Lab Article 2022 Vol.2
Promoting Children’s Sense of Agency in the Early Years
The understanding that our choices, and hence actions, impact our lives is a fundamental human capacity—a capacity that develops in our earliest years. This ability to make decisions to influence events and have a positive impact on one’s world is known as agency, and it’s central to children’s health and wellbeing, helping to nurture resilient and engaged lifelong learners.
Traditionally, children have been regarded as passive recipients of experience rather than active participants who possess the capacity to engage in society and take part in decision-making. In recent years, however, a view of the child as a co-constructor of both learning experiences and the learning environment has started to build momentum.
According to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, all children have the right to have a say in all decisions that affect them. In the context of education, fostering student agency is about giving students voice, choice, and ownership in their learning. When learner agency is valued, students become partners in the learning process. Every child can develop their agency, but to exercise their agency and reach their full potential, they need support from their family and school.
What We Do to Foster Student Agency in Kindergarten
At KIA, we see children as both competent and capable, a view reflected in the school’s guiding statements. Indeed, agency is one of the school’s five core values. We recognize the importance of going beyond simply acknowledging children’s agency to providing students with authentic opportunities to exercise their agency and to act with initiative. However, efforts to facilitate student agency often require a balancing act. Teachers never cede control entirely—especially in the early years— and have to be prepared to provide students with guidance, scaffolding, and structure in developing agency.
Strategies and practices KIA Kindergarten teachers use to foster student agency include:
- Co-constructing learning experiences with students by using their ideas, questions, and interests in the learning process
- Giving students a say in how school events are run, including the format and the students’ role in an event (e.g., Sports Day, Winter Celebration, Summer Camp)
- Inviting students to help design and set up the classroom at the start of the school year or new term
- Encouraging students to voice their opinions about issues that are important to them
- Listening to and following up on students’ suggestions, initiatives, and ideas
- Organizing activities and the physical environment so that students have a variety of opportunities to make decisions about what they will do and how they will do it
- Providing opportunities for inquiry and independent exploration
- Supporting students to solve problems independently
- Providing opportunities for students to set their own learning goals
- Establishing a democratic process for decision-making (i.e., voting) in the classroom
- Creating a culture where students see their classmates—not only their teachers— as valuable sources of assistance, feedback, and learning
What Families Can Do to Support Children’s Sense of Agency
Children’s first experience with agency happens in the home as they learn to make choices and act upon them. As with teaching, parenting for agency is something of a juggling act, as parents need to meet children’s competing needs for both autonomy and structure. One thing that we do know is that parenting styles matter—they can either constrain or enable children’s agency. Anxious and overprotective parents can inadvertently inhibit their children’s emerging agency. Emotionally supportive and highly engaged parents, on the other hand, are more likely to have a positive impact on their children’s sense of agency.
Things families can do to support children’s agency include:
- Allowing children to make choices for themselves, from the books parents read to them at bedtime to the clothes they wear
- Involving children in problem-solving by asking them open-ended questions and guiding them to solutions rather than just telling them what to do
- Providing authentic and challenging tasks and responsibilities that require perseverance (e.g., cooking, gardening)
- Giving children opportunities to help out with household chores, such as cleaning up after themselves and helping with the laundry
- Including children in discussions about important decisions at home, inviting them to share their opinions and ideas as part of the family decision-making process
- Supporting development and growth by practicing and scaffolding new skills with children
- Letting children know that it’s okay to make mistakes and that they can learn from them. This will help them to develop resilience, coping skills and a willingness to take risks.
As children navigate the complexities of an increasingly unpredictable and interconnected world, families and educators alike have a responsibility to foster children’s sense of agency, helping them develop the confidence and problem-solving skills to meet the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.
- ACECQA. (2018). Supporting agency: Involving children in decision-making.
- Bains, G. (2021, November 29). Parenting for agency. Psychology Today.
- Greenaway, K. H., Haslam, S. A., Cruwys, T., Branscombe, N. R., Ysseldyk, R., & Heldreth, C. (2015). From "we" to "me": Group identification enhances perceived personal control with consequences for health and well-being. Journal of personality and social psychology, 109(1), 53–74.
- International Baccalaureate Organization. (2018). The Learner.
- OECD. (2019). OECD Future of Education and Skills 2030. Conceptual learning framework – Student Agency for 2030.
- Scott, Caroline; Nolan, Andrea; and Kilderry, Anna, "Facilitating children’s agency in early childhood education and care" (2020). Strong Foundations. 9.
- United Nations. (1989). Convention on the Rights of the Child. Treaty Series, 1577, 3.
- Vaughn, M. (2018).Making sense of student agency in the early grades. Phi Delta Kappan 99 (7), 62-66.