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Founded in 1866, Fay serves 475 students in Pre-K through grade nine on its 66-acre campus in Southborough, Massachusetts.


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Fay School Blog

The Opposite of Helplessness: How Do We Nurture Agency and Self-Reliance in our Children?

Posted by Fay School on Nov 11, 2017 10:34:00 AM

171010 Rob Gustavson with Lower School Students 025 1200x500.jpg

As hard as it may be, the best way to help our children gain confidence is to allow them to struggle, find meaning, and learn from their own experiences.

by Rob Gustavson, Head of School
A report issued by the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University in 2015 concluded that the development of agency in students may be “as important an outcome of schooling as the skills we measure with standardized testing.” The report, titled The Influence of Teaching: Beyond Standardized Test Scores, defines agency as “the capacity and propensity to take purposeful initiative.” Capacity is our ability to do something, and propensity is our inclination to do it. Purposeful initiative is intentional action taken with a goal in mind. Thus, in order to act with purpose, we must possess both capacity, which includes cognitive skills such as critical thinking and problem solving, and also propensity—a desire and willingness to act, based on the character strengths of confidence and determination.
The report describes agency as “the opposite of helplessness” and goes on to state, “Young people with high levels of agency do not respond passively to their circumstances; they tend to seek meaning and act with purpose to achieve the conditions they desire in their own and others’ lives.” When we possess a strong sense of agency, we don’t sit back, complain, and expect others to make things better for us. Instead, we seek context, gain perspective, and construct meaning; we envision a better situation and find ways to make progress toward that outcome; and we take deliberate, constructive action by demonstrating commitment, perseverance, persistence, and resilience.

Writing on behalf of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Kenneth Ginsberg has described resilience as the ability to recover from setbacks with optimism, the quality of bouncing back. “Resilient people,” he writes, “see challenges as opportunities. They do not seek problems, but they understand that they will ultimately be strengthened from them. Rather than engaging in self-doubt, catastrophic thinking, or victimization . . . they seek solutions.”

Ginsberg also makes an important distinction between resilience and perfectionism. Since perfectionists fear making any mistakes, they perform well within their comfort zone but don’t take chances. They tend to pursue only activities in which they are certain they will excel. Resilient people are usually more broadly successful because they push their limits; they take necessary risks and view mistakes as chances to learn.


“Traveler, there is no road; you make your own path as you walk.” - Antonio Machado


Resilience is based on confidence, and confidence is gained from experience. We can’t give our children confidence; they must acquire it themselves. But there are some things we can do to facilitate its development, the most important of which is to relinquish our desire to direct their lives. As hard as it may be, the best way to help our children gain confidence is to allow them to struggle, find meaning, and learn from their own experiences. Although difficult, we need to help them come to see—and accept ourselves—that they must learn how to make their own way in the world. In the words of poet Antonio Machado, “Traveler, there is no road; you make your own path as you walk.” We help our children develop confidence in themselves by showing them that we have confidence in them.  

This past summer our faculty and staff read the book How to Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former undergraduate dean at Stanford, in which she makes a compelling case for the importance of allowing our children to learn how to thrive in the world rather than be protected from it. She writes, “A child learns, grows, and ultimately succeeds by diving into what interests them, doing and thinking for themselves, trying and failing and trying again, and developing mastery through effort.” This sense of intrinsic motivation and agency that she describes comes from self-knowledge, a tolerance for making mistakes, and a willingness to take action in the face of uncertainty.

Agency requires adaptability and pragmatism, based not on a desire to achieve perfect performance, but on a mindset of continuous learning, improvement, and growth. Lythcott-Haims writes with candor and humility about her struggles to break free from over-parenting her own children. “We want so badly to help them by shepherding them from milestone to milestone and by shielding them from failure and pain,” she writes. “But overhelping causes harm. It can leave young adults without the strengths of skill, will, and character that are needed to know themselves and to craft a life.”

In the end, as parents and as educators, this may be the best we can hope to do for our children: to nurture their self-determination, their self-reliance, and their sense of agency, so they can craft meaningful lives for themselves. And the most effective way for us to do this is by setting high expectations, providing guidance and support when they truly need it, and serving as a perpetual source of encouragement and unconditional love.

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