Make my life easier? Yes, Please!

4 Steps to Building Autonomy in your Students.

What is autonomy?  I found a few definitions that I really like. Merriam Webster gives one definition as a “self-governing state.” Another definition described autonomy as “the capacity to make an informed, uncoerced decision”.

When I think of being autonomous, and the importance that autonomy has on learning, I can’t help but picture a student who can think for himself…who will ask questions, and make decisions, and take risks…a student who doesn’t need someone to be right there with him all the time making sure that he’s got it. 

I also think of a student who is a problem solver. An autonomous government is one who is self-directing and self-governing – one that decides what freedom looks like to them, and then governs themselves accordingly. This type of government has to be able to solve problems in reasonable ways in order to continue to self-govern, and to continue to enjoy freedom. Our students have to be able to do the same thing.  We know that difficult times will come! We know that students have to be able to figure life and learning out! We know that those who are successful are not necessarily the ones that everything comes easy to…they are the people who know how to overcome. Problems are unavoidable!  The ability to problem-solve and move forward is key!

What a gift we have as people to be autonomous. We can set our own goals, make a plan to reach them, and then put in the learning and practice until we get there! There is such beauty in this, but also responsibility. Just like the learned traits we discussed last week, autonomy has to be taught.

Many of our students have already fallen or are quickly falling into the trap of being dependent learners.  Remember that these are the students who need that continual support, who don’t believe that they have the needed skills to push through. These students are afraid to try new things or take a risk – by the very nature of the word “dependent”, we know we’re talking about the opposite of autonomous!

When we are trying to move students, or even our own children, forward, we know that giving them autonomy is one of the biggest gifts we can give them.

So what does this look like? Here’s 4 ideas for building autonomy.

  1. Give students what they need to be successful on their own
  2. Give students choices
  3. Validate their voice
  4. Model and encourage problem solving

Click here for the quick view of these steps!

Give students what they need to be successful on their own.

Jesse raises his hand. “I don’t get it, Miss.” Jesse struggles.  Every day that hand goes up. I want to help him.  He has a really hard life.  His dad is gone – in jail I think.  His mom works a couple of jobs and has told me she doesn’t know what to do with him. He’s really behind and he starts to be a behavior problem if he gets off task, so I feel like I have to give him so much attention or he gets other kids off task.

Have you ever felt like this? I had so many kids in this boat. And out of pure motives and the goodness of my heart, I jumped in and rescued way too much! I thought I was helping, but all I was doing was perpetuating their state of dependency and robbing them of autonomy.

I have since found much better ways to support while building autonomy.

  • Have supports around the room (anchor charts, word walls, etc) and direct students to use the supports to find their own answer
  • Provide check lists for multiple step tasks.  Dependent learners struggle with multiple steps, so if they have a check list to refer to, they can keep themselves moving to the next step.
  • Have students time themselves.  I realized I did this at home myself, and I certainly guide my son to do the same thing.  I’ll say, “How long do you think it’ll take you to…” He gives me an answer, and if I think it’s reasonable, he’ll set a timer in his room. He gets distracted easily, so this is a good way for him to self-regulate.
  • Provide scaffolds to help students get to grade level thinking
    • Chunk texts
    • Provide sentence frames
    • Have visuals for vocabulary
    • Use lots of repetition

2. Give students choices. There are so many ways to do this, and giving students choices is one of the best ways to differentiate! Give students choices for:

  • how they show what they learned
  • texts to read
  • class activities
  • music you listen to as a class while doing an activity (appropriate, of course)
  • class goals
  • class rewards
  • class expectations (social contracts)
  • the agenda – order of tasks and activities

The list could go on, but the bottom line is the more we (yes we, as in all people) feel like we have control over our situation, the more invested we are. This goes for our students as well!

3. Validate their voice. If you asks students a question, and they answer, validate it.  Even if they’re wrong. Acknowledge their effort, participation, risk-taking, opinion, etc, and teach your class to validate each other.  This will start the process of them validating themselves.  Many students of poverty, English Learners, and student of color have moved into the realm of learned helplessness, and one of the  main ways to start moving them out of that state is to show them that their voice DOES MATTER.

4. Model and encourage problem-solving. Remember the learned and hardwired traits we learned about last week?  This is where that fits in.  Many of students, no matter what age, do not have the problem solving skills needed to have grit, push through, and even fight through the trials of their life to get to the learning that needs to happen to move them out of their current situation. The best thing we can do for them in this situation is model and encourage problem solving ourselves.  If we have a challenge or a problem, let them see you work through it.  Many of us learned problem solving from our parents, but if our students’ don’t have anyone to look up to at home, and you seem to always have it together, how will they ever see what to do. I’m not suggesting that you get super personal with your problems (PLEASE don’t do that…) but if you have a writing prompt that you could model, or a problem solving strategy you use in math to overcome a confusing concept, or a specific way to think through a difficult lab or scientific problem, I think this can be very powerful.

The great thing about building autonomy is that it inevitably makes your life easier as the teacher as well!

So let’s get started! Click here for the free guide for building autonomy!

Building autonomy is so important! It touch, intentional, but worth it if we want to create life-long learners!

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