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WHOLE-CHILD DESIGN

Using the science of learning and development to design practices that support the whole child

WHOLE-CHILD DESIGN > KNOWLEDGE, SKILL AND MINDSET BUILDING

Supporting Student Agency

Diverse research converges on the understanding that the learning engages multiple, cross-wired, functionally-integrated neural systems, including cognitive, affective, social and emotional processes. These processes are malleable to experience and are composed of both foundational skills, such as stress management and self-regulation, as well as higher-order skills like self-direction and curiosity. Developing these skills requires attention, support, and thoughtful engagement with students, who are the active drivers in their own growth and development. Supporting student agency means meeting each student where they are, leveraging their unique strengths, and designing experiences that build skills in ongoing, integrated and increasingly complex ways.

CONTINUUM OF PRACTICE

Time and Space for Skill Building

School staff, leadership and caregivers have different perspectives on what skills and mindsets matter for students and why. For example, a school’s mission might focus on civic identity and self-direction, yet staff might be concerned that students are struggling to behave and get along. Alternatively, staff might see their role as strictly to teach “academics,” assuming students learn these other skills outside of school. When skills are supported, they often support the agenda of those in power within the school (e.g. a focus on compliant behaviors, rather than student advocacy).

Minimal time is allocated for support of social, emotional and cognitive skills, and the time that is allocated may be siloed into a separate block. Because of this, students do not have consistent opportunities to apply and practice skills across contexts. The supports that do occur may come from a prescriptive program and/or may be driven by only staff’s perception of what skills matter, and may focus on student deficits (e.g., “some of my students are so mean,” or “they can’t control themselves”).

Integrated Strategies and Supports

While students are at school (whether in class, during a community meeting, at lunch or recess, etc.), supports tend to be for either “behavior” OR “academics,” and do not always support skills and mindsets. For example, during a group science project, students may be told the behavior expectation is to work together respectfully and the academic task is to complete an experiment, but they may not be supported in building integrated skills like managing conflict as a scientist.

Supports for skills and mindsets might perpetuate inequity in one of the following ways: a “no excuses” approach that punishes students when they struggle with skills or do not conform to school culture or a lack of clear, shared expectations and support for skills, creating a chaotic and dysregulating environment.

Modeling and Metacognition

Adults do not consistently act as models of holistic skills and mindsets like stress management, organizational skills, and strong collaboration, and the modeling that does happen may not build off all students’ cultural backgrounds and values. Adults rarely think aloud or intentionally model how they are using holistic skills. Students may guess how to demonstrate skills based on their own observation of adults or may appear unskilled due to lack of support.

Students do not have shared ways of talking about their skill development. When working together, they may struggle to talk about what is going well and what might be getting in the way of their success. For example, during a group project or while trying to play a game at recess, students may spend the bulk of their time negotiating roles and materials. Adults do not give regular feedback on holistic skill development.

Adult Reflection and Capacity Building

Adults lack time and space to reflect on and practice their own skill development. When students have lagging skills, adults might become quickly frustrated or struggle to maintain a growth mindset, as they might for other types of learning challenges. Because of this, students may be punished or excluded, rather than supported, when they struggle with a skill or mindset about school. Biases may further exacerbate the consequences of this for students from minoritized cultures who may express emotions, communicate and interact with peers outside of dominant norms. Students may be asked to demonstrate skills like emotional regulation or social awareness in situations that are not emotionally safe for them, and/or where they do not have a strong sense of belonging.

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Time and Space for Skill Building

Leaders and staff may agree on a narrow set of skills and mindsets to support, but they may be overly aspirational, not appropriately rigorous, or focused on fixed traits rather than malleable skills (e.g., grit). Alternatively, there may be varying perspectives across staff, leaders, caregivers and students about what skills matter and the role of schools in supporting skill development. In some instances, some students may receive supports for skills like self-advocacy. However, this is not consistent.

Intentional learning experiences guide students to learn and practice skills in some varied contexts across their school day, including during academic and non-academic times. Responsibility may fall more heavily on some adults than others. Sometimes, students have input in shaping this time and are generally asked to draw from their strengths and knowledge as they participate. They are invited to share strategies, learn from one another’s experiences, and problem-solve together.

Integrated Strategies and Supports

Most students have strategies for skills like stress and conflict management, but they are inconsistent across contexts and receive varied support from adults. For example, students might be able to manage their relationships with peers with independence in their homeroom class because of ongoing practice but might struggle in other environments where they have not been supported in applying these skills.

Most of the time, the supports that adults provide are flexible to each student’s needs, strengths and experiences. At times, students might not have the independence they need to grow, make mistakes and learn OR they might not have enough support.

Modeling and Metacognition

Sometimes, adults are models of holistic skills and mindsets such as stress management, organizational skills and strong collaboration. Modeling might build off what adults know about students, (e.g., when thinking aloud about emotion regulation, adults may share a metaphor based on students’ interests). However, modeling may predominantly reflect a singular worldview about how to do things like manage emotions or interact with others. Adults recognize that an important way for students to learn is by observing and interacting with others.

Students are often able to describe their thinking, how they are using skills and where they might need support but may still struggle to do so across contexts. Sometimes, adults give feedback that helps students apply experiences and see growth in their skill development.

Adult Reflection and Capacity Building

There is some time and space allocated for adult reflection on their own use of holistic skills. When students have lagging skills, they often receive support but may also face punitive consequences or adults may rely on others, such as caregivers, to provide the support. There may be some understanding of cultural differences, but not yet much active reflection on how biases and beliefs about students inform what skills and approaches are valued at school.

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Time and Space for Skill Building

Leaders, staff, caregivers and students agree upon a holistic and diverse set of skills and mindsets that are important for students (e.g., emotion regulation, conflict resolution, executive function, growth mindset). They see connections between higher-order and foundational skills and support them both. Shared goals for skill development include student agency and critical consciousness. Students are encouraged to take action against injustices in their school and community and supported in the skills that help them do so.

Holistic skills like emotion regulation, conflict resolution, social skills and executive functions are supported and taught to all students during academic instruction and non-academic times (e.g., recess, class meetings, math class, etc.). There is shared responsibility for consistently integrating skill-building throughout students’ school experience.  Educators seek to understand each students’ needs, experiences, cultures, strengths, values and interests to plan and improve this time, and all students actively participate and contribute in ways that work for them.

Integrated Strategies and Supports

It is common to see all students using shared strategies and accessing supports for holistic skills and mindsets throughout the school day. This practice is consistent across contexts, emerging both naturally as students grow and through facilitated opportunities.

Adults consistently take an equity-focused approach to support skills and mindsets, actively working not to weaponize the process as a means of enforcing only White, patriarchal, or other dominant-group norms for behavior. They regularly revisit how to best provide support while honoring different strategies for skills (e.g., expressing emotions, solving conflicts, and managing time), which may vary according to the diverse cultures and perspectives of the school community. Students have enough support to do their best and have the independence to grow, make mistakes and learn.

Modeling and Metacognition

Adults show up as consistent models of the holistic skills and mindsets students are developing while reflecting on the cultural contexts in which they learned these skills. Adults make these skills visible by sharing their thinking and narrating how they use skills and strategies. Because of this, students experience consistent, though not uniform, examples of ways to demonstrate skills across cultures and contexts, all of which are valued at school.

It is common to see all students describing their approach to academic, social, and personal projects and problems. They have shared language to describe their thinking and make the use of skills visible to others. Adults help them to integrate experiences to grow, and there is meaningful feedback on the development of skills over time.

Adult Reflection and Capacity Building

Adults collaboratively work to recognize their own use of holistic skills and mindsets. When students have lagging skills, adults respond with curiosity about how to meet their needs and matched supports. They acknowledge triggers that may cause them to struggle with their emotional constancy and growth mindset and see challenges as opportunities to develop their skills. For example, if they notice that they are getting frustrated with a student’s behavior and responding accordingly, they reflect on what beliefs they hold about the student and refine their approach. All adults recognize that holistic skill development requires emotional safety and belonging and strive to create such supportive environments.

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REFLECT AND REDESIGN

Explore the following resources to apply the concept of Supporting Student Agency
to your work

Developing Executive Function with Priority Lists

How does the educator in this video integrate supports for skill development with “academic” work?

This video shows students developing the foundational skill of executive functions. How might this also build higher-level skills like self-direction and agency?

What are the students getting from their experience in this classroom? Consider the relationships among peers and between the teacher and students, the level of safety and belonging in the environment, and how skills and mindsets are supported.

[Video credit: Edutopia]

Adult Skills Self-Assessments

REFLECTION TOOL

When adults develop self-awareness of how they use holistic skills and mindsets, including their strengths and weaknesses, they are better able to teach and support these skills.

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Scenario Analysis

REFLECTION TOOL

Opportunities to support holistic skills and mindsets show up authentically all the time across the school day. Use the resources to analyze how skills and mindsets supports can be integrated.

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Integrated Skills Planner

REDESIGN TOOL

The science of learning and development tells us that students need opportunities to learn and practice skills, in authentic contexts, while they are calm and relaxed. Use this tool to plan for integrated skill development.

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Co-Regulation Planner: Executive Functions to Self-Direction

REDESIGN TOOL

These tools support a co-regulatory approach to a student’s skill development. Included are sample strategies for supporting executive functions, providing the foundation for self-direction and agency.

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Support Student Strategies: Stress Management to Resilience

REDESIGN TOOL

These tools guide an asset-oriented approach to developing a repertoire of shared skill development strategies with students. Included are examples for supporting stress management and in turn, resilience.

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