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Activating Parents to Develop Student Agency

Dylan Meikle, United Nations International School, Vietnam

Day-to-day life can leave little cognitive space for parents to consider the future-focused and transformational nature of the PYP. As the PYP moves forward in developing agency in the  Learners, the potential benefits of bringing our parent communities along with us as informed and active partners cannot be overstated.

For those familiar with psychology, the term agency will not be new. Originating in Alfred Bandura’s (1989) social cognitive theory, agency communicates the notion that humans, including children, have the self-efficacy, individual capacity and free-will to take action in a given environment.

Student agency has always been implicit in the Primary Years Programme (PYP). Perhaps we just didn’t toss the term about as intentionally as we now are. For many, working in partnership with students rather than ‘boss managing’ them through the curriculum and schedule went without saying. I’ve heard more than one veteran PYP teacher recently say something like “oh, agency… that’s what we call it now! We’ve always really been doing it”.

Yet within our broader learning communities, agency is surely less widely understood.

Acts of choice and ownership by students in educational contexts heavily influenced by industrialism and capitalism are historically rare. Not only have many community members never heard of agency, they have also never experienced it in their own upbringing and education. It’s inevitable that gaps exist between our practices in school and our parent community’s understanding of agency in the PYP.

Getting Practical with Parents

Day-to-day life can leave little cognitive space for parents to consider the future-focused and transformational nature of the PYP. We need to continue to engage with parents, inspire them, upskill them, unite in empathy and work in partnership. After all, just getting socks on your child’s feet before school can sometimes be challenge enough.

Tuning Parents into Agency:

In a recent parent coffee morning we posed this question to parents: “how much ownership of their life does your child really have?” Encourage a deep dive into this question, because a quick reply can easily overlook the lack of personal agency that is explicitly developed or expected from students at home.

Try this: ask parents to sketch out a “day in their child’s life” by listing all the things their child does from wake to sleep. Next, have them consider how much personal choice their children really have within the items on this list. Results can be startling.

Going Deeper than the ‘To-Do’ list:

After conducting the above review, parents may initially misunderstand that charts of jobs (e.g. brushing teeth, walking dogs, etc), which are often associated with external rewards, are building agency. Nope! As Stixrud & Johnson put it: “these scenarios are not about developing motivation – they’re about enlisting cooperation”.

When parents cross these routine tasks on their lists, we are left to consider “what motivates my child?” and “what opportunities do they have to pursue these sources of motivation?”

Starting the Day with Agency:

Many adults choose to start their days with meaningful routines; whether it be yoga, a 20 minute run or a pot of strong coffee. The children in our schools? Perhaps not so much.

Encourage parents to try waking-up their children 15 minutes earlier than their regular schedule, and then hand this time back to their kids. If their child wants to lay in bed for 15 minutes, they can; if they want to rush to the playroom and dive back into yesterday’s LEGO adventure, the choice is theirs. Read the next chapter of a book? Be our guest. And starting the day by experiencing intentionally scheduled agency? Perfect.

“It’s Your Call”:

Stixrud and Johnson advocate teaching parents the phrase “It’s your call” as a script that they should look to use with their children whenever appropriate. In life’s bustle parents may need reminders of their good intentions and a go-to script helps jolt memories. This phrase must come with limits and structures though, because voice, choice and ownership isn’t achieved by laissez-faire parenting — or teaching. Children have compelling, and at times competing, desires for both autonomy and structure in their lives, and we have to offer them both.

Another useful line to encourage parents to use repeatedly is “What do you want to do about this?” Use this line so frequently your child already knows what you are going to say, before you say it.

Parenting for Agency Starts in the PYP:

Parenting always comes from a place of love, but stressed, anxious and protective parents end up unintentionally diminishing their child’s emerging agency. Conversely, warm and supportive environments facilitate secure attachment and develop young people who act with the assumption that what they do determines their reality.

Recent news coverage has raised the dangers of ‘snowplow’ parenting. Pushing life’s challenges out of the child’s way simply raises the stakes for them later down the road. When overprotective parents work harder than their kids to problem solve “kids become weaker, not stronger” (Stixrud & Johnson, 2018). Placing agency as a central parenting message to your community is both timely and vitally important. If your school runs parent workshops on topics like play-based learning, action or the Exhibition, then chances are you are already running a stealth campaign promoting agency. Being explicit and upfront with parents about agency can help even more.

In a world where some parents struggle to offer even 20 minutes a day playing with their child, carving out extra time to build agency is likely to be an afterthought at best. As schools move forward in developing student agency, the benefits of bringing parent communities along with us as informed and active partners cannot be overstated.


  • The Learner: Agency via PYP: From Principles to Practice, International Baccalaureate 2019
  • Bandura, A. 1989, Human agency in social cognitive theory, American Psychologist, 44(9), 1175-1104.
  • Hayden, M 2007, Introduction to international education, Sage, London
  • IB Mission Statement, via PYP: From Principles to Practice, International Baccalaureate, 2019
  • How to Help Your Kid Wake Up Happy via com
  • The Self-Driven Child, William Stixrud & Ned Johnson 2018
  • Intrinsically Motivated, via
  • How Not to be a Snowplow Parent, via New York Times
  • Choice or Chance: Understanding your Locus of Control and Why it Matters, Stephen Nowicki 2016
  • Your Image of the Child: Where Teaching Begins, Loris Malaguzzi 1994 retrieved from
  • The Bad News About Helicopter Parenting: It Works via New York Times
  • How Parents are Robbing their Children of Adulthood, via New York Times
  • How to Raise an Adult, Julie Lythcott-Haims 2015
  • Parents + Student-Directed Learning = ?, Mel Taylor via empower2b, also available via ibeducatorvoices
  • Why our Children are More Entitled than Generations Before via com



Dylan Meikle is an elementary counselor at United Nations International School Hanoi and is an experienced homeroom teacher in the PYP. He is a member of the IBEN and an Apple Distinguished Educator. Dylan is passionate about learning environments and contributes to a blog on the subject at He welcomes feedback, collaboration and further discussion via Twitter @dylan_meikle.



One Response to Activating Parents to Develop Student Agency

  1. Ishwari Parvate 27 February 2023 at 6:31 pm #

    Hi! My school is hosting an” coffee with IB” session for our parents community and I have chosen “student agency in PYP” as my presentation topic. This blog of yours has given me a big perspective as to what I “have to” include in this presentation. This blog talks about the exact points and summarizes it sooo well…can’t thank you enough for this incredible post. Thanks a lot!

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