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Five Ways You Can Cultivate Agency in Your Child

Kaitlyn MacDonald

Agency is the ability of people to express their own individual power, through thoughts or actions. It is the power that allows people to think for themselves and be the ones in charge of shaping their experiences. -Roshan Thiran and Eva Christodoulou, Why We Need to Allow Children to Be Children

Three students, elementary, middle and high school smiling outside.

The end result of a Sparhawk education is to graduate students who are autonomous, responsible learners who are ready to make a positive impact in their community and the world at large. Time and again over my tenure at Sparhawk, I have had the pleasure of seeing our students leave Sparhawk and actualize their leadership, critical and creative thinking, and encompass the core tenet of our mission: the inherent enthusiasm for learning. 

These Sparhawk graduates were raised in an environment where, from an early age, they were given the opportunity to have agency within their school experience.  From ‘choice time’ in Woodsview to the responsibility of organizing Fall Festival and May Day at the Lower Campus; from individual design challenges in the Middle School to Student Advisory Board and the organizing of extra-curriculars in the Upper School, Sparhawk students understand that their voice is important and that they can work with our staff to cultivate the community and the educational experience that works best for them. 

Renowned psychologist Erik Erikson wrote that the second stage of adolescent development is a time when children are faced with “the conflict between autonomy, shame, and doubt.” He goes on to write: “Children that fail to develop autonomy are likely to remain dependent on adults for a protracted period of time, to the detriment of their development, or be overly influenced by peers.” The seeds of self-doubt are planted at an early age, so how can parents, assist in building agency in their children? 

  • Give your child meaningful, safe choices from which to choose. This works especially well with younger children, but can be reassuring for older children, as well. In a world where there are countless options, you can help your child feel both agency and structure by helping organize the choices before them. 
  • Help your child learn from mistakes. It can at times, feel better to clear the path of obstacles for our children, but ‘failing safely’ and learning from our mistakes is such an important tool for our children to develop, especially when followed by process-oriented conversations where they can discuss their frustration, sadness, and find their way towards new opportunities. “The National Quality Standard (NQS) Professional Learning Programme from Australia recommends that in order to develop agency, a good way is to provide children with opportunities to develop their confidence in exploring, asking questions, offering ideas, and also learning from mistakes.”  

  • Allow your children the opportunity to tackle real-life tasks. The experience of being responsible for something is of great importance. A young child can help with the cooking using real tools (with proper supervision), a middle school student could be responsible for pet care, a high schooler could manage the family’s calendar of weekly events. Gaining a sense of responsibility and ownership over a task can provide confidence and inspire autonomy in our kids. 

  • Involve your children in goal-setting activities. Help them define their learning objectives and support them in setting goals to achieve those objectives. 

  • Meet your children where they are. Use the familiar to encourage learning about the unfamiliar. New experiences, new concepts can be scary to kids of all ages. Accessing the unfamiliar can be made easier when we incorporate elements of what already interests them. 

In her study, Developing Responsible and Autonomous Learners: A Key to Motivating Students, Barbara McCombs, Ph.D writes: 

Addressing the whole learner in developmentally appropriate ways includes establishing positive student relationships and listening to each learner’s voice in creating productive learning climates. With this whole learner perspective, teachers are able to help learners become responsible for their own learning in school and in life. By addressing student learning needs and negative behaviors from a place of trust and positive relationships, students are better able to make good choices during learning as well as outside the classroom. These learner-centered practices help students and their teachers to better cope with negative peer pressure and bullying throughout any learner’s journey through the learning system. (McCombs https://www.apa.org/education/k12/learners

This is what we aspire to encourage everyday at Sparhawk. We want you to know that you have our village of support to help you inspire autonomy and agency in your children. We also want to hear your ideas on how we can provide more opportunities for agency in our classrooms so that we can educate for 21st century leadership. 

This is often a far more difficult way of parenting and teaching. We are taking away the ability to just say “Because I said so” or to remove barriers from our children’s school/life experiences.  

In the end, as we sit at your child’s Sparhawk graduation, we will know that the student standing there in the purple gown smiling, accepting that diploma, goes off into their adulthood confident, happy, capable, and able to be an agent of change in their life and their community. 

Resources

The Power of Their Ideas: Lessons for America from a Small School in Harlem, Deborah Meier

Experience and Education, John Dewey 

“Developing Responsible and Autonomous Learners: A Key to Motivating Students,” Barbara McCombs, Ph.D (https://www.apa.org/education/k12/learners

“The Key to Raising a Happy Child,” NPR interview with William Stixrud, author of The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives (https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2018/02/14/584275859/the-key-to-raising-a-happy-child

“What Do You Mean When You Say ‘Student Agency’?” Jennifer Davis Poon, Center for Innovation in Education (https://education-reimagined.org/what-do-you-mean-when-you-say-student-agency/