Giving kids responsibility can be a scary thing, mostly because, as teachers, we want to have our finger on the pulse of the classroom at all times.  We want to know where our students are, what they’re doing, and what degree of success they’re experiencing.  But this is hard to do when you instill ownership and agency in your students.  To remedy this, it’s essential to help our students help themselves–to put strategies and tools in place, not only to help maximize your time in the classroom, but also to help them advocate for themselves and their needs. Here are 5 Tips for Helping Kids Help Themselves:

Screen Shot 2014-08-14 at 7.55.06 AM(1) Add smaller, bite-sized essential questions to your instruction.

I had an epiphany last year.  After working thinking journals into my practice, many of which were guided by a question, I decided to start pairing some of these essential questions with my learning targets in order to give my kids another angle from which they could look at the days lesson.  Instead of just looking at a target, they could also look at question they would need to be able to answer when they finished the day.  It served as an excellent thermometer for my students’ ability to internalize the content and truly respond to it in a deep way.  It was also a great gauge for them to see if they were understanding the lesson.  Check out this example below from last year’s “Values” unit.


Screen Shot 2014-08-14 at 8.03.55 AM(2) Create frameworks so that your students may find structure in their autonomy.

In order for kids to independently advocate for their own interests, it is absolutely essential that they know how to research.  Even if they are researching using videos, infographics, or other types of non-print media, knowing how to sift through content is critical to student’s success.  For this, I suggest creating frameworks or flexible processes to help students navigate this potentially problematic and frustrating process, something like the “5 Ts for Research,” shown here.


(3) Model strategy more than you explicitly teach skill.

While it’s important to provide skill-based instruction when students need it, using your whole-group time for modeling think alouds in coordination with your skill-based instruction certainly is a better use of your time and a a better use of your students’ time as well. Ritchart’s Making Thinking Visible, Keene’s Mosaic of Thought, and Buckner’s Notebook Know-How are just a few examples of strategy-based instruction that help to promote thinking and autonomy in the classroom.

(4) Make assessment available to the kids, so they can internalize it and use to it help them.

It’s hard to remember sometimes, but assessment is supposed to be for documentation and formative purposes. It’s not meant to track kids or fence them into their mistakes. It’s supposed to make their “mistakes” visible; it’s supposed to set them free. Using assessment in a secretive and authoritarian manner doesn’t help you, and it certainly won’t help create a culture that promotes innovation, inquiry, and independence.

I recommend using proficiency scales and rubrics to help students anchor themselves into assessment criteria, allowing them to use assessment in a way that creates a roadmap for learning while still granting you the opportunity to provide some more qualitative feedback on progress.

Screen Shot 2014-07-26 at 2.05.57 PM(5) Praise failure, but don’t praise mediocrity.

A bias towards action–a staple in the Design Thinking approach–is essential in an elementary classroom.  Kids need to think, do, and interact before they can attain knowledge, synthesize, and innovate.  This sort of action guarantees failure, and this needs to be promoted in the classroom.

Lots of people think that praising failure automatically entails celebrating mediocrity, and that’s not necessarily true.  While a lack of honesty and low expectations can foster this sort of mediocre mentality, thoughtful and honest feedback coupled with structure and high expectations creates a culture that promotes learning from mistakes and can help foster intrinsic motivation in our children.

What’s more, it can show kids that the mistakes you make aren’t nearly as important as the way you help yourself recover from the mistakes.

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