12 Ways to Build Student Ownership of School Culture

It’s their school. Let them at it.

As a principal, experience has taught me how important school culture and climate are to a school’s ability to function effectively.  Student ownership in building a positive culture is essential. Encouraging students to take an active role in molding climate and eventually establishing a culture is necessary to success.  These are some of the lessons I have learned.

Establish Genuine, Effective Relationships with Students

This is the cornerstone to success. You must be willing to interact with your students. Get to know them as individuals. This will not only establish trust, but allow you to recognize their strengths and understand where they may need help or guidance. Students are also likely to work harder for adults when they believe said adults have their best interest at heart.

Do Not Expect Immediate Results

This process started in earnest in our building about three years ago. By the second year the climate had changed. This year, though, it felt as though we were building a culture. The student leadership had gained a foothold. Involvement and support increased and the building as a whole came aboard. As our 2017 valedictorian stated in her commencement address, “It  encouraged us all to become more supportive of the school and each other.”

Promote, Promote, Promote

As students enjoy success, these positive results need to be celebrated within the school and the community. As the administrator, it is your responsibility to get the message out in multiple formats. Make use of local media outlets, but more importantly, to reach students, you should embrace social media.  Twitter, Instagram and Facebook are all great avenues to communicate quickly what is being done in your building. Share photos, videos and acknowledge individuals.  

Trusted students should be encouraged to create accounts for student groups.  Be sure to tag these students to increase your audience and support their accounts with retweets. likes, and shares.

Conquer Fear


In order for students to gain ownership, administrators and staff must be willing to let go of the fear of losing control and loosen the reins. Give up some control, be prepared for failures and missteps, and be open to trying new things. Your students, and you, will learn plenty from these experiences.

Give up Some Control

You will need to allow your students actual control. Not just the illusion of control. Let them take the lead in authentic ways, otherwise you will smother their efforts. Students need to know that what they are doing matters and makes a difference.

Allow Students to Fail (Small)

As I listened to our valedictorian and president of our spirit club speak last June, I swelled with pride for our building as I heard her words:

“Of course, our plethora of accomplishments would not be possible without the guidance and assistance of our parents, teachers, coaches, counselors, and office staff. Without you, we wouldn’t have had a safe space to feel like we could do anything.You never held us back. You never placed a glass ceiling above us. You gave us the knowledge to question and create, the courage to try new things, and you told us you believed in us. We were able to take risks, knowing we had a support system if we failed, and if we flourished, we had a whole team to continue on.You kept us well-grounded, but also instilled us with the self-confidence we needed to venture out on our own.”

These words will now serve to guide my philosophy with students in the future. This is exactly the environment we should hope to foster.

Assume Positive Intent

Remember that your students want school to be an enjoyable place as much as you do. The students willing to take on a leadership role are working with positive intent. While you may question some of their plans and ideas, remember that they want to be successful and want things to work out too.  

I remember being terrified of the idea of allowing students to decorate their caps for graduation. What about formality, uniformity and decorum? I worried about how a rogue student might ruin the day.  I finally relented after some strong-willed students presented wonderful reasons why it should be allowed and how a “disaster” could be prevented.  In the end, our students rose to the occasion, creating some wonderful caps, taking ownership of a ceremony intended to celebrate them and setting a positive precedent for the underclassmen.

Find Ways to Involve Kids

Not all of our students are athletes, musicians, or interested in student government. Administrators need to be open to new ideas. In our building, our students create and/or lead organizations like a spirit club, an activities committee, and a service group that plans events for all students to become more involved, to build school spirit, and to give back to the community.  These groups are responsible for a number of events and activities, including:

  • Theme nights for all of our sporting events
  • Pep assembly activities
  • Hallway decorating for holidays
  • Locker decorating contests
  • “Spirit Stick” contest between classes
  • Social media presence for our school
  • Plan and coordinate intramural events
  • Plan and coordinate fundraisers
  • Execute service projects in the building and district
  • Work with our elementary students in mentoring roles

We are also finding other ways to involve students and help them leave their mark on the building. Students read our announcements, serve as guest announcers at sporting events, paint murals in the building and on campus, build peace poles for our building, and even serve on interview committees when hiring coaches and teachers.

Eliminate (some) Obstacles

Our experience as administrators allows us to anticipate obstacles our students will face when implementing new ideas. When working with student leaders, be sure they are aware of possible pitfalls. Encourage students to problem-solve and deal with adversity as much as possible. In some cases, though, administrative intervention may be necessary. You may have to stick your neck out with staff, parents, and community members on occasion and take some risks.

Establish and Foster Traditions

It is a wonderful opportunity for students to establish school traditions and be a part of building something that lasts. Encourage student groups to try new things and develop unique ideas, but be sure to to hold on to traditions that work.  Over the years, this will be a great source of pride for students who helped create or mold those traditions.

Have Fun

Building student ownership of school climate/culture is not only wonderful for your kids, but it can be a tremendous opportunity for a building administrator. Some of my favorite memories as an administrator involve working with our student leaders over the past few years. It has given me a chance to get to know a number of students better and build positive, rewarding relationships with these individuals.

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