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Ladder of Authentic Student Engagement in SRTS

Updated: Nov 10, 2023


photo of four high school students with bikes, and a youth engagement facilitator
high school bike club

An entire school community benefits from authentic youth engagement: not just in the immediate successes of the current project, but from the as-yet-unknown ripples of actions that follow from engaged students empowered with new skills in community participation. Very often, young people -or, students, in relation to safe routes to school (SRTS) programs - are untapped experts on local conditions relating to their needs.* But these unique and necessary perspectives often go unnoticed by adults working on school travel projects who are not (yet) comfortable with authentic youth engagement. It would be worth their while to become more comfortable working with student leaders in elementary, middle and secondary schools.

After only a few years of the daily commute to school, students as young as 10-years-old can become informed participants in school traffic congestion problem-solving. However, when first invited to SRTS discussions, they rarely know the vocabulary that the adult partners are already using. So, there are a few pointers we can learn from the eight levels within Hart’s Ladder of Young People’s Participation.

However, the first thing to notice is that the lowest three rungs of the ladder sit below the tall grasses of manipulation, decoration and tokenism that I’ve added to the image. That leaves us with five levels authentic participation: assigned, consulted, contributing decision-makers, directors and initiators.

Each rung of the ladder could be seen to imply a hierarchy of participation where the highest rung is necessarily the goal or aim. However, there will be valid instances where each of the five participatory levels can adequately suit particular child and youth engagement activities. For example:

  • Rung 4 where young people are assigned a role and informed about why they are involved and how their findings will be used, student leaders could be invited to participate in a School Walkaround to assess the traffic and safety conditions around the immediate school streets. When accompanied by a student engagement facilitator, the students can be coached to identify the best means to convey their experiences and understandings to the school administration, school district staff and municipal engineers and planners.

  • Rung 5 where young people are consulted and aware of how their input will be used, students who already bike to school could be called in to give advice about Bike Rack Placement. Although the cyclists’ suggestions might pose some issues to school maintenance staff, an open discussion or debate with the intended target audience should not be overlooked.

  • Rung 6 where young people are invited to participate in discussions, and the final decisions, around topics already initiated by adults. Forming a SRTS Student Committee, where interested students are recruited, and offered training and support in order to meaningfully engage in the events and projects.

  • Rung 7 where young people initiate and direct activities where adults offer support. A School Bike Club is an example of a need that students might identify, and run with the support of a lead teacher or parent.

  • Rung 8 where young people initiate the activities and share in the decision-making with adults. Creating Walking Groups is an example where, as they do not take place on school grounds, could be a student-led activity that benefits from support and resources from parents and School Administration.

This Ladder of Young People’s Participation is often referenced as an evaluation criterion to measure the outreach of an activity, project or consultation. However, it is important to consider the context and longevity of a project’s youth involvement. Kara (2007) cautions that Some children and youths who may be new to participatory processes can walk away flattered and feeling rather optimistic at tokenistic meetings where the free food, formality and opportunity to speak created only an illusion of participation.**

* Chawla, L., (2002). “Insight, creativity and thoughts on the environment”: integrating children and youth into human settlement development. Environment & Urbanization. 14 (2).

** Kara, Nadim. (2007). "Beyond Tokenism: Participatory Evaluation Processes and Meaningful Youth Involvement in Decision-Making." Children, Youth and Environments 17 (2): 563-580. Retrieved Dec. 11th 2007 from http://www.colorado.edu/journals/cye/


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