Based on Silver's new book, Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8: Teaching Kids to Succeed

“You are not the boss of me!” “You can’t tell me what to do!” “I want to do it my way!” These are age-old proclamations from young people who want to declare their independence. Edward Deci and Richard Ryan (Deci, 1995), founders of self-determination theory, believe that autonomy, competence, and relatedness are essential in helping children to become self-actualized individuals. The concept of autonomy is particularly worth exploring because it not only helps build a growth mindset, but it also helps to instill a healthy sense of independence in kids.

Children perceive their circumstances as either autonomous or as controlled. With a perception of autonomy, individuals are willing to do what they are doing and embrace the activity with a sense of interest and commitment. If the situation is perceived as controlling, they will act without a sense of personal endorsement; they feel manipulated. Autonomy does not necessarily mean that one has strictly to “go it alone,” but rather it means that one is acting with a sense of choice and volition. This can happen simultaneously while one is enjoying interdependence with others.

5 Tips on Promoting Autonomy in Learners

Students who feel empowered by a sense of autonomy are far more likely to stay with an activity or a task and gain more from it in the long-term (Deci, 1995; Ryan & Deci, 2000). The standard reactions to excessive control are both undesirable – either unthinking compliance and/or defiance. Effective educators concerned with student engagement are always quick to point out that students need to experience ownership in what they are learning. Learners are more likely to be self-motivated and have greater task satisfaction if they feel they have at least some control over their choices.

Since autonomous behavior is associated with richer experience, better conceptual understanding, greater creativity, and improved problem solving (Deci, 1995), it is important that parents and teachers ensure that certain conditions exist to provide students with a sense of self-determination. You will note that most of these conditions are also necessary to promote a growth mindset.

Here are five things you can do to promote autonomy in learners:

1. Provide the learner with choice.


“Each family member is responsible for contributing to the overall quality of life in this house. Your father and I have certain things we do, and we expect you children to do the same. Write five things you are willing to do each week that will benefit the other family members.”


“We will have several book discussion groups going on in class next week. The books the class voted on cover a variety of levels and topics. I’m going to preview each book for you and then pass around a sign-up sheet for you to list your top two choices.”


2. Encourage the student to experiment, do creative thinking and challenge themselves.


“You seem to really identify with the heroine of that current fiction series. Her fierce, dark character is reminiscent of an earlier heroine, Moll Flanders, in a book by Daniel Defoe. I’d love hear your take on these two women protagonists whose male authors created them almost 300 years apart.”


“I know you say you are not a big fan of math, but these puzzles are more about logical-analytical thinking than number calculations. Why don’t you give them a try and see if you can solve them? Let me know how you feel about this type of math.”


3. Focus the student in his/her Zone of Proximal Development.


“Oh wow! You finished already? Let me see that. It looks like I just wasted your time by giving you something you already knew how to do. I apologize. Why don’t you try this next activity and see if it challenges you?”


“Yes, I can see you’re really putting a lot of effort into these problems, and look at you solving them correctly! Don’t worry about how long it’s taking. Your speed will increase as you get more practice. The main thing is that you feel confident about what you are doing so far.”


4. Provide feedback that is non-judgmental, and give specific information about how to improve.


“When you’re playing guard, it’s important to anticipate what the forward is going to do next. Sometimes their eyes or their body language will tell you. Let me show you what I mean. Watch me closely and see if you can guess what I am going to do before I do it. Then you can tell me how you knew.”


“On this test question, your response is correct, but you did not give any supporting details. Part of what I am trying to assess is how much you understand about what may have motivated the president to act as he did. Take your paper back and write down at least 3 factors that may have influenced his decision. If you don’t know, you may want to re-read the account in your text or see what you can find on the Internet.”


5. Give meaningful reasons for the task.


“Multiplying fractions may not seem useful to you now, but let me show you a video presentation of just a few instances when most people need that knowledge. Watch for what kinds of jobs use that skill on a daily basis and tell me about ones that could possibly relate to you.”


“The reason you need to feed the dog close to the same time every day is that he’s depending on you for his nourishment. His biological clock alerts him when it’s time to eat, and he’s helpless to do anything about it. I see that you enjoy the special relationship you have with your dog, and I know you want to be the one who sees that he gets what he needs when he needs it.”


Promoting autonomy in learners gives them a sense of control in their world, and it is important for them to feel they have power over their lives. It is significant to note that autonomy does not mean permissiveness. Rather, it is more of a negotiation between the adult and the learner that is flexible and proactive. The adult, of course, must set limits, but that can be done effectively by keeping limits as wide as possible, explaining the reasons for the limits, and avoiding controlling language. Deci gives the following example:


He [Richard Ryan] worked with Richard Koestner and identified a classic situation requiring both limits and creative autonomy: children’s art. The idea was to engage kids (five- and six-year-olds) in a creative but potentially messy, task of painting a picture. Limits concerning neatness were set up in two different ways – the conventional controlling way, and a non-controlling, autonomy-supportive way. The controlling way was simple: use pressuring language (“Be a good boy/girl and keep the materials neat,” or “Do as you should and don’t mix up the colors.”)

. . .

In the autonomy-supportive limits group, they said, “I know that sometimes it’s really fun to just slop the paint around, but here the materials and room need to be kept nice for the other children who will use them”(1995, pp. 42-43).


Deci reports the difference between the two groups was dramatic. The autonomy-supportive statement seemed to have an energizing effect on the children while the controlling statement had the opposite effect. The children who felt the adults understood them were far more intrinsically motivated and enthusiastic than the other group. It is important to note that the researchers found a way to encourage responsibility without undermining motivation. According to Deci:


Limit setting is extremely important for promoting responsibility, and the findings of this study are critical for how to do it. By setting limits in an autonomy-supportive way – in other words, by aligning yourself with the person being limited, recognizing that he or she is a proactive subject, rather than an object to be manipulated or controlled – it is possible to encourage responsibility without undermining authenticity (1995, p.43).


It’s all in the Way You Say It - Supporting Autonomy without De-Motivating


Controlling- C

Autonomy Supportive- AS


C- “You can use the Internet, but be sure you only go to sites that are school- approved and are directly related to your topic.”

AS- “You’re a responsible person, so I’m sure you’ll use the Internet wisely. Isn’t it great to be able to search for information about your topic that’s not in the textbook? Let me know if you find something unique.”


C- “You can work in groups as long as you stay on task and don’t get too loud.”

AS- “It’s fun to laugh and talk with friends, but make sure your volume doesn’t bother other groups. You can have a good time and still get the job done.”

C- “You can clean out the hamster cage as long as you follow the guidelines you see posted there. Make sure you don’t let the hamster loose, and clean up your mess when you are done.”

AS- “I really appreciate you volunteering to help take care of our hamster. That was always a fun thing for me to do when I was a student. Where are you planning to put Henry while you clean his cage? If you need some tips for cleaning just take a peak at that list on the wall. It’s there for back-up if you need it.”


In my experience, the heart of building autonomy lies in giving student meaningful choices and being responsive to them as learners. Nel Noddings writes, “We cannot enter into [meaningful] dialogue with children when we know that our decision is already made” (1992, p.23). Having a dialogue does not mean that teachers and parents have to give choices on every single issue. We just have to make sure that there are substantial opportunities that include the student in the decision-making. Everyone likes to have a voice; giving children a genuine opportunity to be heard is essential to helping them build a healthy sense of independence.


Younger Children and Choice:

Parents of younger children may find they need to limit choices because certain decisions about health or safety are non-negotiable. However, it is almost always better if the child has some kind of authentic say in the situation. Examples of limited choices are as follows:


    • “It’s cold outside this morning, so do you want to wear your blue sweater or your brown coat?”
    • “For dinner, you can choose one of these proteins and two vegetables. You’ll want to fill up because the next available food is tomorrow at breakfast.”
    • “You aren’t tall enough yet for drivers to see you. When we cross the street, do you want to hold my hand, or do you want me to carry you?”


In this way the adults can set up certain parameters, but the child still gets to have a say. Some of you are probably wondering, “What do I do if the child says she doesn’t want to do either of the choices?” An appropriate response to prevent delaying tactics would be, “Okay, you seem to be having trouble making up your mind. In 15 seconds you choose or I choose for you.”


Helping a child explore choices and possible outcomes is an effective way to teach her autonomy. It supports a student’s self-efficacy and independence, and builds a growth mindset when we turn over appropriate power to her. We need to give her a chance to test her wings and encourage her to develop a healthy sense of her power.


Deci, E.L., with Flaste, R. (1995). Why we do what we do: Understanding self-motivation. Gross/Putnam Books: London, England.

Noddings, N. (1992). The Challenge to Care in Schools. New York: Teachers College Press.

Ryan, R., & Deci, E. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology 25, 54-67.


About Debbie Silver:

Dr. Debbie Silver is a retired educator with over 30 years of experience as a teacher, staff development facilitator, and college professor. She is an author and a parent of five boys. She speaks worldwide on issues involving education and parenting. Debbie wrote the best selling book, Drumming to the Beat of Different Marchers: Finding the Rhythm for Differentiated Instruction and co-wrote Because You Teach and Middle School Matters. Her newest book, Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8: Teaching Kids to Succeed, will be released by Corwin Press in May, 2012. You can read more about her at