[This is an excerpt from the chapter on Agency in ASPIRE to Wellbeing and Learning for All in Early Years and Primary.]

If we want children to become independent, active learners and participate positively in the world around them, we need to start early. Agency is the practice of giving children choices where possible, encouraging them to have a voice in what concerns them, but also guiding them to think through the consequences of different actions, not just for themselves but for others. This enables them to have self-efficacy, a belief they can act – and that what they do has impact and matters.

Children need to be given opportunities to put agency into practice and have the skills to do so. Responses from others matter. Children learn from their earliest experiences what happens when they choose to act and whether they were efficacious or not. This impacts on their sense of agency in future similar situations.

Young children, for example, who are regularly faced with parental disapproval when they try to dress themselves and even anger when they get things the wrong way round, may eventually become passive recipients of adult direction rather than strive for independence and self-efficacy. This also happens when caring parents do everything for their child rather than give them opportunities to try, fail, try again and succeed.

Similarly, if students are faced with a rigid curriculum with no room for creativity, innovation or the potential to influence change, they may not see themselves as having any ownership of their learning, and perhaps not even try to become active, creative learners.

Children will inevitably have a stronger or weaker sense of agency in different contexts and in relation with varying groups of people, more for instance with friends than with teachers.

Agency does not just apply to individuals but also to children acting together and in families, schools and other organisations. The social, cultural, economic and political context in which these exist determines the extent to which children are able to make decisions for themselves, and how much they are listened to.

Agency matters for both wellbeing and learning. It is aligned with healthy child development, specifically independence and identity, psychological wellbeing, adaptation to adversity, intrinsic motivation, active learning and taking responsibility.

Children are never just empty vessels to be filled – they are active participants in their lives – we need to honour this.

Read my article that introduces all of these principles in The Psychologist 3/6/2024

For more detail see here