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Supporting Adolescents’ Emerging Agency

November 18, 2020


Michael Maloy
Director of Upper School

The American philosopher Mortimer Adler once said: “The ultimate end of education is happiness.” This sounds much simpler than it is in practice. Happiness is quite complex and often emerges from struggle and discomfort. In the end, happiness has many constituent parts. We typically associate happiness with joy, but it is also equal parts challenge, accomplishment, and learning to face and overcome adversity. For educational institutions, happiness ultimately culminates in the satisfaction you get from scholarly inquiry and intellectual engagement, or the exhilaration that accompanies athletic prowess or artistic accomplishment. And we all know that these things only come with great effort. No pain, no gain.

The achievement of happiness in education transforms dramatically as adolescents enter secondary school and step over the threshold into adulthood. Choice and agency begin to play a new role in developing higher levels of mastery and skill across all disciplines while students also pursue and nurture stronger interests and affinities in both academic and extracurricular pursuits. During these years, a central question emerges for educators and guardians: How do we frame and scaffold choice and agency on the road to full-fledged adulthood? 

To this end, adults can give adolescents autonomy with support. This support comes from building strong relationships. Support requires communication between the adults – the triangle that forms home, school, and student must maintain open lines of communication. Effective communication builds and maintains the network of support necessary to help young adults achieve their infinite potential. For the adults across the school/home side of the triangle, our communication must be rooted in a mutual bond of trust based on the fact that we all want what is best for the young adults in our care.  

As we support adolescents in developing effective autonomy, I have found it helpful to employ a model developed by the psychologist and school administrator Mike Riera. Dr. Riera proposes a transition from manager to consultant. With younger children we must manage their lives very closely. As they move into middle adolescence and begin to ask for more freedom, autonomy, and choice, adults must take on a new role as a consultant. A “manager” teacher or parent tries to ensure that an adolescent makes the “best” decisions.  A “consultant” parent or teacher focuses on helping an adolescent develop and exercise “decision-making muscles.”  The outcome is at times less important than the exercise and development of the muscle.  

The consultant model has the advantage of successfully avoiding the two most common errors in working with teenagers: treating them like children (overprotecting or overmanaging) and treating them like adults (underprotecting or abandonment). We avoid treating them like children by understanding that our role as consultants involves much less doing and much more listening and observing; we avoid mistaking them for fully formed adults by being present and actively listening in order to make the most of our “consultations.”   

As consultants, we willingly give up the illusion of power and control in favor of real influence. Clinging to pseudo-power over a teenager is what inadvertently leads them to subterfuge and avoidance and compromises our ability to guide them as they develop as scholars and young adults. When your students come home from school with a problem or concern, avoid being the manager trying to solve the problem. Instead, ask them who at school they have spoken to about this issue and help them develop a strategy that foregrounds their developing agency. Adolescence is, in part, an active training period en route to adulthood. Thus, there is room for “bad” decisions that are really “good” decisions. Or as Mark Twain once said, “Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.”