From infancy to adolescence: the new agents of the world?
In social science, agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. This blog will aim to give a general sense of what agency is and how it can be fostered in children of a variety of ages. The information given can be applicable to schools, parents and intervention work.
Is it important for children to have a sense of agency?
Firstly, you might be wondering whether or not the idea of agency is important for children, or whether the responsibility of making choices should be left with adults. Nevertheless, the importance of children’s autonomy is being more readily recognized and the United Nations has now included several articles on children’s responsibility including “the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”. Therefore, this indicates that children should be encouraged to think for themselves, namely have a sense of agency (Lundy, 2007). The effects of such encouragement have been supported, with research showing that children with a sense of agency achieve more academically, have better social skills and higher life satisfaction (Kumpulainen, Lipponen, Hilppö, & Mikkola, 2014).
What age can children truly make their own free choices?
There are different viewpoints on when children develop agency; being able to make their own choices and accept responsibility. Some argue that 18 years marks the time of adult responsibility. In the eyes of the law, children aged as young as 10 have criminal accountability. Others argue that as soon as children go to school they should be able to make their own choices. In terms of giving children a sense of agency however, there are methods which can be used even with infants. These methods allow children free will and to develop all important decision making skills.
How can we foster a sense of agency?
So now we have learned that fostering a sense of agency can help improve healthy child development, even as young as infants, the next step is to think of ways to encourage this ability, some of which are listed below.
- From infancy, agency can be encouraged by allowing the infant to make small choices such as what to wear each day, (even before children can talk, you can follow their gaze to see which item they prefer).
- Children can be given jobs to foster responsibility, as shown in the diagram (right).
- Teenagers should be encouraged to think about their life choices such as colleges, university or jobs. Their opinions should be taken into account and by encouraging decision making from early on in life; the skill should be more developed in adolescence.
- It is important to bear in mind the children’s opinion when conducting research; as by including a simple questionnaire we can unlock ideas beyond the numerical data and give children a sense of control over their views.
- Another idea not to be forgotten is that simply by providing for the child, you are encouraging a sense of agency. By the child’s needs being met, they feel that they are worthy of what they want and are therefore more willing to try.
At One-Eighty, we help to foster children’s agency by asking them to think about the targets we aim to reach within the intervention, therefore making sure they are involved in the decision making progress. We also have a midway review to ensure that the young people are still happy with the targets and that we are helping with what the young person actually wants to achieve. Finally, we aim to ask all young people for feedback about the service.
The ideas discussed are just the beginning, but a necessary first step. In a world where we often feel like we have so little control, it is important to empower the young people around us whenever we can.
Assembly, U. G. (1948). Universal declaration of human rights. UN General Assembly.
Kumpulainen, K., Lipponen, L., Hilppö, J., & Mikkola, A. (2014). Building on the positive in children’s lives: A co-participatory study on the social construction of children’s sense of agency. Early Child Development and Care, 184(2), 211-229.
Lundy, L. (2007). ‘Voice’is not enough: conceptualising Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. British Educational Research Journal, 33(6), 927-942.