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Interventions, reflection, and agency

We believe increasing student agency—helping kids identify and advocate for their needs—can reduce their anxiety, build their self esteem, and empower them to better shape their learning environment. The goal of this first iteration of our intervention is to begin establishing replicable practices for increasing student agency. The resources and intervention script will be free and open source.

If you’re interested in trying this in your school, formally or informally, reach out to We’ll come to you!

Student-teacher relationships (STRs) built on trust and respect are essential for a student’s esteem—and success. Student-teacher trust is one of the few factors shown to impact everything from attendance to teacher retention, even when controlled for socioeconomic status. But all research on trust so far is correlational: there are no defined practices on how to build it. While the teacher is understood to have a large role in building STRs, the student’s agency in the trust-building process is unexplored. Attempted trust-building interventions have focused on changing teacher behavior rather than motivating students directly. This study seeks to test a trust-building intervention that provides motivating resources for students, both as an experiment in the efficacy of a new trust-building approach and in the extent of student agency in building STRs.

Research questions:

  1. Will high school students respond to opportunities to take initiative in a classroom setting after a minimal push?
  2. Does an intervention focused on growing student agency increase the strength of STRs in high school?

The intervention will first build rapport with students, help them identify their unmet needs in and around the classroom, then ask them open-ended questions about how and why they could feasibly change their STRs. Students are then given three resources that guide them through handling a sometimes vague and difficult classroom interaction where the teacher usually takes the lead.

The intervention will take place in January and February, following students for the remainder of their school year. Success will be measured by:

  • Engagement with the resources (time spent on resources, number of times visited)
  • Survey: As part of the intervention, students co-create a survey with the facilitator, complete it, then fill it out again in May. The survey evaluates STRs.
  • Teacher qualitative reports on differences between their classes that had the intervention and didn’t have it.

Participation in surveys and reports is not necessary for this preliminary stage of the intervention’s design.

Intervention. The intervention will run from 10-30 minutes depending on time constraints. It will be precisely scripted to ensure all content is covered in a concise, actionable manner.

  • Build rapport with students (Be transparent about the intentions of the experiment and how it will run)
  • Ask students what their ideal teacher looks like by challenging them to explain their current STRs.
  • Ask students what they can do to improve their STRs.
  • Give them written and video resources on navigating STRS to make that improvement easier.

The teacher will not be in the room, but they will see the script and survey questions in advance when they consent.

When students walk into their class, there will be seven post-it notes on the left side of each desk, numbered one through seven in the corner. Students will be asked seven questions about their STR, and write a number 1-5 on each sheet reflecting a likert scale for that particular question.

Students will be actively involved in designing this survey, both to build rapport and to make sure the questions make sense in the context of their school and their lived experience. For example, to ask “If you notice your teacher misgraded your test, are you confident they’ll fix it if you tell them?” the facilitator will first need to ask questions like, “Does your teacher give tests? How do they grade you? Do they grade fairly? Do they make mistakes?” to ensure the question is applicable, and rewrite it with students if it is not. By asking questions about their STR, which students rarely think about, students will begin to think more about what they value in a teacher, and whether they’re satisfied with their STRs.

The post-it notes will be collected anonymously, and the next activity will be an open-ended discussion: How can you make your classroom better?

Students may bring up ideas like:

  • Respect the teacher more (listen better, come more on time, transition faster)
  • Teacher respects us more (raises voice less, doesn’t ask where we’re going in the halls)
  • Less requirements (freedom to go use the bathroom, less homework) more fun (sit next to my friends, more breaks)
  • Less stressors (loud noise in chaotic classrooms, less emphasis on grades)
  • Less of a social problem (bullying, harassment, judgment, racism/stereotyping)

They will be encouraged to think about how to achieve those changes, and the facilitator will suggest that those changes start with more emotions in the classroom, students taking initiative to negotiate with their teacher, and a solid base of trust with the teacher.

Then, the students will receive resources that help them achieve the changes they’re looking for, written and audio guides on “How to get up and take a break,” “How to set boundaries,” and “How to ask for an extension.”

Measurement. We will track whether the resources were used by giving each classroom a personal access link and monitoring the number of pageviews, the average time spent on a page, and the frequency of use over the course of the year. To answer the first research question, we will use a monthly survey on teachers, asking teachers about changes in students taking initiative and in their emotional expressiveness.

To determine whether the intervention strengthened STRs (the second research question), the students will be asked to fill out the same survey they designed with the facilitator at the end of the school year.

Budget. We are able to pay teachers with gift cards both for participation ($50) and for completing follow-up surveys ($10 for each monthly 10-minute survey).

Brief literature review. This cross-disciplinary research draws on the psychology of motivation, the rich theory and history of belonging interventions, and methods in active listening and motivational interviewing. Strong STRs are built on care and respect — concepts drawn from attachment theory and self-determination theory. Most importantly, STRs are built on shared trust, which is multifaceted and difficult to measure. This has prompted interventions focused on growing trust and student success to be multifaceted as well, developing several new programs that involve all stakeholders of a school. While many of these interventions demonstrate clear success, they’re dependent on continued grant funding because they attempt to change parent, teacher, and administrator behavior with large amounts of scaffolding. Changing student behavior, as this intervention seeks to do, is much more cost effective and, as a result, longer-lasting. Designing an intervention as diverse in its methods while compressing it into a brief segment required drawing on applied therapy literature on techniques that make students feel heard.

This work does not fit neatly into existing typologies of student voice or student-led education. The goal is not only empowering students to work through their school’s existing power dynamic, but to subvert it, with students setting new boundaries for themselves in and around their classrooms. Where a student-led classroom involves a teacher sitting in the back of a class while students present content to their peers or a student joining school board meetings, this research tests the efficacy of students as active negotiators in their space, time, and responsibilities.