Engagement, School Community, Well-being

Young People’s Confidence in School, Community, and the Future: Why It Matters and What We Can Do About It

Public confidence and trust in institutions matter. A recent Statistics Canada report points out that, “Public institutions, such as the health care system, the education system and the federal parliament, play an important role in shaping the lives of Canadians. Institutions often are considered the basic pillars of society so if people begin to lose confidence in them, there may be cause for concern….particularly in a global and increasingly impersonal world”[1]

Governments, the private sector, and think tanks all regularly measure confidence because it serves as a barometer of the social and economic health of a country by providing important information about people’s intentions and future actions that may have an impact on the rest of society. Consumer confidence signals people’s intentions to save or spend and is thus linked to the health of the economy. Citizen confidence in government contributes to democratic participation and social cohesion. And public confidence in education is critical if we want people – both parents and non-parents – to support public schooling through their taxes and loyalty to the public system. In the U.S., declining public confidence in public education has resulted in an exodus to private schools and even further deterioration of the public system.

From research studies, we know that students’ future trust in institutions is significantly shaped by their school experiences, in particular by whether there is an open climate for classroom discussion and how much their school values student participation in school affairs.[2] Similarly, research into young people’s optimism about the future can provide clues about their interest and capacity to make a difference in the world. Young people who believe in and are able to imagine a better future are more willing and have greater capacity to respond to issues such as social and ecological survival.[3] Therefore, if we want to know what kind of society we are likely to have in the future, we need to understand young people’s confidence in their schools, their communities, and their future.

Youth Confidence in Learning and the Future 

Commenting on a recent public opinion poll, Frank Graves of EKOS Research Associates cautioned, “Western societies have long believed in the promise of a better future for the next generations…In recent years though, there has been a growing recognition that the next generation can’t count on this ever-improving quality of life.”[4]

Today’s generation of youth is the first in recent memory that will have lower incomes and less upward mobility than their parents. At the same time, young people are inheriting global scale economic, environmental, and social challenges unlike those of any generation before them.

The Canadian Education Association (CEA) completed a research project that looked at young people’s confidence in their learning environments and their future. With funding from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, CEA collaborated with social planning councils[5] and school boards in five Ontario cities on a community engagement and research initiative that involved young people in a variety of ways.[6]

The Youth Confidence in Learning and the Future initiative engaged over 1,000 Ontario high school students (Grades 9 to 12) who completed an online survey in school. An additional 75 young people participated in facilitated sessions organized by the social planning councils either early in the process to inform the development of the survey or later on to give feedback on the research findings.

The research focused on these dimensions of youth confidence:

  • sense of trust;
  • level of engagement;
  • feelings of empowerment or efficacy;
  • degree of “fit” or connection between in-school learning and lives and learning outside of school;
  • confidence in the future – future orientation, confidence in their personal future, confidence in the future of their community/country, aspirations.

Research highlights: What students told us

Young people’s confidence varies considerably by dimension. As the table below shows, students were most positive with respect to future orientation and aspirations and least positive about the future of their community/country and the “fit” or connection between school and their life/learning outside of school.[7]

Students were most positive with respect to future orientation and aspirations and least positive about the future of their community/country and the “fit” or connection between school and their life/learning outside of school.

Youth are very future-oriented, with high aspirations. Almost all students (95 percent) reported that they intend to graduate from high school, with somewhat fewer (88 percent) indicating that they intend to graduate from college or university. Close to 90 percent of students said they think a lot about their lives, with 84 percent reporting that they have dreams for the future, although a smaller proportion (72 percent) said they know what to do to make those dreams come true.

Young people are far more confident in their personal futures than in the future of their community or country. Only 35 percent of students agreed that “in the next five years, my town or city (or Canada) will be a better place to live” compared with 73 percent who believed that “in the next five years, opportunities will open up in my life” and “I expect to achieve more than my parents did” in terms of career and income. Even in the face of a labour market and an economy that are failing them, young people continue to be optimistic about their personal futures. Some think this means that today’s youth are better equipped to deal with uncertainty than previous generations. Young people are hopeful and hope has transformative powers.[8]


There is a significant disconnect between students’ in-school learning and their lives and learning outside of school. As the above table shows, only 53 percent of students were positive about statements related to “fit”. For example, only 58 percent could see connections between their courses and their lives outside of school, with even fewer (52 percent) reporting that what they do or learn outside of school is relevant to school courses and only 44 percent believing that their teachers are interested in what they are learning or doing outside of school.

Ontario high school students are required to do 40 hours of community service as a requirement for their high school diplomas. Only 57 percent of students found this a useful learning experience, although 71 percent felt that the program makes a useful contribution to the community.

Although moderate overall, students’ level of trust is low with respect to the mainstream media and people in their communities. Only 38 percent of students thought that most of the news in the mainstream media was true. Fewer than half, 48 percent, reported that they trusted “most of the people in my community,” even though 62 percent felt that young people were welcome and respected in their community, and 70 percent said their rights were usually respected. 

With respect to trust in school, 49 percent of students said they had someone to discuss personal problems with in school, while 73 percent reported having at least one adult they could discuss school problems with.

While a low level of trust in the mainstream media can be interpreted as healthy skepticism, a low sense of trust in others may signal that community cohesion and social networks are becoming weak.

While a low level of trust in the mainstream media can be interpreted as healthy skepticism, a low sense of trust in others may signal that community cohesion and social networks are becoming weak.

Students feel empowered to stand up for themselves, but most do not think they can make a difference in their schools and communities. Over three quarters of students said they felt comfortable standing up for themselves both in and outside of school, with almost as many, 70 percent, reporting that they “sometimes stand up for others who are being put down or bullied.” On the other hand, only 51 percent said they had opportunities to make their school a better place and even fewer, 47 percent, believed they had opportunities to make their community a better place. Between a quarter to a third of students responded that they were “uncertain” about some of these questions, suggesting that they may not know about opportunities that exist to improve their schools and communities.

Students are more positive about their engagement in school (67 percent) than in their community (57 percent), although neither is high. Over 70 percent of students said they were interested in most of the courses they are taking in school, and 72 percent reported that, in their school, students were encouraged to discuss and question things. However, only 45 percent said they often learn something so interesting that they can’t stop thinking about it. This is consistent with CEA’s research initiative, What did you do in school today?, which found that only 43 percent of students were intellectually engaged, despite much higher levels of social and academic engagement.[9] 

With respect to community engagement, only 51 percent of students reported that there were enough interesting things for young people to do in their community; a somewhat higher proportion, 55 percent, said they participated in at least one program or activity. Two-thirds of students indicated that they would vote in elections when they were old enough. Interestingly, while not a particularly strong indicator of engagement, the response to this question was more positive than any of the others related to engagement, suggesting again that lack of opportunities or knowledge of opportunities may be an obstacle for young people’s community participation.

How to Strengthen Young People’s Confidence and Prospects

In May 2012, CEA and the Hamilton Social Planning and Research Council sponsored a community forum and youth consultation on Searching for Certainty in Uncertain Times: Youth Confidence in School, Community and the Future. Close to 100 people, about a quarter of them youth, participated to discuss the research findings. Three panelists were asked to suggest some strategies for improving youth confidence.

Using the example of the Quebec students’ strike, Ron Canuel, the CEO of CEA, observed, “youth are beginning to recognize that if they take a stand, it will make a difference.” He went on to say that the two most important things that need to happen to strengthen engagement in school are introducing and allowing more use of technology in the classroom and greater flexibility in schools (e.g. later starting times for high school students, more flexible timetabling, and year round schooling). Such changes are now being piloted in some jurisdictions in Canada. The B.C. government, for example, is looking at year round schooling, a strategy that would mitigate against “summer learning loss” that affects many vulnerable students. These recommendations reflect what students themselves told us through the survey and informal sessions.

Shadya Yasin, coordinator of the York Youth Coalition in Toronto, emphasized the importance of building trust with both students and their parents, so that students do not feel “pushed out”. Recognizing that many administrators seem to be afraid of community organizations, Shadya argued that the school cannot exist without the community, making reference to the Somali saying, “You cannot wash your face with one finger.” Greater involvement of community agencies in the work of the school and the lives of students is needed to address the disconnect between students’ learning and their lives outside of school. Shadya argued that schools should not be providing mental health and social work services; instead, they should make better use of the services that exist in the community so they can focus on their central goals – teaching and learning.

“Connect schools deeply to their local and broader community” is one of the four core ways to improve high school outcomes that Ben Levin discusses in his 2012 book, More High School Graduates: How Schools Can Save Students From Dropping Out (see review on page 45). Included in this useful and highly accessible book are strategies for breaking down barriers and handling conflict with communities, as well as examples and concrete ideas for “Programming in and With Communities”:

Bring interesting adults into the school in various capacities such as mentors, role models;

Recruit adults who can share information about themselves, their community and their careers with students;

Work with community groups to provide important learning settings for students which can, in the future, open up career opportunities;

Enlist the help of community groups that can enrich school programs by providing opportunities that schools cannot, such as foreign languages, art or sports from a particular ethnic community.[10]

Marvyn Novick, the third panelist, is a policy consultant for Poverty-Free Ontario and former professor at Ryerson University. He noted that young people seem to have more confidence in themselves than in “us” – the community of adults who control their learning environments and the economy. This may be because we have placed today’s generation of young people in high levels of debt, precarious employment, under-employment, and declining public services. Marvyn contrasted this situation with the post-war period when people felt very close to each other and governments invested in collective initiatives – such as affordable housing, family allowances, a good job for everyone – to make sure that young people had a decent future. 

To improve young people’s confidence in the future of their communities and their country, he argued, we need to shift the culture in schools and make sure that students understand how important these collective initiatives are. Ultimately, schools are public places where young people can learn that there is another kind of future. For example, instead of teaching about and preparing students for entrepreneurship, which provides jobs for only 15 percent of the population, why not teach students about unionship which contributes to the kind of good jobs that can support a family? Confidence grows with collective solidarity. Young people, schools and communities need to connect with each other and begin to say: there is another kind of future.


The results of this survey tell a good-news, bad-news story. While young people approach adulthood with a confidence in their own ability to succeed – a critical ingredient for success – they appear to have waning faith in social institutions or their ability to influence them. The resulting disconnect between personal and collective futures threatens to turn the optimistic exuberance of youth into a troubling cynicism about the society they will inherit. These results are a call for sustained government investments in ensuring decent jobs, as well as greater empowerment and inclusion of young people in the schools, communities, and social institutions that provide the backbone for democratic, civil society.

The concept paper on which this initiative is based can be found at http://www.cea-ace.ca/publication/youth-confidence-learning-and-future-concept-paper

EN BREF – L’Association canadienne d’éducation (ACE) vient de terminer un projet de recherche évaluant la confiance dont font preuve les jeunes à l’égard de leur environnement d’apprentissage et de leur avenir. Nous savons que l’expérience scolaire des jeunes, en particulier l’ouverture manifestée lors des discussions en classe et la participation des élèves à la vie scolaire, influe considérablement sur la confiance qu’ils accorderont plus tard aux institutions. La recherche portant sur l’optimisme des jeunes face à l’avenir peut nous éclairer sur leur volonté et leur capacité de changer le monde. L’enquête a dévoilé des résultats à la fois positifs et négatifs. Bien que les jeunes évoluent vers la vie adulte avec assurance quant à leur propre capacité de réussir – un ingrédient critique du succès – ceux-ci font moins confiance aux institutions sociales et doutent de leur capacité à les influencer. Les élèves se disaient plus positifs à l’égard des orientations futures et des aspirations, mais plus négatifs en ce qui concerne l’avenir de leur collectivité ou pays et l’intégration des apprentissages à l’école et à la maison.

[1] Grant Schellenberg, “The Perceptions of Canadians: Belonging, Confidence and Trust,” Canadian Social Trends (Winter 2004): Statistics Canada.


[2] J. Torney-Purta, W. K. Richardson, and C. H. Barber, Trust in Government-Related Institutions and Civic Engagement among Adolescents: Analysis of Five Countries from the IEA Civic Education Study. CIRCLE Working Paper 17 (The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement: August 2004).       

[3] Carmen Stewart, “Re-Imagining Your Neighbourhood: A Model of Futures Education in Youth Futures. Comparative Research and Transformative Visions, eds. J. Gidley and S. Inayatullah (Westport Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002).

[4] “Frank Graves Poll: The Beginning of the End of Progress”. IPolitics Insight, March 9, 2012.

Frank Graves poll: The beginning of the end of progress

[5] Social planning councils are non-profit organizations across Canada working on a range of community development, community building and social justice issues.

[6] Hamilton, Milton, Peterborough, Sudbury, and Toronto

[7] The table does not show how students answered individual questions.

[8] R. Bibby, S. Russell, and R. Rolheiser, The Emerging Millennials: How Canada’s Newest Generation Is Responding to Challenge and Change (Project Canada Books, 2009). 

[9] J. D. Willms, S. Friesen, and P. Milton. 2009. What did you do in school today? Transforming Classrooms Through Social, Academic and Intellectual Engagement (Toronto: CEA, 2009).


[10] Ben Levin, More High School Graduates: How Schools Can Save Students from Dropping Out (Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin, 2012).

Meet the Expert(s)

Christa Freiler

Christa Freiler is the former Director of Research and Strategic Initiatives for the Canadian Education Association. 

Christa Freiler est l’ancienne directrice de la recherche et des initiatives stratégiques de l’Association canadienned’éducation.

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