Take CHARGE of the Classroom #14: Release
This is post #14 in a 20-post series designed to disrupt outdated behavior management models and help you create the classroom culture of your dreams. This post contains excerpts from my book Take CHARGE of the Classroom.
Agency, in practical terms, means that students have control over themselves and their actions. They feel empowered to make choices, regulate their emotions, set goals, and pick themselves up after failures. Rather than viewing agency as a large, nebulous trait that students are either born with or lack, it can be cultivated by breaking it down into component parts. When viewed separately, agency can be subdivided into three time-bound elements and one overarching attitude.
When students have agency, they have the ability to look ahead and aim, setting goals that are both self-driven and beneficial. They can peek around the corner, decide on something they’d like to have or accomplish, and then plan efficacious steps to make that dream a reality. Secondly, students have agency when they can act in the moment. Not paralyzed by fear, timidity, or even confusion, students with agency can not only aim and set advantageous goals, they can take any necessary actions to bring the plans to fruition. Simply put, they know what to do.
Third, students with agency can look back at past actions and analyze, reflecting on their progress toward their goal and how to adapt their current strategy for achieving it. Rather than blindly flailing around in the dark, these students can make mid-course adjustments to meet the demands of new situations. Finally, students with agency have an overall attitude of alliance. Operating from a safe space of secure attachment, they have a felt sense of safety, knowing that someone, typically a caregiver or teacher, has their back. More than simple support, an attitude of alliance empowers students to spread their wings and fly because they know that someone is in the trenches with them, supporting them. They aren’t working alone but on a team striving for mutually beneficial goals.
The most beneficial motivation for students to develop in life, whether it relates to personal or professional goals, is intrinsic motivation. When students are pushed to succeed and achieve because of internal reasons, they become unstoppable forces that are resilient in the face of alterations and disruptions. Extrinsically, or externally, motivated students, on the other hand, mainly work for some type of reward or achievement. These students always need a carrot in front of them to lead them on and even then their motivation begins to wane if they aren’t too interested in the particular vegetable being waggled before their eyes.
Either of these types of motivation are reinforced daily through teacher interactions and elements of control. For teachers that attempt to dominate their classrooms through rigid adherence to guidelines and the threat of punishment for disobedience, they are instilling in their students an external sense of motivation. They teach their students that obeying the rules is right because someone other than them (i.e., the teacher) is watching, judging, and delivering justice.
As long as teachers and parents are fine with having to always motivate their students to act through punishments and rewards, this approach is fine. But if and when teachers and parents want their students to take initiative, bear responsibility, and make decisions on their own, they might find that those traits were driven out of them a long time ago. Teaching students to self-regulate and giving them the space to do so, no matter how messy it might be in the short term, is the only viable long-term solution.
What can you do tomorrow?
Set goals. Goal setting is a key part of agency. Think of something you’d like to do differently in the classroom, whether it be academic or related to classroom management, and write it down in a journal.
Share them. Share a goal you have for yourself with your students, modeling for them how to set and reach learning goals. Encourage those that are interested to begin setting their own learning goals to begin to build their own confidence.
What does this look like in the classroom?
Classroom tasks empower students by:
· Embedding authentic choices within them;
· Providing clear instructions and expectations; and
· Aligning with learning goals and curriculum standards.
Offering students choices fosters the general well-being of children (Bailey, 2015). Choices increase prosocial behavior and responsibility while improving academic achievement. It also raises teacher morale, enhances all classroom relationships, and advances self-regulation and intrinsic motivation.
Who wouldn’t want all that?
With choices, however, comes the very real possibility that students will make the wrong ones. Thus, in order to spare them (and us) the discomfort of those wrong choices, many teachers fall to the other extreme and limit student options. Through power and control, they seek to run a tight ship and limit any and all behavioral fluctuations.
Yet remember that no one can make you do anything. You, of your own free will, are reading this page. Even if you claim to be heavily-influenced by some other motivation, such as this chapter was assigned to you, you still choose whether or not to comply. The same reality exists for students. No matter how closely you hold classroom expectations in your fist, how vigilantly you seek and destroy behavioral loopholes, students still ultimately choose whether or not to comply.
Yet this battle for control is not one worth fighting. When people, students included, make internally-motivated choices, helpful chemicals are released in the brain that support everything you want as a teacher. Students making choices have a more optimistic attitude, better decision making, more focused attention, and increased compliance.
Rather than hiding the fact that students ultimately make the choice whether or not to obey, celebrate it! Give back to them the power that was rightfully theirs to begin with. Highlight to them that they choose to make poor decisions or helpful ones. While it might seem risky to bring this out into the open, to deny it would be futile, like trying to hide the moon on a cloudless night.
What can you do tomorrow?
Practice reflection. Choose a few of the reflection questions mentioned above and use them after a behavioral incident. Instead of interrogating the student while her emotions are still high, wait until things have settled down.
Listen deeply. Accept all answers, simply trying to provoke reflection in her, rather than using the questions to lead her to a particular answer or shame her for her actions.
What does this look like in the classroom?
Classroom tasks develop student agency by:
· Allowing freedom in how students complete them;
· Providing students opportunities to analyze and correct mistakes; and
· Including supports to meet the needs of diverse learners.
To read more posts in this series, click here.
Bailey, R. A. (2015). Conscious discipline: Building resilient classrooms. Oviedo, FL: Loving Guidance.