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.
…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?
We’re in the business of growth as educators. But the act of actually setting tangible goals can be intimidating for us all. Why not start by investigating with your class what it means to set goals to get the dialogue going?
Resource #1: What’s Stopping You From Achieving Your Goals by Soul Pancake
My senior year of high school, I decided to take AP Calculus. I was taking some other advanced classes as well, and it wasn’t long before my math grade started to lag. Anxious about upcoming college applications and the desire for nothing to mar my GPA, I approached my Calc teacher, Bob Burns, to tell him I should probably drop his class. It was a small school, and between the fact that he had taught several of my previous classes, and that he had coached for a couple of my teams, we had a established a solid relationship.
Given that background, I expected that he’d respond to my concerns with reassurance, telling me I shouldn’t do anything to jeopardize my grade and supporting my decision to drop his class.
I was, um, wrong.
Instead, Mr. Burns declared that if I chose to drop his class that day, I would be setting myself up to drop every other difficult and important thing that arose in my life.
Needless to say, I stayed. That was the single most precious skill I gained from his course that year: learning to stay even when the stakes are high.
As a tribute to Mr. Burns, I’d like to list other pivotal moments since then when I stayed where I might otherwise have very easily left had it not been for his bold words that day.
When I was so homesick my first month of college that I thought there was no way I could live so far from home, I stayed. And earned a teaching degree from a wonderful school.
When I was sure there was no way I could continue waking up at 4 am for a custodial shift, I stayed. And was able to navigate the world of college financing.
When I felt I simply could not handle my commute and daily goodbyes to my baby girl as I left to teach, I stayed (until bedrest and a couple more babies prompted my current sabbatical). And gained irreplaceable experiences, perspectives, and professional development that would inform all facets of my life, including my current blogging and child-rearing.
When I felt I would surely run out of ideas and should give up blogging, I stayed. And have discovered a remarkable PLN that has continued to push my thinking as a teacher.
Mr. Burns may not have caused all these events to unfold exactly as they have. But I know that without his bold lesson in persistence, I would have been much less likely to stick around for the hardest, but ultimately, most rewarding aspects of my life. And that is certainly thanks to a teacher.
The lack of a school-bell telling me where to be at all times is probably my Achilles heel of stay-at-home parenthood. So a couple mornings ago — having gotten sidetracked by my newest flea-bitten idea for making our small space function more efficiently — by the time I got showered and ready for the day, my preschooler had stealthily pilfered the refrigerator and my one year old had had a fabulous time with a contraband stick of gum.
What’s more, having had a late bedtime the night before, my three year-old was also clearly ready for an early nap — evidenced by the fact when I asked him if he was ready to choose his clothes to go buy groceries, he dissolved into melt-down mode because he wanted a snack first. To top it off, the entire episode devolved to him irrationally stomping on his baby brother’s hands.
Now, if I were to focus on a strictly Love and Logic approach here, I might have told my 3 year year-old something like this: “Son, what sad choices to refuse to wear your clothes and to hurt your brother! I’m going to do something about this. We’ll talk later.”
Limitation #1: When we mistakenly assume that this is just about a poor choice. Such a response may help to temporarily and even effectively diffuse the situation, but it ultimately tends to puts the blame squarely on his shoulders when, in fact, there were factors so far beyond his control at work here (late bedtime, off-schedule morning, etc) that he was now operating in fight/flight mode.
Enter the discussion on “stress behavior.”
I’m fascinated by the concept of misbehavior vs stress behavior in Stuart Shanker’s Self-Reg. He writes:
“The concept of misbehavior is fundamentally tied to those of volition, choice, and awareness. It assumes that the child willingly chose to act the way he did. He could have acted differently, was even aware that he should have acted differently. But stress behavior is physiologically based. When this happens, the child is not deliberately choosing his actions or aware in a rational way of what he’s doing…because his nervous system, triggered by a sense of threat, shifts to fight or flight. There are some simple ways to gauge when we’re dealing with misbehavior. Ask the child why he did such and such, and if he answers with any explanation — no matter what his rationale — there’s a pretty good chance he knew what he was doing. Or ask him to tell you with a straight face that he didn’t know that what he was doing was wrong. Stress behavior also reveals itself quickly. If you see confusion, fear, anger, or deep distress in that face, if your child averts his eyes or finds it hard to even just look at you, those are often signs of hyperarousal and of stress behavior.”
Older students aren’t going to have the same self-regulatory issues as the little ones, but we should still be on the look-out for when they arise, and cultivate their ability to self-regulate in the meantime.
Limitation #2: When we mistakenly assume that this is just about defiance. This is closely linked with the first. For our discussion on this limitation, we’ll take a look at this “nobody loses” approach on the Love & Logic blog below:
First, a disclaimer. Maybe Jessie was causing serious trouble and disturbing Brittany by moving her chair to work with her. If that’s the case, then I think this is an absolutely fitting Love & Logic response. However, if Jessie was simply trying to solve her problem of needing help by seeking it from a peer (as per the Love & Logic rule that we can do anything to solve our problems as long as it does not cause a problem for you or anyone else), it begs the question of whether the Love & Logic response here was necessary to begin with.
If our goal is control, then we will reap defiance in abundance.
I appreciate another passage from Self-Reg here:
“As parents [and teachers] it’s natural to assume that when our child’s behavior or our reactions feel “out of control,” then control is what’s missing. But to focus on control is also to shut down opportunity: end of discussion, end of a potentially constructive interaction, end of a teachable moment of lasting value. Self-Reg instantly opens the moment to opportunity. That begins with the simple act of asking, “Why now?””
And if the teacher in this hypothetical focuses more on control than on Jessie’s need for help, then an opportunity is missed indeed.
Naturally, angry, rude, and disrespectful outbursts are never acceptable, and require correction. But I wonder if we might find ourselves doing less correcting if we instead adopt what’s found in Brene Brown’s “Engaged Feedback Checklist” (esp #1, 2, and 7 for our context here):
Failure to recognize these limitations — to treat all poor behavior as deliberate and disrespectful decisions — can ultimately damage relationships with those who most need our help.
You get the journey and you get the stress. At the end, you’re a different person. But both elements are part of the deal.
There are plenty of journeys that are stress-free. They take you where you expect, with little in the way of surprise or disappointment.”
I sit here at my computer and nod and think, “Preach the growth-mindset goodness!” But when it’s your child tearing up because that math problem doesn’t make sense (yet), how in the world do we help them appreciate that the stress of a confusing math problem can actually be positive because it means she’s working toward growth as a mathematician? That that discomfort in learning is actually a good sign?
I’m learning so much about stress through Dr. Stuart Shanker’s book, Self-Reg. Something that I’m learning to stop doing is responding with exasperation in such moments. Just because we’ve extolled the virtues of a growth-mindset and positive stress in the past does not mean that the distressed child before us is currently able to recall such principles at that moment.
I’ve also learned that simply telling the child to take a few deep breaths may not be at all productive either. What’s most important is teaching them to regulate their own emotions. As Shanker states:
“[when] the child is so overwrought or angry that nothing that you say or do seems to help…this happens not because a child’s “braking mechanism” is defective and certainly not because she isn’t “trying hard enough” but because she is so aroused that she can’t register what she or we are saying or doing.”
So in that moment, instead of trying to remind the child of the joys of the growth and the learning, we need to help her “focus on the three R’s of emotional regulation: Recognize. Reduce. Restore. Recognize the signs of escalating stress. Reduce the stress. Restore energy.”
I know I can sometimes take for granted my grown-up ability to regulate stress. This means I need to do a better job of viewing practices and principles through the lens of developmental context.
The point is, yes, teach growth mindset and model the virtues of discomfort for progress. But also teach kids to recognize when their stress levels have become excessive, and to discover personal coping mechanisms to help restore them to healthy energy levels.
Only then will our young learners be able to choose and embrace journeys of stress and change, rather than only choosing the risk-free routes.
Edutopia recently shared Sal Khan’s story and vision in establishing Khan Academy. What stands out most to me was his goal for Khan Academy to help “Bring [us] closer to this model of true personalization where every student is on their own learning path and feels fully engaged.”
Khan Academy can indeed be such a tool for this personalization goal. But it certainly cannot and does not stand alone in such a lofty pursuit. Fortunately for us all, teachers are globally and daily sharing their aha moments and best practices. Here are additional ideas, largely thanks to my PLN’s incredible willingness to share their learning journeys, for helping students get on “their own learning path.”
1. Allow them to plan their day. As teachers Taryn Bond-Clegg and Aviva Dunsiger have illustrated, this can be done with older and younger students:
2. Do whatever it takes to find out how they really feel. I believe it’s mainly fear that holds us back from uncovering student voice — because what if they say they hate our subjects? What if it invites conflict? What if it takes too much time?
Indeed, when I read posts from Pernille Ripp like her recent “When Reading is Trash or Magic” that shares how she seeks for students’ honest feedback, I wonder how on earth I would respond to some of their bold answers. However, the truth that she and others who do the same have taught me is this:
Only when we uncover students’ true feelings can we help them develop shifts in mindset.
Only when they recognize that they can express what they truly feel — without fear of teacher disapproval or backlash — will they be willing to let their guard down enough to give things a shot.
And only when they see that we are willing to work with them wherever they are will they be able to embark on their own learning path.
3. Help them break down required learning outcomes to tackle them on their terms. Again, Taryn Bond-Clegg shares a fabulous example of this in her post above. Rather than just presenting students with a list of objectives, she helps them break things down into a gradual increase of independence. I have yet to find a better way to negotiate the existence of required learning outcomes with student ownership over their learning.
4. Explicitly teach AND model the growth mindset. And it’s not enough to settle on simple platitudes of, “you can do anything if you just try.” It takes being authentic and vulnerable with them. As Jo Boaler recently shared in season 3 episode 1 of #IMOOC (32:10):
“One of the problems kids have is they look at their math teacher and they think, ‘Oh, that’s what being a math person is; you know everything, you never make mistakes, you’re totally sure of everything.’ That’s a terrible image to give kids. So one of the reasons teachers don’t try some of those more open creative tasks is because they don’t know what will happen. They don’t know what kids are going to do.”
Katie Martin adds, “[We must] have conversations with kids about making mistakes — and not just a fake make-mistake — but when you’re actually taking a risk, where you have the possibility of something not working out, [that’s] really powerful.”
5. Explicitly teach AND model metacognition. Visible thinking routines are especially useful on this front because it brings that thinking to the surface. I loved having the opportunity to work with teachers at my old school last year during which we applied visible thinking routinesto bring their thoughts on inquiry to the whiteboard for group dissection. Students must learn their processes to bring their thinking to the surface in order to more fully take the reins over their learning.
6. Provide choice in how they organize their thinking. Melanie Meehan recently shared an excellent example of how we sometimes get caught in the pitfall of believing all the students need to use the same graphic organizer to gather their thoughts. Here’s her example of several writing graphic organizers:
7. Provide choice in how they express/assess their thinking. Seesaw, notebooks, vlogs, portfolios, word clouds, Storybird, Prezi, sketchnotes… the list goes on and on. The point is that we need to get out of the mindset that all the students need to have the same presentation in order for it to be valid.
8. Create a rich and diverse culture of reading. I loved watching Colby Sharp’s vlog touring his classroom library — quite aside from the sheer volume, I was impressed at his clear efforts to reach all his students’ reading needs. Obviously, this culture goes beyond just the presence of books — my short list for additional inspiration includes Nerdy Book Club, Pernille Ripp’s blog, and LibraryGirl.
9. Give them autonomy over self-regulatory basics. This includes bathroom use and snacks. I wrote some time ago about why and how we need to abolish “Can I Go to the Bathroom?” and it’s just as relevant as ever now. I also appreciated Aviva Dunsiger’s classroom tour when she showed where and why she has a designated spot for her kindergartners to “eat when they feel hungry.” After all, how can we expect them to be on their own learning path if they are distracted by waiting to take care of their personal basic needs?
10. Prioritize the pursuit ofmeaning. Time and time again, through my own practice and through the many wonderful teachers in my PLN, meaning is the way we get out of “the game of school.” If it doesn’t personally matter to them, nothing we do will matter in the longterm. See my story of “Digging Deeper in a Poetry Unit” on Edutopia for a personal example.
I look forward to continuing to learn and discover ways we can truly help our students own and personalize their learning. Thank you to all the teachers out there who have and continue to share their learning journeys!
When we are stressed out by our kids’ busy-ness, how do we respond?
My youngest has recently reached an apex of busy-ness I never thought possible from such a small person. The term “relentless” is probably his most readily identified descriptor.
And for the sake of maintaining my sanity, I have definitely been in the camp of trying to keep my own children busy long enough to let me hear my own thoughts from time to time.
With our students, it can become a strong temptation to do something similar — particularly when we are trying to work with small groups.
Norah Colvin’s recent post had me thinking more about this notion. She writes:
“What about a busy toddler? Toddlers are some of the busiest people I know. And they are generally quite joyous in their busyness, demonstrating the true meaning of being in the present moment. For me, being busy is a joy when the activities are of my choice and for my purposes. I have no need to find things to keep me busy. There is more I wish to do than I will ever have time to complete. I resent tasks that keep me busy and away from what I’d rather be doing.”
No matter how much our kids grow, we can help them uncover the busy-ness that will spark that joy within. But not when it’s overly contrived and designed around our agenda — it seems that for whatever reason, even the most engaging endeavors become less so when kids sense there’s an end-game for distraction for grown-ups’ benefit.
For our classrooms full of vastly different, busy students, this means to providing authentic choice. It means teaching them to regulate their own time and interests. It means facilitating the very best kinds of busy.
And for my house that seems to be bursting at the seams with a busy 1 year-old, it means finding ways to just let go and enjoy this crazy ride together.