Taking part in a project, such as running a club or renovating a garden, can prevent pupils becoming disengaged from education, research suggests.
The Demos study indicated working on a pupil-led "co-production" with teachers and school staff improved behaviour, confidence and social skills.
The think tank set up projects in four schools in England over the 2013-14 and 2014-15 academic years.
A total of 64 Key Stage 3 pupils (11- to 14-year-olds) worked with 15 staff.
The projects were:
In a survey carried out after the completion of the project, 45% of pupils saw an improvement in behaviour and there was an 11% drop in the number of students reporting they were frequently getting into trouble at school.
Many staff and students also said their relationships had improved, because the traditional teacher-student model had been redefined when working together in a more relaxed and informal way.
"[It's helped with] most things - like my social skills, like interacting with other people. I think I've got better with my anger, and like helping out with people."
"I have more confidence talking to people and bringing my ideas out. If I want to say something, I'll just say it now. [It's helped me] to speak to other people… teachers. Because you speak differently with friends to how you do with teachers."
"What I like is not just getting out of lessons - you come and discuss about how to make changes. Getting to choose what you want to change in school and why."
Ian Wybron, author of the report, Pupil Power, said: "Disengagement from learning is a widespread and persistent problem in education, wasting the potential of learners, closing doors to good jobs, and ultimately harming the wider economy.
"Co-production offers a new way of approaching the problem - empowering disengaged students to take charge over their learning and to run their own projects, giving them new reasons to want to be in school.
"Our experience has shown how challenging this process can be, but also its enormous potential to encourage pupils whose experience in education might previously have been defined by their disengagement to be seen in a new light, grow in confidence, and make positive contributions to their school community. "
The Demos report called the study a "small-scale pathfinder", adding research with a bigger sample of schools would build a "clearer picture" of the positive impacts seen in its research.