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Free Agency

May 18, 2018

Parents have often asked me for suggestions for summer, the subtext usually being that summer might be a good time for their children to learn a foreign language or advanced calculus. That might be a bit ambitious, I suggest, but perhaps reading a couple of books might be a good thing.

But even this bit of advice gives me pause because of an experience I had very early in my teaching career. I had assigned summer reading to my incoming 8th grade English students. Actually, I assigned one book and asked students to choose one or two others from a list. None of the selections were very long, and I thought they were pretty good reads. I felt no qualms about doing this. After all, who could argue with reading a couple of books over the long summer?

Well, at least one parent could. I wish I had kept the letter this parent wrote me to complain about my assignment. I say letter because this was before email. The parent was so mad he actually wrote me a letter. I don’t remember all the details, but the gist of the parent’s argument was that I was one of the worst human beings in the world and clearly someone who did not like children. How dare I, the parent demanded, assign summer reading when kids should be running free outside all summer!

The parent went on to describe an idyllic summer that sounded very much like an episode of Lassie, with little Timmy rambling across the countryside from dawn until dusk. I had my suspicions that in reality summer for this student probably involved a lot more video game playing, but who knew.

The question lingers, though. What should we ask of our students over the summer? The data is very compelling that students regress in their learning from June to September, although the impact is more keenly felt among low-income students. This suggests that students should not pause for an entire summer in their learning. This makes intuitive sense, as well. Imagine taking a summer off from running or playing tennis. How long does it take for you to get back to where you were before the break?

On the other hand, summer also is an opportunity to set classwork aside and focus on hobbies or new experiences. There is much to recommend about this approach to summer. And then there are those students for whom their parents cannot take summers off. Many parents face the stressful (and budget busting) challenge of finding camps or other ways to occupy their children. Keeping them busy and supervised is a matter of need not choice.

Personally, I think it’s not a bad thing to take the foot off the gas a bit for summer. But taking it easy doesn’t necessarily mean holding down the sofa and playing Minecraft or binge watching Netflix all summer. So, how to find that middle ground between over-taking our students during the summer and letting them become sloths?

In their interesting new book, The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over their Lives, William Stixrud, PhD, and Ned Johnson underscore the importance of giving children agency.  They write, “Agency may be the one most important factor in human happiness and well-being. We all like to feel that we are in charge of our own destiny.” It’s why, they suggest, kids usually love sleep-away camp, where they experience a range of choices and no parental influence. What’s not to love, right?

Stixrud and Johnson contend that a good part of the stress children feel has at its root our innate need for agency and how our brains react to loss of control. This suggests that my summer-reading loathing parent’s reaction to my summer reading assignment had more to do with his feeling that I had diminished his control over his child’s summer rather than a hatred of reading. Students probably despise assigned summer reading for the same reason.

Stixrud and Johnson suggest asking our children what they’d like to be in charge of that they currently aren’t. They also suggest offering choices rather than deciding the plan ourselves (“Today we’re going to do this and then this”). Giving children choice and agency, they conclude, will help reduce the number of arguments between parents and children. They note that arguments over getting ready on time and doing homework often have more to do with the child’s desire for control than the morning rush or homework. From a scientific perspective, the authors further explain that giving even very young children the ability to make decisions for themselves activates the prefrontal cortex and builds the circuits necessary to effectively handle stress.

This is an important reason why at Gardner we look to provide students with choice, such as stations to explore in our early childhood classes. This is especially so in our higher grade levels, when the need for agency and the stress felt by our adolescent students rises considerably. When students are able to direct their own learning, they are more engaged because they feel in control. Moreover, studies reveal that students retain more information and can do more with it when they have agency and ownership.

What to do about summer, then, especially if we really don’t want our kids to hold down the sofa? Taking a page from The Self-Driven Child, perhaps we should let our children take the wheel some. We are perfectly within our rights as the adults in their lives to say, “You can’t spend all summer with your face in a screen. What else would you like to do?” Have them make a list and ask them to articulate the advantages and disadvantages of their ideas. Stixrud and Johnson even advise letting them make poor choices (not dangerous ones, of course) because that’s how children learn to make better choices in the future.

Posted by Scott Kerman, Head of School
Categories: choice, enrichment, summer
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