Opinion

Youth engagement essential for healthy school environments

Thinking back, do you remember sitting at the children’s table during a holiday, birthday or maybe that family reunion at the cottage, peering over at the adult table, whimsically wondering what the conversation was about, or perhaps what “big” adult decisions were being made?

Despite the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Children, in Canada and across the globe children and youth too often do not have their voices heard, or their perspectives adequately considered. Issues related to child and youth health are no exception.

Specifically, there is a lack of youth engagement in decisions related to school health promotion, an all-encompassing term that includes any activity, program or initiative to promote health as well as other social and environmental factors that impact the health of students. These could be projects related to healthy food in school, safe and accessible playground equipment or inclusive and supportive relationships with teachers and peers.

This lack of engagement is concerning, as schools have long been identified as settings that have immense impacts on young people’s physical and mental health. After all, students spend almost half their waking hours within their school community during childhood.

Adults can’t just talk the talk; they need to walk the walk.

A globally renowned approach called Health Promoting Schools (HPS, also referred to as Comprehensive School Health), championed by the World Health Organization (WHO), is designed to “strengthen and build a safe and healthy school setting for teaching learning.” HPS has been shown to have promising effects for student’s health and learning, including increased physical activity and healthy eating, improvements in personal development skills, enhanced academic achievement and a decrease in bullying. Research has indicated that for this approach to be a success, a key ingredient is the meaningful engagement of students in school health promotion. Children and youth need to have a seat at the table.

Youth Participatory Action Research

Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) is an approach that takes the engagement of children and youth in research a step further, conducting research not only on them but with them. The approach involves children and youth as participants in a research study and also engages them in different stages of the process, including helping develop research questions, collecting and analyzing data and sharing research findings. Children and youth become co-researchers and ensure the research conducted is relevant, applicable and useful to them. This approach in and of itself also has benefits including increased leadership skills, academic achievement and personal development. YPAR is a promising and innovative approach to involve children and youth voice throughout the research process and the research findings.

YPAR in school health promotion

However, while YPAR is showing value in eliciting child and youth perspectives, there is still a lack of research outlining what children and youth think about school health promotion or how they are actively involved.

Our recent research paper published in Health Promotion International used a YPAR approach in Nova Scotia, where HPS has been implemented across public schools since 2005. We trained 10 students (Grades 9-10) as peer researchers through a two-day, in-person workshop. After training, peer researchers were responsible for recruiting, collecting consent forms and conducting and recording interviews on what parts of the school their peers think are healthy, and how they are involved in school youth engagement. In total, 23 students (Grades 7-10) were interviewed.

The research findings identified unique perspectives and opinions related to a healthy school community and youth engagement within the school:

  • A safe and supportive environment is key to health. Youth placed particular emphasis on the importance of having a learning environment that is enjoyable, fair, inclusive, accepting and fosters trusting relationships among students and staff.
  • Physical design and space matters. Bright lights and big spaces are where students want to be. Students indicated that design and structure of spaces is important to a healthy school community, including large windows, appealing aesthetics, collaborative and comfortable workspaces and a clean environment.
  • Youth voice is valid and important. Youth voice is a necessary and credible viewpoint that needs to be part of the school decision-making process as students are the ones who benefit and are most impacted by the decisions. Students indicated that their perspectives are fundamentally different from their adult counterparts, therefore it is critical to engage and listen to their thoughts.
  • Youth engagement: it takes a village. Passion and interest help to drive youth engagement in school decision-making. However, most of the factors shared by students to initiate participation are connected to having a supportive environment. These include encouragement from peers and staff, opportunities for different forms of engagement as well as a place where youth feel comfortable to voice their opinion without judgment.

Insights for future work

This research is part of a growing movement and area of study acknowledging that children and youth need to be engaged as primary stakeholders in issues and concerns related to their health and well-being. Future research should seek to understand differences across sex and gender, race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, disability and age groups. These factors could have vast influence on children and youth perspectives related to school health promotion and engagement, particularly intersectionality.

Adults can’t just talk the talk; they need to walk the walk. This means ensuring that children and youth are engaged in meaningful and authentic ways to create safe and healthy environments. It is time to give children and youth a seat at the table.

 

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2 Comments
  • Kathryn Ross says:

    The issue you have identified is a huge challenge for all our community members who interact with children in provision for all areas of their needs/support: education, socialization, and wellness!
    Congratulations Julia, as you serve to identify and support a paramount intrinsic need for open communication, and appropriate dialogue for success in engaging our youth for their best futures.

  • Alex Hacker says:

    I am very proud of my granddaughter Julia for writing the very thoughtful article above. Children and youth should indeed be listen to, and professionals should be well educated and trained to be willingly receptive. Always remember that “balance” is the most important word in the English language…

Authors

Julia Kontak

Contributor

Julia Kontak is a PhD in Health student, an Emerging Leader at Healthy Populations Institute and a Research Assistant at the UpLift Partnership at Dalhousie University, Halifax.

Sara Kirk

Contributor

Sara Kirk is a professor of health promotion in the School of Health and Human Performance, the Scientific Director of the Healthy Populations Institute and co-lead of the UpLift Partnership at Dalhousie University, Halifax. 

 

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