Self Determination

Over the last week, I attended a conference in New York for heads of international schools. There were several workshops and conversation sessions on offer, including sessions about change in schools, inclusion, diversity, crisis management, and many others. Several of us commented on the fact that one of the most heavily attended sessions was entitled, “No, The Kids Are Not Alright” and was offered by a clinical psychologist, formerly a fellow at the Yale University School of Medicine and, interestingly, himself a student at international schools before university. He presented a great deal of data indicating the escalating mental health needs of young people. For my part, I took away even more awareness of the need to contribute to a solution for anxiety, depression, and poor sleep. These are increasing problems in the population at large, but the increase in issues related to these areas in young people is impossible to miss. The percentage increases signal a large change over time.

Self-Determination Theory
In one part of the discussion, we hit upon some of the theories that account for positive grounds for mental health, and success in school and work. I started to think through some of these factors and at the same time came across a recent article about what parents and schools can do to foster these elements. Since I think it is always best to ground some of these approaches in theory, I tied many of these factors to self-determination theory, which originated with the work of psychologists Richard Ryan and Edward Deci in the 1970s. These two have found, through on-going research, that some of the most important factors in motivation and wellness are autonomy, competence, and relatedness. I was struck by how well these aligned with our mission and vision, which should encourage us in our work as parents, as a community, and as a school.

Autonomy and Competence
Autonomy refers to the ability to make decisions about one’s own actions, path, or destiny. Competence refers to the need to develop and feel success. For young people, this may mean in certain academic domains, in sports and activities, or in special areas of talent and discipline, among others. These are crucial for intrinsic motivation; however, phenomena such as “helicopter parenting” and the fixed and increasingly mechanistic demands of education are antithetical to the development of both these capacities. It is harder to feel autonomous and competent when one is overly scheduled, programmed, and compared constantly to one’s peers. Furthermore, if success is defined in fixed, antiquated ways (e.g., can you memorize lines of poetry or recite the periodic table from memory?) then these factors are less likely to emerge. This is why it is crucial to put all learners in the driver’s seat rather than to see them as passengers on the education bus. We must work to ensure all learners are confident and able to take control of their own learning.

The final factor in self-determination theory is relatedness. In short, this is the capacity to relate to others, but also for others to relate to us. Connection to colleagues, friendship in school, and love in the family are essential for positive motivation and mental health. Young people especially (but not exclusively—older people too!) need to know they are valued and connected to something bigger than themselves while they develop autonomy and competence, not because they develop these. All three factors are crucial and interrelated. This can come from a strong family and a strong community. We owe these to our young people to help them be healthy, successful, and well-balanced as they grow. This is one way pursuing our vision of creating a school that fosters these will help us educate and fortify the leaders of the future.

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