Student Agency in the Early Years

Student Agency in the Early Years; A step by step approach

Student agency is the hot buzzword in education at the moment, the importance of it is definite, especially as the enhanced PYP has embedded it into the core.  However, with every new buzzword there comes a feeling of of dread and anxiety to implement it and master it immediately from already over-burdened teachers. The truth is that the majority of us teachers are already using it in our teaching and if you aren’t, or would like to learn how to implement it further (especially in the Early Years) then read on for a step by step approach to implementing it.

Student agency refers to the level of control, autonomy, and power that a student experiences in an educational situation. Student agency can be manifested in the choice of learning environment, subject matter, approach, and/or pace.

                                                                                                  Grace – The Knewton Blog



Play is the easiest place to start because it is foundational to everything we do at school. A majority of the day should be focused on play and just like inquiry it can be categorized into guided, structured or open. How do you start? Begin by giving students choice on what type of play they would like to do. For example signs (or pictures for younger students) that explain what their choices are and ask the students to choose what activity or game they would like to play.

What next? Teachers can gradually release the power of teacher of direction and get students when students start to independently come up with ideas and activities to play with.

Want to take it further?

Some schools schedule time within the day, or within the week that promotes a concept of mixed classes play. Some schools call it ‘open play’ or ‘mix it up’  where students are given the opportunity to mix and mingle with other students within the same grade level and choose the classroom (or shared area) they would like to play in.

‘My favourite part of open play is that I get to play with other students from other classes. I can go into their class, and sometimes they come into mine.’ Caden – Prep student (5 years old)

Classroom Set Up

SEt up

(A group of students experimenting with a water trough that they specifically asked to bring in which connected to their personal project of building a Titanic boat.)

Student involvement with the set up and resources is important as it allows students to voice their interests and personal passions. Some teachers promote students to set up the classroom at the beginning of the year which communicates to the students that the classroom is theirs and they are so important in the structure of it. Within the early years many teachers often record,  plan and switch different resources depending on the class interests throughout the year. For example, at the school that I teach at I am lucky to have such great resources to use, but also that other teachers share and trade resources with each other. This past year I rotated in a kitchen set, a dress up corner, a large block corner, a stage, a puppet area, and a water trough all because students have asked for these. Ask your students what they would like to have in the classroom!

Parent Involvement

Without a doubt, parent involvement within the Early Years is not just crucial, but vital to creating in-depth inquiry and exploration. I have been extremely lucky to have been in such great communities of schools where parents are willing and able to help within the classroom. How can parents help with student agency at school? Here are two examples that we have used this past year.

Home Languages


Have parents come in and help out with home languages. This past year with the unit ‘How We Express Ourselves’ eight different parent volunteers came in to read to the students in seven different languages. six different classes of 123 students choose which language they would like to listen to a story in. This was done within the school and allowed the exploration of student interest to be acknowledged.

Field Trips

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The local community creates endless opportunities for students to inquire and expand their prior knowledge. This past year the unit ‘How We Organise Ourselves’ had a focus on communities and the Prep team organised a field trip that focused solely on student agency. The central idea was ‘communities are developed through a shared interest or need’ and the students were given the choice of nine venues to choose from to learn more. These choices included a fire station, fruit market, doctors, dentist, pet shop, a temple, a grocery store, a retirement home and the mtr. With the 123 students, 17 staff and 52 parent volunteers this field trip was a huge success because of parent involvement which therefore allowed students to pursue their own interests and be agents of their own learning. Screen Shot 2018-09-16 at 9.42.56 AM

(The picture above shows the group I led for the field trip that went to a temple. In this group there were 10 students, 2 teachers and 5 parent volunteers.)

Summative Assessments

Summative Assessments are a great opportunity for teachers to give options for student interests and to showcase their learning in different ways. A recent summative assessment I initiated was for the unit ‘How We Express Ourselves’ where I asked the students how they would like to showcase a story and they came up with a list of ideas from stop motion, puppets, song, dance, imovie, painting or a book. I was very thankful for extra help at this point and asked colleagues to come in to ‘mentor’ individual or small groups of students, and received help from the art teacher, the learning technology specialist, the vice principal and the PYP coordinator.

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(This picture shows the planning of the above summative assessment. The steps were explicitly shared with students to invite independence.)

Another example of a summative assessment with a large amount of agency was connected to the unit ‘Where We Are in Place and Time’.The central idea was ‘homes reflect available material and the local environment’ and each student was invited to choose a certain environment and material to build. After building the student posted their building on Seesaw, then recorded their process and reasoning. The purpose was to see if each child could relate the material to the environment (as outlined in the success criteria for the unit).

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So, to end here are some of the main parts to initiate and embed student agency in your classroom:

  1. Start small.
  2. Ask for help – parents, specialists and admin can give the extra guidance and allow for more individual learning
  3. Ask your students! Because the truth is, it is their classroom!

Looking for more resources?

Check out Taryn BondClegg’s incredible wealth of resources in her blog post ‘Student Agency Resources’ 






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