A new study in the Journal of Positive Psychology showed that having a sense of autonomy in our lives is a key contributor to our day-to-day happiness and sense of well-being (Kukita et al., 2022).

The report defines autonomy as, “the feeling that your life, its activities and habits are self-chosen and self-endorsed.” Simply put, autonomy is about making your own choices rather than being coerced into making them. 

Reading this report was particularly validating for me. As I’ve gotten older, my sense of autonomy has emerged as one of the most important values in my life, and now I realize why. Feeling like my life, work, activities, and habits are self-chosen makes me feel happy and fulfilled. Even when I make huge mistakes. Even when I take big risks and fall hard. If the choices were truly my own, I’m able to accept the consequences of my actions and learn from them. If I was coerced into making a particular choice, living with the outcome can feel intolerable. 

So what implications does this report have for our work with young children? How can we give them a sense of autonomy while guiding them towards a life that is purposeful and fulfilling? 

Here are a few small things we can do as teachers and parents: 

Enlist your kids in Meal Planning:

  • When your children are ready for more autonomy in the kitchen, you can have them help with planning a meal and making a grocery list. They can choose a meal from a recipe book or from a few options that you provide them. Then, you can bring them to the store with you, and have them fetch the things that they need for that meal. Finally, have them help with meal prep if applicable. An added benefit is that if they feel more autonomy in the meal choice, they’re much more likely to eat their dinner!

Sending them on Errands at Home or at School:

  • Another way to increase a young child’s sense of autonomy is to give them small errands within the house or classroom. In the house, try sending your child to another room with a small task such as putting folded laundry in their room or getting another paper towel roll from the pantry. 
  • For teachers, try sending young students on small errands such as bringing a memo to the front office, returning a book to the library, or passing out materials. This will give them a sense of accomplishment and self-efficacy.

Give them a “Menu” of Choices

  • In the classroom, giving students a menu of activities to choose from during an instructional block will give them a sense of ownership over their learning experience. For example, during reading, you can give them a menu of options including independent reading, buddy reading, or listening to an audiobook. During math, try giving them a menu of games or activities to practice their math facts.
  • At home, providing children with a “menu” during play time that has a few options for games and activities will give them a sense of autonomy and direction during free play. Try making an actual menu with picture cues and putting it in a plastic sheet so that they can circle which game or activity they’d like to do that day.  Also, encouraging them to invent their own game will tap into their creativity and give them a healthy outlet for their energy. 

Try one of these tips out and let us know how it goes! 

In Partnership,

Lindsay Samson Harrington