Agency: What Is It? Why Do We Need It?
And How Do We Cultivate It In Ourselves and Our Kids?
“I feel confident when I walk down the hallway. I’m not afraid to talk to any of the kids in my grade,” reports my son after a mere two weeks in a brand new school. Perhaps it’s the contrast offering him a newfound sense of agency. In his previous school, he was ignored or judged, even bullied. Because of the criticism, he didn’t feel safe to share himself with others. As parents, it was heartbreaking. His new school has created many and multiple ways for students to get to know one another on a personal level – well before school began and in these first weeks – and they’ve done the same for the parents. There’s a curiosity and genuine interest, effort and care put into getting to know who he is and who we are as valued members of the community. Along with care and effort, there’s a shared principle that is spoken often about the need for and value of differences and learning from and enjoying the experience of getting to know other races, cultures, genders, interests, personalities, learning styles and passions.
So what is agency and why do we need it? Agency is simply “feeling in command of our lives,” write Paul Napper and Anthony Rao in “The Power of Agency.”1 When we feel agency, we feel like our roles and participation in a family, school or community can make a difference in our own and others’ lives. Our presence matters. These researchers found there was a direct link between confidence and an ability to meet challenges (which is what the Confident Parents work is all about!). Sounds simple, right? Yet, it’s far from simple since social structures, our family or work environment and our very own stories about ourselves in relation to the world can work against it.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve heard many educators and parents articulating feelings that suggest they do not have a sense of agency. I’ve heard individuals say they have felt overwhelmed, frightened and anxious from the many uncertainties and challenges we are facing. And interestingly, though Napper and Rao wrote their book before COVID, they cite so many of our pandemic conditions as attacking our sense of agency including:
- increased use and reliance on technology (and less human interaction);
- less physical movement;
- isolation (well, yes!); and
- rapid change that overextends our ability to adapt.
The good news is agency is learned —which means we always have the opportunity to cultivate it. If we know we are operating on fear, we have a chance to course correct. Each time we stay in the present moment (versus recounting the pains of the past), we are gaining on our ability to have control over our lives. When we accept what is (even though what is might be messy, complicated and unexpected), we begin to open ourselves to the opportunities of how we might be powerful in the now…how our current choices might impact others or change dynamics or improve – even in small ways – the health of our relationships. Better still, when we can articulate our sense of purpose, our “why” for being on the planet, we can return again and again to that core sense of meaning and belonging.
Parents or educators who feel like victims, who react as if others are out to get them and they are innocent and helpless will feel anxiety, may feel depression and despair, and certainly will not cultivate a mindset in their children or students that helps them feel like the leader of their own life. And we all have those moments or times. Since we cannot truly cultivate agency in our children without first cultivating it in ourselves, I’m sharing tips on how we can cultivate it in ourselves – or recalibrate if we’ve had it and then, lost it – along with our children:
Pause and Reflect.
Agency is only available when you slow down. It begins to appear when you pause and think about your thinking (meta-cognition). If you are too busy to stop, breathe, get quiet and listen within, you run the risk of catching others’ fears and anxieties, exacerbating your own anxiousness and reacting on impulse. By taking this all-important pause, you identify which inner and outer voices are authentic and necessary to meet the challenges of the moment. And you have the ability to access a greater wisdom to allow your best self to emerge.
Recount your Latest Stories.
Slipping into this victim/helpless mindset is an easy move during these complex times. If we have to fight for our safety, our rights, or our choices, we may slip into an us versus them mentality feeling victimized. For this reason, it’s important we check our stories – you know, the ones we tell ourselves as we go through life when our tire has a hole in it, or the package was delivered to the wrong house, or your child refuses to practice her instrument. Consider the last time you were challenged by someone. Tell that story to yourself again in writing. Now review what you wrote and consider these questions:
- Was there someone(s) to blame for your challenge other than you?
- Did you feel a lack of control?
- Did you act in any way that helped you feel better?
Reframe your Story.
If your first two answers were “yes,” it’s important you look at revising your story. How can you retell it without placing blame? Better still, how can you find empathy and compassion for the others involved in your story – or in other words, what’s their story? Surely, their story also involves challenge and perhaps, pain. Flip that second question around and ask yourself, what can you control? And if you did not act in a way that made you feel better, what can you think of that you could have done? And what can you do if it happens again? If you get in the habit of reframing or retelling your stories of challenge in this way, you will cultivate agency.
Set a Positive Goal.
This is a simple yet powerful strategy from Roger Weissberg’s Social Problem-solving curriculum. It’s not enough to tell a story in which you retain some control or power. In addition, you need to set a pro-social, positive goal. What will be a healthy goal for you and for those you are in relationship with? A goal focuses your attention and energies in the right direction and if it is aligned with your core purpose, serves as a powerful navigation system so that you can return to a place of agency even when fear takes you temporarily off-course.
Take Small Steps.
Now use that goal to guide your purpose-driven action. Even and especially small and regular action toward your healthy, pro-social goal will help you experience the fact that you do have some control and you are moving in the right direction. You don’t have to convince your body and brain of that you have influence. They are convinced because of the steps you are taking.
Equate Every Challenge with Opportunity
Those who have well-articulated their purpose and have set and are working toward positive goals aligned with their purpose can also benefit by seeing every challenge as an opportunity to build and engage a social and emotional skill. Deepening our self-awareness and exercising our self-management skills will help us stay on course and deal with the big emotions that will shift even dramatically with challenging times. Our ever-growing social awareness allows us to find the empathy and compassion for others who are suffering, in pain or may not feel a sense of agency. We may discover new ways to assist those who live in fear. Our relationship skills are frequently put to the test as we attempt to motivate students or co-create safety rules with our children. How will we listen reflectively? How will we communicate in ways that create safety and show care? And finally, how can we make choices that come from a place of wisdom versus reactivity (or responsible decision-making)?
Keep in mind that if you are feeling particularly anxious or fearful, the people around you may increase your fear if they are feeling and experiencing it too. Anxiousness is contagious. So be sure and surround yourself with open-minded, life-giving individuals who are grounded in their sense of purpose and also taking positive steps toward their goals.
Children may have particular challenges related to agency. And those who are marginalized because of their skin color, heritage, native language (or other feature) will have even greater challenges in feeling a sense of agency. Jagers et al. write about the role of moral agency, that “people refrain from wrongdoing toward others and the proactive engagement in humane behavior.”2 Children need to learn from parents and teachers that they are capable contributors to their family, school and community and if they are angered or hurt by an injustice, they have the power to do something about it whether it involves resistance or persistence in making positive changes. Children and teens need adults who will allow for and elevate their voices. They are not just rule-followers in an adult world. But they are significant influencers and need to use their agency to create positive change. That opportunity requires parents and teachers who create those safe spaces for children to take risks in raising their voices and taking socially responsible action.
How will you discover or rediscover your sense of agency? And how will you guide your children to that gift that keeps on giving?
Service learning, or community service tied to learning and reflection in the curriculum is a structured and powerful way for students to experience agency. For more on service learning, check out the Center for Service Learning Practice with many resources.
1. Napper, P. & Rao, A. (2019). The Power of Agency; The Seven Principles to Conquer Obstacles, Make Effective Decisions, and Create a Life on your own Terms. NY: St. Martin’s Press.
2. Robert J. Jagers, Deborah Rivas-Drake & Brittney Williams (2019) Transformative Social and Emotional Learning (SEL): Toward SEL in Service of Educational Equity and Excellence, Educational Psychologist, 54:3, 162-184, DOI: 10.1080/00461520.2019.1623032