Democratic Empowerment: How do Students Feel About Their Student Council? By Hope Wilder

What Students Say Matters

Most schools do not look like a democratic society at all. Imagine a school where democracy is lived on a daily basis, where students have a say in the rules of the school, from the schedule to the dress code or safety policies. These schools exist in the world of democratic education. My specialty is sociocracy, a consent-based form of governance. When given a chance to do original research on sociocracy in schools, I wanted to ask some students themselves how THEY felt about their democratic school. The results showed that student council members felt included and empowered, and students felt the system was working well to include their voices.

You can read the full research article for free here.

“I used to go to a public school… there wasn’t sociocracy being used and I knew that there wasn’t really anything that I could say that would change anything going on in the school. But when you’re using sociocracy and everybody’s voices are being heard… everybody had to agree [to a new policy], so it’s pretty empowering for students.” 

New Roots Charter School Student Council Member

What is Student Voice, and Why is it Important?

Student voice can be defined as meaningful student involvement in decisions about educational policies. Evidence suggests that there are several benefits to higher student involvement in school decision-making. 

Benefits include:

  • Increased academic motivation (Quaglia 2016)
  • Higher GPAs, fewer absences, and less chronic absenteeism (Kahne et al 2022)
  • Increased sense of agency, belonging, and competence (Mitra 2004)
  • Increased self-esteem, life skills, democratic skills, and improved relationships with adults (Griebler & Nowak 2012)

In research on adults, there is evidence that participatory practices can lead to increased democratic involvement (Wu 2020). This suggests that early learned experience of participatory decision-making will help young people to grow into adults who feel empowered to participate in democracy.

Bringing Democracy to Schools via Sociocracy

Sociocracy is “a set of tools and principles that ensure shared power” (Koch-Gonzalez & Rau, Many Voices One Song.) It was first practiced in a school in the Netherlands founded by a Quaker couple. The core tool of sociocracy is consent decision-making, where a group united by a common cause comes to an agreement based on what is “good enough for now, and safe enough to try.” Any objections or arguments against a decision are incorporated into the proposal to come to a compromise that works for all members.

Sociocracy is practiced in dozens of democratic schools worldwide. The film School Circles documents several schools in the Netherlands practicing sociocracy. I was curious to know – do the students at a school practicing sociocracy see it as fundamentally different majority rule? And what is their experience of using sociocracy? 

Voices of Students about Sociocracy

“It’s pretty empowering.”

I chose New Roots Charter School in Ithaca, New York, to study. This public charter high school started using sociocracy as a student governance method based on a student initiative and still uses it in their student council today. I interviewed 10 student council members and one homeroom class about how they felt about student governance. The majority of respondents said they felt that:

  • They were listened to by the school,
  • They could raise concerns to the administration,
  • And they liked sociocracy in particular as a student governance method. 

Consent Decisions

“A compromise that makes everyone feel happy and heard.”

When explaining consent decision-making, one student said:

“We find some way to come to an agreement, even if someone does not fully agree the first time… Everyone has an opinion that’s valid and should be voiced and we’ll change the proposal until everyone consents.”

Contrasting this to majority rule, another student said:

“I feel like everyone feels more content with outcomes of things. If we’re voting [in] a traditional democratic school, there’s two options and these are the only two things that can happen. And then one of them wins and the other side is just bummed out and they’re upset about it. With sociocracy, we can come to a consensus and explore options that we might not have considered before, and have that compromise that makes everyone feel happy and heard.”

Speaking in Rounds to Ensure all Voices are Heard

Students emphasized that the voices of the quiet were heard as well as the loudest voices. One practice of sociocracy, called “rounds,” is simply taking turns in a circle to speak. 

One student said:

“One thing I don’t like about normal conversation is that often there’s a person who doesn’t say anything at all, which in the past has been me a lot…There’s always something I want to say, but I can’t find the right opportunity to jump in. The great thing about sociocracy is your turn is going to come.” 

Another student said:

“I think the ability for a freshman to have the same voice that I do as a senior […] that’s what makes sociocracy amazing, is the fact that everybody has the same voice.”

Student-Led Policy Changes

Changes students have brought to the school included:

  • A policy to reduce lunch waste.
  • A covid-19 mask policy consented to by all students.
  • A tradition of “cell 30, take 30” meaning 30 seconds for students to check their phones and 30 seconds of silence before every class begins.

At the time of my research, the student council was creating and implementing a school-wide survey about the issue of gender-neutral restrooms. One student cited an example of another immediate school-wide change:

“[I said in the student council meeting] that filters aren’t being changed frequently… And then a week later, all the filters were on all the time and they’re being changed. So that’s a pretty good feeling when one thing that you say ends up being implemented in the whole school.”


In a world where student voices are not usually heard, New Roots stands out as an example of how student councils can be truly representative of students in a public school. I would encourage more schools to take steps to include students in important decisions that affect their daily lives. 

Click here to download the free full PDF of the New Roots research study.

Learn More about Sociocracy in Schools

  • School Circles – an independent documentary that explores the practice of democratic schools in the Netherlands. “School Circles connects the theory of sociocracy to its practice within schools, taking us to new possibilities of organising ourselves and our communities.”
  • Sociocracy in Schools – resources for schools by Sociocracy for All.
  • Let’s Decide Together – a book by Hope Wilder for practicing sociocracy with ages 5-14 years.
  • More resources for schools on the Progressive Education site to promote Student Voice.


Griebler, U. & Nowak, P. (2012) Student councils: a tool for health promoting schools? Characteristics and effects. Health Education, 112(2), 105-132.

Kahne, J., Bowyer, B., Marshall, J. & Hodgin, E. (2022). Is responsiveness to student voice related to academic outcomes? Strengthening the rationale for student voice in school reform. American Journal of Education, 128(3), 389–415.

Mitra, D. L. (2004). The significance of students: can increasing “student voice” in schools lead to gains in youth development? Teachers College Record, 106(4), 651-688.

Quaglia Institute for School Voice and Aspirations. (2016.) School voice report 2016. Retrieved July 1, 2022 from

Wu, S.J., Paluck, E.L. Participatory practices at work change attitudes and behavior toward societal authority and justice. Nat Commun 11, 2633 (2020).

About the Author

Hope Wilder is the Schools Program Manager at Sociocracy for All. Her passion for children’s empowerment lead her to write the book, ‘Let’s Decide Together,’ a workbook to help adults empower children to make decisions together. She leads workshops teaching skills from the book, and runs training for teachers and parents on how to use collaborative decision-making with children.