During a visit to our school’s eucalyptus grove this year, I was amazed to watch a group of our kindergartners demonstrating the student agency inherent to this age group. Watching these young people interact in natural surroundings was witnessing student agency at its finest.

Without prompting or instruction, students playing in the grove began building a fort using branches and other available materials. They instinctively considered how to build it and then, through trial and error, came up with a way to complete it. All the while, these young students seamlessly and confidently worked together to analyze their work and make changes to ensure the fort was sturdy.

A recent study suggests that agency, the capacity and propensity to take purposeful initiative, is as essential as the basic skills involved in reading and mathematics. I agree and add that nurturing students to retain and tap into their intrinsic capabilities for agency is equally important.

Agency is a natural part of a child’s life. The key for schools is to keep those innate student agency fires burning while also ensuring students learn the skills and content needed to progress through school.

Most often, we talk about agency in the context of a high school experience. It’s easy to say that high school students living on the precipice of young adulthood can and should be empowered to have agency in their learning. Their brains are more advanced and they are preparing for vigorous learning environments in college and career. But we find that agency can, and actually should, be nurtured starting much earlier.

Does student agency in the early years look like student agency in high school? No, but the foundation for student agency does.

As we witnessed with the fort, our youngest students show us every day they are capable of taking purposeful initiative. The more opportunities these learners have to express voice and choice in their learning, the more they believe they have ownership of their educational experience. Scaffolding these opportunities according to students’ developmental levels is key.

In a Personalized Mastery Learning kindergarten math class, students mastering addition may choose between Addition Dice, Addition Strip Board, or addition worksheets, all tasks available to them based on their readiness. Meanwhile, students in a fifth-grade math classroom have more advanced, developmentally appropriate choices. They determine how they master outcomes by choosing when to stay in large group lesson time or move to independent study after a collaborative conversation with the advisor (teacher). Students are never required to learn the same way, at the same pace or at the same time as other students in the room.

In addition to scaffolding voice and choice, we can ask both high school and elementary students, “what makes you tick” or “what challenges do you face in your learning.” Not all first graders will be able to respond as explicitly as twelfth graders, but we can expect them to reflect on it and to critically think about it.

First graders also may not yet be able to collaborate with their advisor as heartily as a twelfth grader—or even a fifth grader—on how to determine a learning path or what learning outcomes they will tackle; however, by giving them choices like those in the math examples above, they become aware that their choices matter and, through conversations with their teacher, become increasingly aware that learning is something they are intended to drive and to own.

By intentionally creating a classroom environment that taps into a child’s intrinsic ability for self-directed learning and then scaffolding it in the classroom environment beginning in the early years, we foster student agency that will flourish as the child matures into a lifelong, independent learner.

*This blog originally appeared at www.relevant-ed.org.