helping to improve their schools and neighborhoods—had standardized test scores more than ten percent higher than their peers, attended 15 more days of school per year compared to their peers, and received virtually no discipline referrals compared to more than three per year among peers, after controlling for a host of demographic characteristics (Voight & Torney-Purta, 2013).

Similar individual benefits of civic engagement have been documented in other research (see Conway, Amel, & Gerwien, 2009), with increases in self-esteem, prosocial attitudes, and the sense of social responsibility potentially serving as mediators of achievement, attendance, and classroom behavior.

The link between student civic involvement and academic and behavioral benefits is not particularly remarkable. After all, many interventions in the mold of socioemotional learning have demonstrated effectiveness in increasing student test scores and attendance and in reducing problem behavior. The potentially remarkable quality of civic engagement is its civicness. The emphasis on the common good in civic activities may make them more amenable than interventions focused on fostering individual student competencies to improvements in relationships, norms, and broader practices—to common rather than individual goods.

The second study, led by Joanna Geller, supports this notion. The findings suggest that in classrooms with more students who frequently help improve their schools and neighborhoods, there is a more positive overall perception of climate among students (Geller, Voight, Wegman, & Nation, 2013). That is, even for classroom peers who are not personally involved, they have a more positive perception of student-teacher relationships, student peer relationships, and the consistency and fairness of rules in the presence of more civically engaged classmates. The more involved the students, the more positive the climate.

How might student civic engagement produce positive school climate? The research noted above is correlational, not supportive of directionality or causality. It very well may be the case that students who attend schools with better climates are moved to help improve their schools and neighborhoods. While climate certainly may cause involvement, experience from the California Safe and Supportive Schools (Cal-S3) initiative suggests that the relationship is at least reciprocal, if not reversed.

Through Student Listening Circles (SLCs), students in Cal-S3 schools are participating in a school climate-improvement process that gives them voice in naming issues and solutions related to their school’s climate. Through these SLCs, students have helped set the agenda for their schools’ climate-improvement plans, bringing to light concerns and actions that reflect students’ lived experiences and that otherwise may have been missed without their involvement (for a detailed account, see O’Malley, Voight, & Izu, 2014). A similar approach to youth civic engagement is being employed in the California Endowment’s “Sons and Brothers” initiative, in which young people are conducting research projects to understand how to make schools and neighborhoods healthier and more equitable for boys and young men of color and using the results from their research to advocate for change.

When young people get involved in improving their schools and neighborhoods, good things happen. Their work often results in changes in the systems they seek to improve. And in the process, they develop positive relationships with their collaborators and community members, and they pick up prosocial skills and attitudes. Amidst the myriad strategies for school climate-improvement, student civic engagement stands out for its potential to simultaneously address multiple levels of intervention—two (or more) birds with one stone.


Geller, J., Voight, A., Wegman, H., & Nation, M. (2013). How do varying types of youth civic engagement predict perceptions of school climate? Applied Developmental Science, 17(3), 135-147.

O’Malley, M., Voight, A., & Izu, J. A. (2014). Engaging students in school climate improvement: A student voice strategy. In M. J. Furlong, R. Gilman & E. S. Huebner (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology in the schools (2nd ed., pp. 329-346). New York: Routledge.

Voight, A., & Torney-Purta, J. (2013). A typology of youth civic engagement in urban middle schools. Applied Developmental Science, 17(4), 198-212.