Agency and Autonomy? Two Significant Learning Conditions

In a way, there is nothing (no one thing) very complicated about parenting. Each bit of awareness-raising information is pretty straightforward.  BUT ... each is impacted by many other bits in differing ways that can cause unpredictable and undesirable results. And, now as a grandparent, I keep finding more "opportunities" to see that what I thought yesterday isn't the whole story.

Here is something new for me: In human behavior, what is the difference between autonomy and agency? See if you find this useful in nurturing your child's (or your own) sense of fulfillment and satisfaction.

I recently attended an early childhood education conference and was attracted to a session that I thought was going to be about preschool children and the significance of autonomy, a seemingly overlooked human drive.  This session was lead by the most delightful, wise, and observant XX-year-old I have ever had the opportunity to meet - Sydney Gurwitz Clemens. Right up front, she told me that autonomy is not the same as agency.  That hooked me, and I thankfully stayed for it. At the end, I thanked her and said, "I've never heard agency discussed before in early childhood. Do you know who else is doing that?" She answered, "I'm the only one." As soon as I got home I begin to explore the difference between these two and share them with you below - in the hope that we can create some partnerships to empower parents.  In the meanwhile, she and I are planning to do a few joint public educational conversations with parents in the near future.

I wrote the following after a few back-and-forth emails from a close friend and linguistic mentor regarding my initial thoughts.  Thanks, Kevin K!

Agency is an intentional personal action or intervention, such as to explore, test, or produce a particular effect for one's own goal or internal learning process.

Autonomy is the capacity of a person to act independently, free from external control or influence.

I could say that being in a classroom involves a loss of autonomy - the loss of choice of where one is and what one can personally choose to do given the rules and expectations of that classroom and school (external to the student's choice of interests).  Agency is what we can choose  within the options 

A loss of agency is when one is constrained (e.g., through punishment), re-directed, or distracted by others in their own thinking and exploring within whatever environment they find themselves. That is, a child may have lost the autonomy to go outside and play in school, but within the agreements of the classroom setting, she or he will have at least some agency at times to explore and converse about (or around) whatever the classroom activity or topic happens to be. Students who do well in school tend to exercise a higher level of agency when they have introjected (adopted, willingly or unwillingly) the limitations, expectations, and goals of their teachers, parents, and schools, despite their loss of autonomy. Whether this is beneficial for learning essential life and thinking skills is questionable (depending on what a student's alternatives are).

My sense is that children and adults who have high agency and autonomy (fewer external restrictions) in their lives are happier and more productive than those we feel they are under the control of others (whether or not they really are). And, as my friend Kevin said, if I had to choose one over the other, I'd choose agency over autonomy, but having both is preferable to either one.

On a daily practical level with young children:

Agency is disrupted when we (me included!) start talking to or making demands or requests of our young children when they are playing on their own. Also, helping or coaching them without being asked, and giving answers when unasked, are other frequent ways we may interrupt their development of agency. Sometimes it is necessary, maybe even frequently, but doing it without being aware of it has negative relational results, as I observed after cogitating on it:

I know it doesn't work for me to start talking to my adult family members when they are working on their computers or doing their own art project, nor does it work when one of them just starts talking to me "out of the blue." I don't get consciously angry (but others may), but when I think about it, I am annoyed. I am now more aware to try to remember that young children get interrupted from their important "work" that I might not even think matters. How rude of me!  At least now I apologize, even to two-year-olds whom I don't know, when I interrupt them just to be friendly!

I hope this interrupts you in rewarding ways!