Positive school cultures are linked to increases in high school graduation rates, turnarounds in low-performing schools, and reduced school violence. Knowing this, principals try many things to change or improve school culture. But how many of them try increasing student autonomy? 

Research shows direct connections between student autonomy and increases in students’ self-​esteem, connectedness to learning, academic success, personal growth, enjoyment of school, positive emotions in the classroom, conceptual understandings, internal motivation for learning, and success later in life. 

In Choices for Children: Why and How to Let Students Decide, education author Alfie Kohn argues autonomy is an essential component for creating learning communities. “It is frankly difficult to understand how anyone can talk about school reform without immediately addressing the question of how students can be given more say about what goes on in their classes,” Kohn says. 

Working as a school to increase student autonomy does not involve the latest professional development seminar, workbook, or high-stakes test. Instead, it is a general idea that principals can use to create a vision—a vision with which they can inspire teachers, students, and community members, and ultimately, change school culture. 

Reaching Teachers

One of the benefits of using student autonomy to change school culture is that principals will not overwhelm teachers with yet another new initiative. Instead, increasing student autonomy represents a small shift in teaching practices and does not require huge commitments of time or prep work from teachers. In fact, most teachers are probably already doing some form of autonomy-supportive teaching. Therefore, the goal for the principal is simply to focus on developing, increasing, and celebrating what is being done. 

To create teacher buy-in for increasing student autonomy, principals must give teachers autonomy. Hold a staff meeting to talk about student autonomy, and be sure to set a positive tone in the meeting. Make sure teachers know that honesty will not be held against them. Then, give teachers time to share some of the hesitation they might feel in giving students more autonomy in the classroom. Take time to address ways they can overcome these concerns, and share autonomy-supportive teaching practices. By allowing teachers to share what is and what isn’t working, you are both modeling autonomy and developing a culture that appreciates it. 

Reaching Students

A school focused on increasing autonomy utilizes a constructivist approach; returning the locus of control back to the students, making the students responsible for their own education. The results of this approach will be felt almost immediately. Students will feel more engaged, less burned out, and less apathetic. 

“If we want children to have good values on their own over the long haul … then there is no substitute for giving them the chance to become actively involved in deciding what kind of people they want to be and what kind of classroom or schools they want to have,” Kohn tells educators. With this in mind, principals seeking to build a culture that celebrates student autonomy should make an effort to solicit feedback from students. Feedback can come formally from surveys asking students which autonomy-increasing strategies they prefer, by appointing a student liaison to committees, or by creating a principal-student advisory group with regular meetings. You can also collect feedback informally by engaging in conversations with students and listening carefully and thoughtfully when they speak. 

Reaching the Community

When addressing the community, principals can frame student autonomy as a schoolwide effort to develop students’ skills around self-determination, motivation, and responsibility. 

It may be worth your while also to remind community members that school is more than just a place for intellectual development; it’s a place where students learn to become responsible citizens, make good choices, and participate in a community. How can students practice these skills if they are not given the opportunity? Principals can share their vision with community members through meetings, articles in the paper, or letters/emails home to parents. They can speak about student advocacy at meetings of the Rotary Club, parent-teacher organizations, and other civic groups. 

Hurdles to Overcome

Increasing student autonomy likely won’t be a walk in the park. Be prepared to face these obstacles that often need to be overcome:

  • In the building: Often, teachers do not feel as though they personally have choices or control over school initiatives. Remember that teachers subjected to rigid directives or climates will often respond by increasing control over their students. Before seeking to increase student autonomy, be sure to set up an administration and structure that appreciates and supports teacher autonomy. 
  • In the classroom: “Every teacher who is told what material to cover, when to cover it, and how to evaluate student performance is a teacher who knows that enthusiasm for one’s work quickly evaporates in the face of being controlled. Not every teacher, however, realizes that exactly the same thing holds true for students: Deprive them of self-determination, and you have likely deprived them of motivation,” Kohn says. Teachers may need help seeing that there are more than two classroom management options-control or chaos. Principals should encourage teachers to implement autonomy-supportive teaching practices, such as creating opportunities for students to work in their own way; making information relevant and personal; and providing choice not simply for the learning objective, but also for how that objective can be reached.  
  • In the hallways: Students have been conditioned to accept a posture of passivity at school. After years of being told what to do and how to do it, it is not surprising that students may not initially understand autonomy. Don’t give up after a single attempt at increasing student autonomy. Model supporting advocacy by encouraging and even rewarding persistence and effort when you notice teachers using advocacy-​supportive strategies.   

Amanda Bastoni is CTE director at Nashua North High School in Nashua, NH.

Making It Work

Key Steps in Implementing Student Autonomy

Prepare. The first step for principals is to establish their vision. What will increasing student autonomy look like? How will it be defined, discussed, and assessed? Since culture change starts at the top, principals must first make sure they have a clear vision, then they need to make sure the administration is on board. When the principal and the administration can clearly define what it means to increase student advocacy and why it is important, it will be easier to convince others to follow. 

Engage. Principals should share the vision of increasing student autonomy at the beginning of the new school year. Communicate through assemblies, posters, slogans, newsletters, letters/emails to parents, the school website, and informal discussions that highlight the benefits of increasing student autonomy. Remember, like educators, parents are busy, so consider hosting a town hall-style meeting on an evening or a weekend to accommodate parents’ schedules. Overall, it is critical that principals communicate the vision of increasing student autonomy in a variety of ways. 

Apply. Next, create ways for teachers to practice giving students autonomy and developing skills around it. One option is to align professional development with autonomy-supportive teaching practices. Consider doing walk-throughs to observe teachers’ use of autonomy-supportive practices. These walk-throughs will provide principals and administrators an opportunity to give feedback, coach teachers about autonomy-supportive practices, and provide examples for principals to highlight more publicly at staff meetings or through newsletters. In an effort to keep momentum going, consider hosting a “How are we doing?” session once a month, during which teachers could volunteer to share what’s working and what isn’t in regard to increasing student autonomy.