3 Tips for Balancing Autonomy and Choice

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I’m not sure when or why, but as we grow up, something happens to the human brain that makes order, calm, cleanliness, and quiet required for basic sanity. 

Sometimes it seems like our need for order stands in stark contrast to the need of our children and students to constantly pretend they’re monster trucks, make loud noises for no apparent reason, draw on walls, or hide while surreptitiously tearing up important adult paperwork. After all, everyone has needs.  

You’ve read the studies, though! You know that giving kids more autonomy leads to decreased anxiety and depression, improved inhibition, attention, engagement, better academic outcomes, and their ability to make good choices! 

You already know it directly impacts the development of the prefrontal cortex- the part of the brain that handles things like forethought, empathy, impulse control, predicting the consequences of one’s actions, managing emotions, following through on a plan, goal-setting, attention, and learning. You’ve already read our deep dive AND listened to our podcast episode about it. You even went out and bought the book we recommend on the topic! 

But now you're stuck between wanting to apply what you know and protecting your quiet, well-ordered life. We get it. 

So how can you give kids more autonomy if the things they are doing with said autonomy are driving you crazy and quickly turning your house or classroom into a tornado of anarchy? 

Follow these 3 tips for balancing autonomy and choice without losing your sanity! 

Prenda Guide Iris Boyle leads her student through an activity. (Photo by Adriane Thompson)

Tip #1 Introduce Autonomy Gradually 

Sometimes when we have a paradigm shift, realizing everything we have “done wrong” can lead us to want to dive in and “fix” things right away. That’s understandable but also overwhelming, and, in the case of giving kids more autonomy, not in the best interest of our kiddos. 

The goal of providing young uns with autonomy is a long-term gradual pursuit. Think of it like the sun rising instead of a light switch. Sunrises are beautiful and enjoyable; a light switch flicked on suddenly in the morning is jarring and makes you squinty. It can be disorienting if a child goes from little autonomy to having a ton. The goal is to help the sunrise. 

“More autonomy” does not mean all autonomy, and that’s OK. 

Say it with me. “More autonomy does not mean all autonomy, and that’s OK.”

As you gradually give more and more autonomy to your kids or students, you want to be careful not to shift out of your leadership role as an adult completely. Dr. Gordon Neufeld, a developmental psychologist out of Canada, teaches that for a child to have their connection needs met, they need to be properly attached to the adults that care for them (parents, teachers, grandparents, etc.). He says healthy adult-child relationships are designed to be hierarchical. You probably hate that idea because it flies in the face of your egalitarian values. 

I’m with you, but hear me out. 

The child’s developing brain does not want to be equal to the adult. The child’s brain wants to be cared for and nurtured by the adult. So when we show up as caring, warm, and confident caretakers, the child’s brain can “rest” in our care, thereby allowing the brain to focus on other things. It’s like a puzzle piece, with one part being the dependent side and the other being the “alpha” caretaking side. This is a healthy childhood attachment. The opposite can also happen, though, and that’s where we get into some trouble.

If we show up as overly passive and permissive and allow children to do whatever they want — if we give them too much autonomy — their brain attaches to us, but the orientation is switched. The child is the “alpha,” and the parent/teacher/coach is the dependent. This is overwhelming for the child and causes stress and anxiety. 

The child can’t calmly say, “Teacher, I feel like I have too much control, and I lack the developmental maturity to handle it.” So instead, they show us this stress through their snotty attitudes, endless demands, resistance, counter will, and at times, aggression. 

When a child is in “alpha mode,” as Dr. Neufeld calls it, their brains are not at rest, negatively impacting their development. Our job is to lead that child into a healthy attachment by taking the reins more and showing the child that they can relax in our care. Once we are properly attached and the child is “taking their cues” from us, we can broaden their autonomy effectively without sending kids spiraling. Remember, their prefrontal cortex is still developing, and they need guidance, support, modeling, and loving limits. They don’t need to be smothered and controlled at every turn until they go to college. There’s a balance. 

How do we know if we are hitting that balance? That sounds like a job for Tip #2…

Prenda students work with glue, paper, and crayons on a school project. (Photo by Adriane Thompson)

Tip #2 Find the Autonomy Frontier

Years ago, a wise friend and Prenda guide, Bekah Jennings, introduced me to the idea of the “V of responsibility.” The V of responsibility is a helpful way to think about monitoring a child's readiness for more choice or their need for more support. 

Think of the letter V. At the bottom, there is only a tiny amount of room between the two sides, while at the top, there is a greater distance. Then there is the space above the V that is entirely open. 

The lines of the V represent the guardrails, limits, or allowances we create for our children or students, and the space above the V represents total self-governance without any adult limits in place. 

Our goal is to prepare the child to be able to handle the wide-open freedoms of adulthood without making terrible life choices. This is accomplished best by providing kids as much support as they need to be “sometimes successful.” 

Why just sometimes? 

Because it is in our failures that we learn our greatest lessons! 

Just like we want to make sure each student is at their “learning frontier” in their academics- the spot where they are challenged but not overwhelmed, where they fail but can figure it out. We want to put each child at their “autonomy frontier,” where they can make choices and learn from their mistakes without too much injury. 

When you notice a young human struggling to handle a specific situation or level of choice, you can find ways to support them temporarily. At the same time, they develop a skill or habit and then remove your support, so they are once again autonomous. It’s like the scaffolding on a building that is being built. There are supports in place during the developmental phase, but the supports come off as soon as possible so the building can stand alone in all of its glory. 

Here’s an example from one of Prenda’s guide preparation courses that demonstrates how you might notice the need for assistance, provide it respectfully and collaboratively, and then remove the support when no longer needed. 

Pssst: Download your free Find Your {Child or Student's} Strengths Printable here! 

Meet Olivia! 

Olivia (5th grade) is having a hard time getting her Conquer goals completed each day. You notice this in her data, so you make a mental note to pay closer attention to how she’s using her time. 

You notice during Conquer, she clicks around aimlessly from learning tool to learning tool but keeps getting distracted. You usually let all your students decide in what order they will get their conquer goals done, but Olivia might be struggling with that level of autonomy

You take a quick moment to find a positive thought about Olivia before interacting with her so your positive regard and respect for her will be felt. 

Guide: Hey Olivia! How are you today? (eye contact, smiles, nods, warm tone of voice) 

Olivia: Oh, hi, I’m good. 

Guide: I was just looking over everyone’s Conquer progress, and it seemed like you might be having a hard time moving forward in your goals. What’s up? 

Olivia: Well, I know I’m supposed to be working, but I just can’t stay focused. I feel like I have to do everything at once, so I just can’t get anything done. 

Guide: Oh, I see. So it sounds like you are having a hard time making a plan and organizing your time. Is that right? (Check that your “diagnosis” is accurate.)

Olivia: Yeah, I think that’s kind of it. 

Guide: Can you think of any ways we could help you learn how to manage your time better? 

Olivia: Well, maybe we could just make all my goals a lot easier, then I could do it.

Guide: That might be a solution, but I know how important your goals are to you, and just changing them doesn’t seem like something that your future self would benefit from. Can you think of another solution? 

Olivia: Mmm… maybe we could make a plan together, and then you could kind of check in on me to help me make sure I’m on the right track? 

Guide: I’d be happy to help you do that. How should we make the plan? And what does me checking on you look like? 

Olivia: Let’s write down what order I’m going to do things in my notebook here, and then during Conquer time, you can come by my desk and just wink at me. I’ll give you a thumbs up or a thumbs down if I’m on my track or not. 

Guide: That sounds great. What will we do if you are off track? 

Olivia: Well, maybe if I still can’t focus, we could talk about a different plan.

Guide: Sounds great. It’s a deal.

You provide Olivia with this additional support and accountability for two weeks. After two weeks, she’s back on track, and it’s clear she doesn’t need this support anymore. At this point, you can return to letting Olivia manage her time independently in Conquer. 

Notice in this scenario, we didn’t remove the privilege of governing her time independently in a punitive or negative way. Often we repeal autonomy when it doesn’t go well in destructive, disconnective ways. 

For example, we could have said something like, “Olivia-you can never stay focused! Don’t you care about this? Why are you so lazy? Just do your tools in this order and I’ll watch you because you obviously can’t be trusted.” 

But we didn’t! 

Olivia was just showing us that she was at her autonomy frontier, and in the same way that we would come alongside her in math with support, we can come alongside her in self-governance too. We started by assuming the best, that if she could be doing better, she would be doing better. We assume she has personal goals that are important to her and that she’s probably frustrated that she is struggling. Since she wasn’t getting the desired results, we stepped in with friendly, respectful support. We involved her in the planning by asking questions and describing our observations. This protected her dignity as a learner and demonstrated our belief in her as a competent, well-intentioned individual who can solve her own problems. Even though we were coming in to support them, we did it in a way that allowed her to still be quite autonomous throughout the process. 

Great job, us!

Bill Stixrud and Ned Johnson, authors of The Self-Driven Child, teach “kids need more responsibility than they deserve.” 

Or said another way, it is the giving of responsibility and autonomy just before when they are ready for it that helps the brain develop. We want to push the autonomy limits but not overwhelm them. 

Speaking of overwhelm, let’s check out tip #3

Prenda Guide Katherine Moore embraces her students after the school day is over. (Photo by Adriane Thompson)

Tip #3 Your Sanity is More Important Than You Think

Providing kids more and more autonomy over time is a great goal, but if doing this is causing you too much stress and making you feel crazy all the time, you should feel empowered to pull back. 

Before kids need autonomy, they need a stable, well-regulated adult to look to for care and as an example. 

Since little brains are still learning how to regulate their emotions and sympathetic nervous system, they are using your prefrontal cortex and constantly taking cues from your nervous system about how they should act and react. Your number 1 priority is to ensure you don’t add to the chaos. If you are finding that it’s hard for you to handle things without getting triggered, take care of yourself first. 

Get to a place where you are comfortably in control, set some boundaries, be clear (but kind!) in your expectations, teach procedures, and get organized. 

Then, after you can consistently regulate your emotions and thoughts, start thinking about the V of responsibility a bit and ask yourself, “where are my students or children demonstrating strong self-governance?” “Where could I remove a limit or extend more trust?” 

Then just make that one change and watch what happens. 

Give them room to adjust to the new level of freedom - they won’t be perfect, and that’s OK! 

You’ve got this! #babysteps

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