Agency and self-direction: Giving students a voice



Key points:

Social-emotional skills are fundamental for success in school and in life. But how can we ensure that all students learn these valuable lessons so they can have positive relationships with each other, support one another and make good decisions?

Empowering students to take charge of their own social-emotional development through self-directed learning and assessment can pave the way for better relationships, improved well-being and enhanced academic achievements. For this to be effective, students must have  a voice in their social-emotional skill development, enabling them to reflect on their skills, leverage their strengths, recognize opportunities for growth, and identify their support systems. 

Encourage self-direction, provide robust systems of support

Opportunities for self-direction are relatively easy to integrate into instruction, but we need to recognize that students will need different levels of support to develop their sense of agency.  Here’s the idea: We can teach students to identify what is meaningful to them, to set goals and then determine the individual steps they need to get there. Then, we can help students identify potential challenges they might encounter and the support systems they can draw on to navigate these challenges. Students will have more success becoming self-directed when supported within a positive and caring learning environment.

For example, consider a student who is struggling because of too many competing priorities. They might be challenged to manage responsibilities at home, school, after-school activities, and a part-time job. As a first step, educators must see each student as a valued participant in the learning process and take time to understand each student’s context. With this understanding, educators can teach students the specific skill of creating a schedule that takes into account each of their responsibilities and allow for downtime. Then, we can teach students the skills they need, such as prioritizing, problem-solving, asking for help, and communicating proactively to resolve conflicts. Giving students the opportunity to practice these skills within a supportive environment is critical for success.

Extending support beyond the classroom

While classrooms play a pivotal role in social-emotional development, a broader community effort is essential. Schools, as integral parts of communities, create positive and safe learning environments. But there are many hours of out-of-school time for students. Sports teams, community groups, and faith-based organizations also offer ways for students to develop their sense of agency. 

For example, in Boise, where I live, there is an organization called One Stone. It’s a student-driven nonprofit that empowers student voice and provides high school students with opportunities to drive their learning, practice relevant 21st century skills, and engage in purpose-driven and passion-based learning. One program they offer is Project Good, in which students work together in groups on community service projects they identify, shape and carry out. Students get to engage and work on an issue that is meaningful to them, and through the process, they learn skills like collaboration, planning, social awareness, problem-solving and the power of collective action.

Social and emotional development is a lifelong pursuit 

We know from multiple studies that when schools create positive learning environments and explicitly teach social-emotional skills, students achieve better outcomes. That’s why it’s so important to infuse social and emotional skill development throughout students’ school careers.

With a focus on social-emotional skills, we also need to be more intentional in preparing students for life outside of school by helping them become more self-directed in their own development. During the school day, so much of students’ lives are scheduled and directed for them. But when students go off to college or join the workforce, they have more freedom and responsibility without the oversight they’ve been accustomed to.  

And, as the economy changes, jobs change and we need to prepare graduates for jobs that don’t even yet exist. How do we do that? By identifying some of the core life skills they will need as they continue to navigate a rapidly evolving world. There is a need for more emphasis on teaching skills such as flexibility, collaboration, self-directed learning and communication, which, according to a recent study, are some of the most important skills for over 40 percent of all workers. 

Most importantly, agency and self-determination are highly associated with a person’s overall well-being and happiness. These social and emotional skills are critical for navigating life’s challenges and feeling empowered to bring about change. We are most in need of strong social and emotional skills during times of adversity, but that is also when we are the most challenged to draw on them. Empowering students to take charge of their social and emotional development, both in and outside of the classroom, sets the stage for a lifelong pursuit of well-being.

Giving students a voice plays a key role in developing agency. Accomplishing this requires a dual focus on self-directed learning while providing robust support systems. Through a collaborative effort involving schools, communities and families, students can be well prepared for the future and lead fulfilling lives. 

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