Open Connections

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Supporting Autonomy and Agency in Young People

Written by Kelly Dillon, Facilitator. Originally published in the Winter 2019-20 "OC Magazine"


Looking back, I suppose autonomy and agency were likely the drive behind my search for options other than the conventional school path for my own young person, Eva. (Kelly and her daughter Eva joined the OC community when Eva was 5 years old. Eva graduated from OC in 2019.) I liked and supported the idea of her creating her own costumes and characters in her imaginative fantasy play, rather than choosing from boxed Disney princess costumes laid out for her. I respected Eva’s point of view at five, when she told me she might be ready to continue swim lessons, but not before she turned six. I marveled at the hours that passed too quickly exploring outdoors, poring over the latest haul of books from the library, drawing, building, and making stuff. I thought long and hard about MY decision to sign her up for tumbling, when week after week she sat and watched from the sidelines, with no interest in participating.


At some of the first Parents’ Meetings I attended here at OC, I remember Peter Bergson, co-founder of Open Connections, inviting us all to ‘trust our young people.’ As a public school graduate, I had no other frame of reference for how K-12 learning occurs. I mentioned in a recent family interview for this magazine (Summer 2019), that I (like many, I imagine) have had moments of struggle and doubt with just how much I could trust my young person, as well as myself in support of her, when it comes to ‘adequately’ learning the ‘important’ stuff. And then, as if on cue, I would witness something such as an interest in horses, inspiring voracious reading of everything we could get our hands on that featured horses. Or a curiosity about birds, regularly waking us before the sun comes up to observe and to volunteer with conservationists, collecting data from migratory birds in the spring and fall. Or creating and following a training program to build the strength and endurance needed for distance running. To my eye this appears to be autonomy and agency naturally revealing innate curiosity, and driving the compass that gives personally meaningful direction to purposeful engagement in life and learning.


There are a myriad of reasons one might choose homeschooling over a conventional approach to learning. A significant and beneficial opportunity that typically presents itself is to explore a more customized learning path—one that considers the very specific needs and interests of the youth. Youth-centered learning, youth-led learning, and self-directed learning are all terms that describe an experience that is contrary to coerced learning. It invites the student to decide what will be explored, how it may unfold, and why it is of value. Free from many of the limitations of imposed structure, Self-directed Learning invites autonomy (the power to make independent decisions) and cultivates agency (the ability to act independently and exercise freedom to choose)—two attributes that are essential to creating a personally meaningful life of purpose. Self-directed Learning is an important part of the culture at Open Connections—invited, nurtured, and celebrated within all programs.


There is more likely to be a pride of authorship, or accomplishment, with Self-directed Learning. There is less likely to be resistance, confusion, frustration, distress and certainly rebellion with Self-directed Learning as well. This is because the learner is focused on their goal rather than someone else’s. They are evaluating their own efforts as they go —“Am I getting where I want to go?”—rather than fretting, “Am I going to meet my teachers and parents’ approval?” (OC Glossary of Terms: Self-directed Learning)


What greater incentive is there to lean into the learning than being involved in making decisions, tailored to one’s unique interests? It is empowering for learners to have some agency to more actively participate in their own learning path. Alfie Kohn, a supporter of progressive education, and prolific author and lecturer on education, parenting, and human development states, ”Children, after all, are not just adults-in-the-making. They are people whose current needs and rights and experiences must be taken seriously.” If our aim as caring adults is to guide our youth in developing the skills needed to create a personally meaningful and personally satisfying life, we can support them in developing agency through autonomy, and perhaps encourage habits that will serve them well as curious, driven, life-long learners. Autonomy and agency together have the potential to shift end-goals from solely external evaluation and approval (via parents, teachers, and test scores) to something deeper and more individually and uniquely meaningful.


How do we nurture an interest in making independent decisions that will lead to a capacity to act independently and be free to choose? Perhaps we can begin by looking within ourselves. I imagine we all appreciate being seen and heard; it feels good when our early ideas are of interest to our peers, supported by those closest to us. We may find encouragement there, fueling our drive, growing our purpose, and giving deeper meaning to our inquiry and quest to find out more. However, should the interest and support of others become so invested that the idea or project no longer feels like our own, we may lose our autonomy and agency; our empowered drive may become stalled amidst the unsolicited advice or feedback. Offering solicited, flexible, guidance as needed, until ample confidence and skills to proceed are attained, is an investment in a trusted, supportive relationship. This measured approach of creating an atmosphere that invites and nurtures curiosity and also allows for the full experience of the journey (peaks AND valleys) is of interest to educators and facilitators within both conventional and progressive learning environments. Autonomy and agency are studied and explored in initiatives addressing achievement gaps and, more generally, as a means of increased engagement.


In Group Tutorial III, as in all programs offered at Open Connections, we invest in creating and maintaining a safe, secure, and inclusive learning atmosphere. It is very important for all of us to feel free to be ourselves, be respected and have the room to fully engage in the challenges and successes along our unique learning paths. Youth are encouraged to be active participants in the shaping of every aspect of their hours in program. We invite them to share their ideas and interests, and provide content accordingly, striving for a balance of youth led exploration and exposure to new ideas. Flexibility in planning allows for pursuing the unanticipated, curious, twists and turns along the way. As Facilitators, we look to partner in, and/or hand over decision making power to the young people wherever possible, allowing them opportunities to discover and forge the paths and pace that best suit their learning process. Debriefings and Balanced Responses* offer moments for reflection and meaningful feedback; we can acknowledge where our successes and challenges lie, discover the impact our decisions have on ourselves and others, and strategize our next steps moving forward.


Here are some ways we invite and nurture the development of autonomy and agency in Group Tutorial III:

  • We generally find that experiences involving team-building, open-ended, flexible and critical thinking are rich and informative in growing awareness and appreciation of our unique skills, perspectives and learning differences.
  • Each program year, youth choose a topic of personal interest for both a natural science project and a comprehensive writing project and presentation. The freedom to choose supports a deeper level of investment as they not only arrive at their starting question, but also engineer how they will investigate and research, or design an experiment, to begin to find an answer.
  • When acting as citizen scientists, whether observing and collecting data surrounding birds, trees, or stream health, youth engage in real work with an evolving understanding of why it’s important, and why they should care. There can also be a sense of accomplishment in making contributions to ongoing scientific study.
  • When youth identify a challenge or problem within our world and step up to consider how to be of service toward a solution, they are connected with their power and ability to effect change.
  • Tackling a mathematical or logic challenge as a group, with the goal of sharing initial thoughts and strategies we might apply in moving toward a solution (rather than racing to solve it as quickly as possible), opens our eyes to possibilities we may not have considered and deeper understanding of concepts.
  • Youth are free to self select from a range of math and logic activities organized in Math Boxes (introduced this year and inspired by the system that is in place in Group Tutorial IV). Working independently, in pairs or small teams, the young people can play and work at building fluency and gaining exposure to different concepts, choosing the path and pace that suits their skill level and level of development.
  • Developing self awareness and exploring practices and tools that ground us when we feel stressed, can give us confidence and bring comfort when the going gets tough.


As true autonomy and agency take hold, we as Facilitators (or parents, or caring adults) can feel invited to ease any need to ‘control’. Our wish is to provide a foundation, scaffolding and trusted support as guides, while the young people learn more about how they learn best, and build the confidence to guide themselves.



“Home”. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Ferguson, R. F. (2015). “The Influence Of Teaching”. Retrieved from

Bergson, Peter (2010), OC Glossary of Terms.


*A Balanced Response is a specific way of evaluating an idea. The basic form is offering 3 positive attributes of the idea and then expressing the concerns as “How-to’s.” For further information, read the OC Glossary of Terms which is available in the Parent Resource Library at OC.