Student agency is when students are empowered to have an active role in making choices and decisions that shape their learning, wellbeing and experience of school.
Research shows that student outcomes improve when students are actively involved in decisions that affect them. When students are involved in setting goals, identifying adjustments and personalised planning, students are empowered to:
- Develop a stronger understanding of their strengths and how they learn.
- Identify the goals that are important to them.
- Advocate for the adjustments that they are most comfortable with.
- Feel a sense of their identity, value and belonging within their school community.
- Be more motivated, satisfied and successful in their learning.
This guide covers a number of practical evidence-based inclusion strategies that help students to become active agents within the personalised learning and support process. The guide provides strategies that schools can implement to set and achieve goals with their students, not for them, so that students have meaningful input into their educational journey.
Prepare the student
Identify key skills that will support the student’s agency and provide opportunities to practise these. Some students may find it challenging to discuss and advocate their own thoughts and ideas, particularly with authority figures such as parents or carers and teachers. Coaching and role plays on communicating their ideas and preferences, and handling disagreements, can help build their confidence.
Establish clear lines of communication with students and explicitly teach skills about who to seek support from, how to ask for support, and how to accept support that aligns with their goals. Provide a visual summary in their diary, or in an online portal so that all students can benefit from understanding their school’s processes for seeking support.
Provide regular and supported opportunities for students to problem-solve. Problem-solving resources are available: link to problem-solving guide in Hub
Ease students into decision making. Choice and decision making are crucial for developing agency and improving engagement, but can sometimes be overwhelming for students. Gradually increase student independence and agency opportunities, while minimising student anxiety and escalation of behaviours of concern.
Develop active listening skills. When both teachers and students develop skills to attend to each other and respond in ways that reflect an understanding of the others’ intended meaning, the shared respect and expectations improve student agency in meetings.
Look for opportunities to support students with self-reflection on their strengths and interests, areas where adjustments may be helpful, and how helpful they find specific adjustments. Work with these strengths and interests to enable a success cycle.
Ask the student how they would like to participate. Facilitating student agency involves respecting their preferences about how they participate in the personalised learning process. Some students may like to attend meetings, while others may like to share their ideas and preferences in another format (see the next point below), including talking to a trusted adult who then attends meetings on their behalf.
Offer choices in how the student communicates. Student voice is best facilitated when students are able to communicate using the approach they are most confident and comfortable with. Some key questions that you could ask students to understand their preferences are covered in the template.
Plan for a successful engagement
Plan for a structure that will best facilitate the student’s input. Consider the student’s age, attention, strengths, emotions (e.g. do they feel nervous about participating?), health needs, culture, communication approach, and other relevant factors when planning for a meeting. Provide a template the student can complete that provides an overview of their strengths and abilities, such as <link to Strengths and Abilities Communication Checklist>. It is important that potential barriers to student agency, such as communication mode and sensory sensitivities, are identified prior to meetings, so these can be addressed. This includes additional planning and consideration where gender, culture, race, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation or other similar factors may lead to perceptions of a power imbalance by students or their parents or carers. Some key questions that you could ask the student can be accessed in the template.
See also: Disability Standards for Education
Identify key supports that will promote agency and implement these. Time spent developing rapport with key support team members may build students’ feelings of safety and confidence. Allow students to nominate adults who they feel safe with to attend where relevant (for example, Aboriginal students may like to have specific broader family or community members attend meetings; a high potential and gifted student with disability may like to be matched with a mentor who shares the same interest or passion; students who are learning English as an additional language or dialect (EAL/D) may like to have a mentor translate for them).
Ensure there is a clear agenda, and expectations of the meeting are clear for all involved. Ensure all teachers, parents or carers, and other support team members, are provided with clear guidelines that cover respecting and listening to the student. These guidelines should incorporate the points under engage.
Actively listen and engage with their thoughts and ideas. When a student shares their experiences, thoughts, or ideas, listening to their views and providing active acknowledgement of their voice is essential.
Some practical ways you can do this, include:
Adjust the communication strategy to student preferences.
Acknowledge and summarise what the student has said to show you have listened. Use your own words (or signing, students' visuals or Augmentative and Alternate Communication system) to reflect your understanding, so that any differences in intended meaning can be identified.
Consider the pace of the conversation. Pause frequently to directly ask the student for their thoughts, ideas or preferences, and wait without speaking for the student to respond.
Use two-way listening. Ask for clarification when appropriate, and ask the student to expand on what they have told you. For example, “So, is reading aloud hard because the words are difficult to read, or is it another reason?”. Where appropriate, visuals, whiteboards or other communication strategies may provide students with alternative ways to clarify their meaning.
Consider student cognitive load by adjusting the complexity of questions and using familiar visuals.
Highlight key points. Use verbal as well as visual cues, including drawings or diagrams, to reiterate key points, including student strengths, and any decisions or actions made.
Respond non-judgmentally to the student’s views, and genuinely consider and include their ideas.
Observe the student’s body language, facial expressions and other relevant cues. Look for cues that a student may be engaged and is enjoying the process, or cues that they are uncomfortable, frustrated, disengaged, anxious, or stressed. For example, if a student is not engaging in conversation about a specific topic, it may be a sign they find the topic anxiety-provoking or embarrassing.
Communicate at the student’s level. Check that communication is tailored to the student’s age, strengths and abilities. This means ensuring communication supports the student’s preferences and active engagement. This could involve visual cues, AAC, braille versions of documents, an interpreter or Auslan interpreter, slideshow presentations, note taking or video recording. Pause frequently to clarify the student’s understanding, and provide brief verbal and/or written summaries of goals, tasks and decisions made.
Provide a summary. Provide a record of the meeting tailored to the student’s communication preferences. This may be in visual form, such as written, drawing, pictoral, photograph or video. It may be in auditory form, such as a voice recording. It may be in braille or a combination of forms. Where possible and practical, give opportunity to the student to also keep an ongoing reflection record to provide agency and ownership. Teachers or other support team members could spend time with the student reflecting on meeting records to help prevent misunderstanding of meeting discussions, to remind students and help them track progress on the goals they helped set, and to support reflection for future planning.
Summary of opportunities for students to participate in planning for their learning and support
Reflecting on and documenting their strengths, interests, areas where adjustments may be helpful, and how helpful they find specific adjustments.
Sharing their views.
Implementing the plan – including tracking their progress.
Sharing their preferences for how they will participate when planning for their learning and support. <link to new resource for students>
Leading the meeting.
Evaluating the plan and requesting modifications where appropriate.
Drafting the plan and agenda.
Where possible and practical, keeping their own notes or documentation of decisions or key outcomes.
School Excellence Framework alignment
Effective classroom practice
Australian Professional Standards for Teachers alignment
Standard 1: Know students and how they learn
School leaders, primary teachers
School staff can use these resources to foster student agency and engagement in planning meetings
Timeframes and when to use
This resource can be used at any time to provide further information and practice guidance
This resource was developed with the AllPlay Learn team who conducted a series of systematic reviews of the empirical literature, with over 177,000 articles screened. The resources remain up-to-date, with content reflecting best practice reviewed by a world-class multidisciplinary research team, led by Monash University.
June 2022. Share your feedback here