Student Agency: 5 Steps for Beginners

As student agency gains greater momentum (it’s now a core portion of the International Baccalaureate PYP program), more and more teachers are joining the discussion. Many start on the fringes, wondering…

would achievement go up if we helped students know, understand, and own the learning objectives? 

would we have fewer classroom management problems if we started to give students more choices about their learning? 

These are fabulous springboard questions, but they are just the beginning. True student agency is not actually about getting students to do what we want; it’s about helping them learn to identify what they want for themselves, to expand their view beyond this current task to a sense of self-driven purpose that will last much longer.

It’s a shift from teachers as the experts and controllers of learning in the room, to teachers as consultants and facilitators of student learning, helping students to make connections with peers, outside experts, and the community.

It’s a shift from students as passive recipients, waiting for the knowledge someone else has planned for them that day, to students as active agents, anticipating and even planning what should come next alongside their teachers.

These are massive shifts that take a great deal of time and patience with ourselves. So what are beginning steps we might take?

1. Help parents understand what we mean by agency and ownership over learning. At first, there may be confusion and reservations. But parents might be surprised to find out just much they might already be applying agency at home. Help them recognize that it might look like…

…fostering independence (Let Grow is a great resource illustrating ways many parents are working toward healthy, independent childhoods)

letting kids in on the secret of their own development.

building resilience skills.

…building time-management skills, including discussing balance.

…listening to kids’ voices even when we feel frustrated. (great example from Aviva Dunsinger, an early childhood teacher).

2. Work to cultivate self-regulation and other social-emotional practices. This goes beyond the occasional lesson discussing metacognition. It’s work that begins with ourselves, then carrying over to authentic modeling and discussions with our students. This might come through teaching students to identify their own feelings and process stress. Or it might happen through teaching them to take ownership over resources at their disposal.  All of this is important for agency because it gives them strategies for self-direction.

3. Get to the root of defiant behavior, and find new strategies to address it.   “Life After Clip Charts” series gives excellent strategies that can replace those clip charts and stickers. They aren’t as neat or pretty, but they are important because if our students are constantly receiving the message that they need rewards from grown-ups in order to make good choices, they are less likely to believe that they can be trusted with their own learning life.

4. Invite student voice. Let students in on the secret of all that curricula and classroom set-up, etc. Bring all the “secret teacher business” stuff into view of the kids and asking them, how can we make it better? Invite them to teach workshops from time to time (great getting-started post here from Mindy Slaughter).

5. Work on “getting the mix right” between guidance and student-directed inquiry. Kath Murdoch (an inquiry-based teacher you should follow right way if you don’t already as part of this list) recently wrote on getting this mix right. There’s sometimes a strange notion that promoting agency means we teachers will be kicking our feet up on the desk. But the truth is, a lot of work goes into providing timely guidance. As Kath writes,

“Far from being an arms-length facilitator ‘on the side’, the inquiry teacher is continually weighing up if, when and how to ‘step in’. They actively work beside the learner observing, listening, questioning, prompting, suggesting, explaining, demonstrating, refining or redirecting as required. This is guidance. When we position students as inquirers, we offer them opportunities to make decisions about their learning every day.”

This is an important step in promoting student agency because it provides them with the support they need, even as we express confidence in their decision-making.

Learning to honor our students’ agency takes time, but it is an investment that is absolutely worth every effort.

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“A” is For Captain America: Following Their Lead for Learning

Despite my commitment to follow my kids’ lead when it comes to their natural developmental learning pace, I still find myself worrying at times. What if they never indicate readiness? What if I miss the signs? What if I wait too long before possible interventions might be needed?

Once again, it has proven to be unnecessary worry. Over the last few months, my 4 year-old has started to indicate interest in identifying letters. This began with, “A is for Captain America!” He began identifying “A’s” everywhere, connecting both to the shape of the letter and its sound.

When he started to add others, like “B is for Black Widow,” I decided to turn to our environment help build this growing interest. We put some vinyl sticker letters to use, reinforcing both superheros and household objects that begin with each letter. How many can you name?

While this was a simple exercise, we’re already seeing him make even more connections beyond the home environment. It stands as a reminder to me that building early literacy does not need to be very complicated. Following the child’s lead is more powerful than we might think.

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“Just Trust Me” #TeacherMom

You know, for a person who as written about trust, autonomy, and ownership as often as I have, you think I’d be pretty dang comfortable with it. The truth is, it takes a many shaky, conscious decisions every day, every hour, to choose whether we’ll walk that uncomfortable path.

Will I let the 3 year-old carry his full cup of milk to the table even though I know odds are high that we’ll need a mop? Will I trust that my 7 year-old is getting something out of that chapter book she excitedly chose at the library, even though I know it’s a tad beyond her independent level? Will I permit the 1 year-old to help me unload the dishwasher even though he occasionally gets over-excited and spikes the plates on the floor?

It’s more than setting aside our own agenda and worries about mess and time. It’s showing our kids that we genuinely trust their growing abilities.

This opportunity to test my commitment to these principles arose again earlier this week on an unseasonably warm day when my kids wanted to play outside–all of them. My 7 year-old and I went back and forth for a while about whether she would be able to watch the 1 year-old at all times. As I continued to hem and haw, she pulled out the line, “Mom, just trust me?” As I looked into her earnest eyes, I knew that she would take the responsibility seriously.

And she did. When they came back home, cheeks were flushed with joy and success.

It’s never an easy decision to trust our kids–especially because sometimes, they truly are not yet ready for certain responsibilities. But we need to be careful that when these decisions arise, we do not choose on a basis of fear. As my friend Aviva Dunsinger recently wrote,

Is every safety concern we have actually a big problem, or would some deep breaths and a little more watching and listening time change our views? I wonder how frequently our fears prevent opportunities for children, and if it’s time to make some changes.”

Though I don’t know that I will ever become completely comfortable with choosing trust, I do know it will increase my kids’ trust in themselves.

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What Child Autonomy Is Not #TeacherMom

When kids feel constantly acted upon, with little understanding of what’s coming next in their lives, we can expect problematic behavior. This is what autonomy is all about. It’s why I have so deeply appreciated learning about the philosophy of Self-Reg. It’s why I write and tweet so frequently about #StudentVoice and #StudentChoice. And its why I’m always searching for ways I can better help my kids take the wheel in directing their lives.

Most recently, I decided to make little labeled picture magnets to help my 3 year-old organize and understand the flow of his days. It’s still unfolding, but I’m working on labeling or grouping the pictures so he can see which are activities he can choose from (pic below), which are activities that I will let him know are happening that day (library, local recreation center), and which are daily routines (meals, storytime, etc).

In addition building his functional concept of time (including the ability to tell what comes “after” or “before),” it’s already building his comprehension of his personal autonomy over how he can spend his time. He can more clearly see the choices within his reach, and he is learning to understand where those choices fall among the non-negotiable pursuits of each day.

This exercise in building autonomy is precious. It is laying a foundation for better self-awareness and self-determination.

However, almost similar to the way that discussing power is sometimes frowned upon, the concept of honoring and building kids’ autonomy is often misunderstood. So I’ve been thinking lately about what it is not. Autonomy is not

letting kids do whatever they want. As described in the above daily picture magnets, there are activities that are non-negotiable (meals, brushing teeth, etc). But even within those non-negotiables, we spend considerable time discussing the why behind them. And we also allow kids to feel the consequences of their choices without rescuing them every time to better help them understand their importance.

never forcing them. Sometimes, kids do need a nudge for their own safety and development. However, we prioritize intrinsic motivation and “letting them in on the secret” of their development. This helps them to self-regulate their needs so they are not reliant on others for treats, stickers, praise, or compulsion in order to make the very choices that will most benefit their lives.

the absence of hard concepts that kids might avoid, such as work ethic. Instead, we help kids cultivate a broader view of who they are and who they want to become, allowing that strong sense of identity to drive themselves through hard things.

What obstacles have you encountered in advocating for kids’ autonomy? What benefits have you seen in honoring their autonomy?

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Noticing What Kids Can Do #TeacherMom

As I scanned the library cart of shiny new books, I noticed it: a brand new copy of “Leo the Late Bloomer” by Robert Kraus. With a wave of childhood nostalgia, I quickly added it to our bag, relishing the idea of sharing it with my kids for the first time.

My daughter picked it out for us to read over breakfast. But when I finished, that warm sentimental feeling I expected was no where to be found.

For those for whom it’s been a while since reading about Leo, here’s the gist of the story. Leo can’t read, write, draw, or eat neatly. His dad worries there’s something wrong with him and watches him closely for a while until mom convinces him to be patient. Then, when dad stops watching and some time passes, Leo blooms — suddenly reading, writing, drawing, and eating neatly. And that’s when Leo finally smiles, too (he’d had a morose frown throughout the rest of the story).

My daughter and I talked it over for a bit.

“…It’s like the author is saying that Leo couldn’t be happy until he could do everything the other kids could do.”

“…It seems like you go from not doing anything to suddenly being able to do everything.”

“…It makes it sound like the only  important things are reading, writing, drawing, and eating neatly.”

Then we started talking about other things kids can do that are really important, too. After throwing out a few ideas, we decided to write it down in a list. Here’s what we came up with:

I like her list. To me, these aren’t “consolation prizes” for not being able to read, write, draw, or eat neatly yet. It’s just a wider lens for recognizing what it means to grow up and finding ways to be proud of that growth.

I have a few more conclusions of my own to add:

  • It’s not that parents should just stop hovering in order to give kids space to grow; it’s that they should help create a joyous environment for learning and growth and then let kids take it from there.
  • It’s not where you are on a trajectory of growth; it’s that you’re on a trajectory of growth — and there are milestones worth celebrating all along that trajectory.
  • See this timely picture quote from George Couros’ latest blog post that sums up my last conclusion:
via George Couros

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5 Reasons To Prioritize Relationships Over Content

It is the relationships that separates schools, not the content.” 

What makes the above statement from George Couros true? What makes the quality of relationships within a school so defining?

1. Content is available everywhere: Khan Academy, Google, tutoring software. Our secret weapon as teachers is our rapport and responsiveness to students’ needs. As such, we should challenge anything that seeks to twist our role from responsive guides to automated deliverers (we must remain agents that purposely wield the textbooks, tech, etc. to meet students needs — and not become pawns being acted upon by such resources).

2.Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” If you have somehow missed the phenomenally inspiring video from Rita Pierson, you’ve got to check it out. Our students will remember the way they were treated in our classrooms for far longer than any clever science lesson or math worksheet. While 180 days may seem long, if you do the math of an average class of 25-30 students, that only gives us 6-7 days per student to prove to them that they matter and belong in our classrooms.

3. It improves classroom management, which in turn increases time for learning. Edutopia recently shared an article based on 700 teacher responses on “5 Principles of Outstanding Classroom Management.” Guess what was on that list of top 5? Yep, building relationships. And when those relationships are secure, when they know they are seen and heard and belong, they are more willing to trust us as we guide them toward their learning.

4. It improves our modeling efforts. If we want our students to see themselves as readers, as writers, and mathematicians, as scientists, we need to model what exactly that looks like. As Lucy Calkins writes in her 10 Essentials of Reading Instruction, “Learners need teachers who demonstrate what it means to live richly literate lives, wearing a love of reading on their sleeves. Teachers need professional development and a culture of collaborative practice to develop their abilities to teach.” Such modeling is only successful if students have a desire to exemplify what we demonstrate, and that only comes through strong relationships.

5. It creates an atmosphere of greater authenticity. Especially for our students who struggle against “the game of school,” changing the rules by focusing on people first is powerful. Our students start to learn to trust that they can truly show up for the learning each day, because they will be seen and valued.

What are reasons you have found to justify the time required for prioritizing relationships?

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Choosing Courage Over Fear

It’s now been over three years since I’ve been in the classroom. Three years. And while I miss being in the classroom, I can honestly say that thanks to the many incredible teachers in my PLN, not a day has passed that I haven’t learned more about how to return to the classroom a better teacher.

A powerful example came recently when I read this thought-provoking post from my friend Abe (@Arbay38). One of his comments perfectly articulated one of my fears of shifting toward more student voice, choice and ownership:


The rest of his post greatly assuaged this fear, but I’ve continued to reflect on this question over the past couple of weeks. But then, he shared something else on Twitter — something so profound, that I think I can finally put this fear completely to rest:


This child has reminded me once and for all that the bottom line is doing what’s best for kids. Withholding opportunities for autonomy now for fear of future constraints is like refusing to build the ship for fear of future rough waters.

Isn’t the possibility that they may not experience this kind of autonomy in future classrooms all the more reason to help them cultivate it now? To help them reflect now why it matters, and how they’ll respond to its absence in the future?

Our students deserve the very best we can offer right now. And as we regularly ask them to choose courage over fear through risk-taking and the growth mindset, we can be the first to model that back: choosing courage over fear.

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