Encouraging autonomy in the lives of middle school students

This post, by Carla Moyer (Head of Middle School), was previously published in Cannon’s Middle School Parent Newsletter.

This summer, the entire faculty read “Breaking into the Heart of Character: Self-Determined Moral Action and Academic Motivation” by David Streight. Streight asserts that students will do their best academic work when they feel a sense of belonging and warmth with their teachers and their peers (a sense of relatedness), feel their work is challenging but doable (a sense of competence), and feel that they have choice and voice in the classroom (a sense of autonomy). No matter what the age, all humans feel a basic need for autonomy. Rosalind Wiseman echoed this idea during her recent visit, saying that we all want meaning beyond ourselves, hope of success, social connection, and satisfying work. These ideas transcend our subject matter, and are essential for developing children in all of our divisions at Cannon. As a growth-mindset faculty, we are engaging all year long in discussions about how best to foster these ideas in our students and classrooms.Cannon515-690

On the October Family Day, the faculty took part in a “deep dive” into autonomy and what it might look like in the classroom. We focused on both the person we are teaching and on the subjects we are teaching, as we believe the two are inseparable. We heard from three panelists who described what autonomy looks like in their work outside of Cannon, we met in grade level teams, and then met in subject-specific teams, and we discussed how to best foster autonomy in our work with students. We will similarly explore competence and relatedness on future Family Days.5115

Autonomy has also been a theme in my most recent discussions with parents. Last week, I had two delightful coffees with parents of fifth grade students. Our youngest students in the middle school provide an incredible amount of positive energy, engage willingly in our activities and discussions, and feel proud and confident about the middle school adventure ahead. However, their need for independence – and it is a need – can be challenging for parents to navigate. The temptation to help them manage their work and assignments is great, as we want them to learn the material, set a strong foundation for future classes, and form solid study habits. Many experts assert that allowing students to own their work and habits, even when things don’t end well, will foster greater growth and development than our assistance or interference will. Allowing students to endure natural consequences, be mentored by adults who do things differently than a parent would, and to learn from mistakes and mistrials will set them up for a greater sense of independence and resilience in the future.

For parents, sometimes giving students autonomy in their school work can be easier than giving them autonomy in their social arenas. It can be tempting to interfere in the social lives of our children, especially when we feel our kids have been hurt or misunderstood. Complicating matters is the fact that middle school students are a work in progress, have not fully decided who or what they want to be, and are continually changing as they develop. At a recent lecture by Catherine Steiner-Adar, a clinical psychologist, I was forced to think about adolescent identity development in a different way. She asserts that students are developing two identities at the same time. One identity is formed face-to-face, with peers and teachers, and parents, and the other is formed online, with little oversight from adults. The “in person” interactions are visible to adults, but the lives conducted through social media outlets can feel more intense and hidden. The initial tendency is for parents to want to view and guide all online interactions. However, giving children developmentally appropriate guidelines, giving them a safety net, and encouraging them to come to you for help when needed, can be a better way to guide them behind the scenes.

IMG_4461So what is a parent to do when a child comes home upset about an academic issue, a social challenge, or a mean text? How do we foster independence, a sense of self-reliance and a deeper sense of ownership and voice? Rosalind Wiseman had great advice for our parents during her presentation. She offered a three-step response to kids based on extensive research with students across the nation. She suggests saying…

1 – I’m sorry this happened to you.

2 – Thank you for telling me.

3 – Let me help you think this through so you can figure out what to do next.

Helping your children handle business themselves gives them life-long tools for interacting with others socially, academically, and professionally. Of course, this is easier said than done from a parenting perspective. Our reactions can determine how much our children open up to us in the future. We will not be perfect as parents or teachers, but if we strive to think about what is best for the child for long-term growth, we can head in the right direction.

If you are interested in reading more about any of the ideas I reference above, you can check out a few of these titles below. The titles can sound somewhat hard on us as parents, but the advice in the articles and books is valuable.



Parents: Let Your Kids Fail. You’ll be Doing Them a Favor. A great article on fostering independence, shared with me by a Cannon parent.

“The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age,” by Catherine Steiner-Adair

“How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare your Kid for Success,” by Julie Lythcott-Haims (This is on my nightstand…I hope it is not too late for me with my young adult children!)

“The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed,” by Jessica Lahey

“Queen Bees and Wannabees” (about the social lives of girls), or “Masterminds and Wingmen” (about the social lives of boys), by Rosalind Wiseman