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February 1, 2024
Vol. 81
No. 5

Student Mental Health: What’s Autonomy Got to Do with It?

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Offering students more autonomy could be the “antidote to stress.”

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Social-emotional learningInstructional Strategies
Student Mental Health: What’s Autonomy Got to Do with It? Header Image
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Mindfulness training. Deep breathing. Stress management techniques. Social-emotional learning programs. In their efforts to address student mental health, schools are using many of these approaches, but they just don’t go far enough. A crucial piece is missing.  
Our remedies, which often center on “fixes” or add-ons to existing school practices, disregard students’ day-to-day experience of school. Rather than focusing on the fix for poor mental health, we need to look at what students need to be well, at school practices that add or reduce stress and compromise or promote wellness.

What Students Need to Be Well

Self-determination theory (Miles et al., 2022) identifies three basic human needs: autonomy; competence; and relatedness, that feeling of being connected to others. Autonomy—having a sense of control—is the most important of the three; in fact, according to psychologists, “autonomy is the antidote to stress” (Stixrud & Johnson, 2018). Yet students typically lack autonomy in their day-to-day school experience, and this creates stress for both struggling and high-achieving students. Stress undermines mental health by activating the body’s stress response system, which changes brain chemistry in ways that make learning more difficult and make it harder to cope with new challenges (Stixrud & Johnson, 2018). If schools are to be proactive players in student wellness, we need to see a fundamental change from adult-centered practices to more student-centered schools.  
My research over the last 25 years on instruction, grading, homework, and student stress, as well as my work with schools, has revealed four shifts that schools need to make. These practices prioritize student autonomy, reduce student stress by meeting a basic psychological need, and support student mental health. Stanford University’s Challenge Success program features a wealth of supporting research that backs these shifts.

We need to look at what students need to be well, at school practices that add or reduce stress and compromise or promote wellness.

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Shift 1. From teacher-prescribed learning to student-designed learning 

In a traditional teacher-directed classroom, the conditions of learning are often tightly prescribed, leaving students with little or no control over the assigned tasks or when those tasks are due. This kind of learning means little to students because it’s not about them. As a teacher once said, “I’ve never heard of a child not doing his work; it’s our work he’s not doing” (Vatterott, 2015). This lack of autonomy promotes passivity and disengagement (McTighe & Tucker, 2022). Not only is it mind-numbing, stressful, and demotivating, but it also doesn’t prepare students for college, where more ­independent learning skills are required (­Vatterott, 2022).  
So how can schools increase student autonomy? To begin with, students need to understand teacher-prescribed learning goals; moreover, the teacher should give them some choice in how they want to learn and how they want to demonstrate that learning (McTighe & Tucker, 2022). Students might choose from a menu of teacher-created options, such as watching a video lecture, doing a series of readings, or researching information on various websites; they should be able to choose whether to work alone, with a partner, or in a group. Students may also set their own learning goals for content they’re interested in that relates to teacher goals.  
Village School, a public high school in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and one I extensively interviewed, takes student autonomy seriously. Core courses are online, putting flexibility and timing in students’ hands. The school leases that content from ­Accelerate Education, and the teachers make it their own by adding to or taking away from it as they see fit. Students and teachers co-create elective courses, planning the activities, field trips, and guest speakers. Examples of co-created elective courses include Podcasting, Introduction to Medicine, and the History and Culture of ­Barbecue.  
Students are on campus four days a week for elective courses and a blended math option. They participate in all aspects of school governance through a representative Principal’s Advisory Council. For instance, students served on a task force with architects and engineers from a construction company to create their new school space, which was housed in an old bank. All student social events are student-run and all clubs are student-generated, with help from a teacher.  
Village School belongs to Learning InspirED, a network of innovative schools that are deepening student autonomy by reforming school structures, processes, and practices. Learning InspirED research has shown an improvement in student mental health as a result of greater student autonomy in school.

Shift 2. From traditional grading and assessment practices to student autonomy in grading and assessment 

In a recent survey (Challenge Success & NBC News, 2021), high school students were asked to rate their biggest sources of stress. “Grades, tests, and other assessments” topped the list. This is not surprising, given the fact that traditional grading practices leave students with limited control over their grades. When all grades are permanent—locking in first attempts and mistakes made while the student is still learning—grades become a high-stakes endeavor. A typical high-stress practice is moment-in-time assessments: The test is Tuesday at 10:00 a.m. for everyone—whether a student is ready or not. It’s performance on demand, with no do-overs. All students take the same test and must complete it in the same amount of time, regardless of their working speed (Vatterott, 2015). When students lack the power to improve a poor grade, low grades live on in perpetuity, and if the teacher averages them, they continue to drive down other grades (Feldman, 2019). They’re the gift that keeps on giving . . . stress. No wonder some students have test anxiety! 
But several remedies are available, many of which are featured in the set of practices known as standards-based grading, also called grading for learning or equitable grading practices (Feldman, 2019; Vatterott, 2015). These practices reduce stress by enabling students to improve their grades.  
Teachers can give students more control over their grades and reduce grading and assessment stress by doing some or all of the following:
  • Grade less and provide more ungraded feedback on assignments. Use nonpunitive formative assessments, such as no-count practice tests.
  • Enable students to improve their grade by offering them multiple opportunities to demonstrate learning; these might include formative assessments, retakes, or revisions.
  • Instead of averaging an old grade with the newest evidence of learning, replace it with the new data.
  • Consider alternatives to traditional paper-and-pencil tests, such as performance tasks, reports, projects, or presentations.
  • Be flexible about the timing of in-class assessments. If many students indicate they need more time to prepare, consider delaying the assessment, providing additional formative feedback, or reteaching a concept.
  • Be responsive to student concerns about the amount of work due in other classes, and consider providing what one teacher called “soft deadlines.” When needed, the teacher works with the student to find a mutually agreeable due date.
  • Coordinate exam and project due dates by having multiple teachers use a common calendar.  
In one school I interviewed, Ohio’s Granville High School, students have the option of testing out of and receiving credit for courses. Test-out options are available in August and January, at the beginning of each semester, and mastery levels are set at 85 percent. Students can test out of advanced placement (AP) courses, but that first requires getting an acceptable grade on the AP exam for that course.  
Students can also develop independent study courses with a teacher mentor. For example, one student designed and built his own electric mountain bike. Granville, like Village School, participates in the Learning InspirED network of schools.

Shift 3. From teacher-assigned homework to student-designed homework  

Two shifts in homework practice can greatly relieve student stress levels: using homework to give students ungraded feedback and giving students ownership of tasks. Ungraded homework not only takes the heat off stressed students, but also opens up a world of options. Instead of being responsible for working, students become responsible for learning. On the basis of teacher feedback, students self-assess which tasks they need to do to demonstrate mastery, and then they decide which methods are the most efficient for them to do so (Vatterott, 2018). Even students who may resist completing homework quickly discover what work they must do to pass assessments.  

Instead of being responsible for working, students become responsible for learning.

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Student-designed homework frees students to design the task that fits the goal and aligns with their learning preferences. At Mason Elementary School in Ohio, students engage in “curiosity projects.” One student researched what play directors do, and for her project, which she worked on both in and outside of school, she wrote and directed a play. The school also has a Brave Ambassadors program for 4th graders; students engage in a variety of community outreach programs, meeting after school to design and complete their work.

Shift 4. From tightly prescribed schedules to the gift of time 

We can slow the pace, de-stress the schedule, and give students more control over their time by incorporating blocks of autonomous time into the school day. Consider the following approaches:
  • Extend passing times. Extending passing time between classes from the typical 3 to 5 minutes to 8 to 10 minutes can be a real game changer. It helps students feel less rushed, gives them time to say hello to friends, as well as time to use the restroom (­Vatterott, 2019). Administrators report that making this simple change has reduced stress levels for both students and teachers, as well as the number of tardies (Miles et al., 2022).
  • Designate student lunch periods. Not all schools have a designated lunch period; in fact, in some schools, students are allowed to pack their schedule so full that they don’t have a lunch period at all. It’s important to create and protect a designated lunch period for all students, and it should be long enough to enable students to eat and interact with other students or with teachers. Consider that in most full-time jobs, workers have at least 30 minutes for lunch.
  • Create autonomous blocks of time. Many high schools already have a nonacademic block of time in their schedule, but whether it’s truly autonomous time depends on how that time is used. If an advisory period offers social-emotional learning lessons that students are required to participate in, that’s not autonomous time. If the study hall rules dictate that students must remain seated, quiet, and working, that’s not autonomous time. We can repurpose these blocks, however. Students should be free to work on homework or other assignments, meet with teachers, visit with school counselors, or do nothing at all. A 20- to 60-minute block of time is ideal (Miles et al., 2022). (For more on reimagining time in school, see here.)  

When you change how students experience learning—and this experience does change when students have more autonomy—it also improves the teacher-student relationship.

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Autonomous time can be part of an extended lunch hour, or it can be scheduled contiguous to a lunch period. At Ohio’s Mason High School, the move to a block schedule provided an opportunity to create Connect Time, a 70-minute block that takes place every Wednesday where students opt for “quiet time” or sign up for such teacher-led activities as kickball, karaoke, coloring, board games, and guest speaker talks. The activities are often suggested by students. The principal noted that quiet time is the option that most students request, and they often use it to read, listen to music, or do nothing at all (D. Distel, personal communication, August 29, 2023).

Autonomy—It’s a Big Part of Mental Health 

Research has shown that although “feeling connected at school” is a strong protective factor for student mental health (CDC, 2023), in a recent survey, only 26 percent of high school students said they felt connected to their teachers (Langreo, 2023). When you change how students experience learning—and this experience does change when students have more autonomy—it also improves the teacher-student relationship. That relationship moves from trans­actional, “Have you completed the required tasks?” to supportive, “How can I help you reach the goal?” More robust connections between teacher and student ultimately provide the mental health support that ­students need (CDC, 2023; Niemiec & Ryan, 2009).  
Autonomy is a crucial component of student well-being, and it’s within our power to provide it. When we adapt our schedules, teaching, and learning practices to increase student autonomy, we “walk the walk” of the whole child philosophy and take an important step to improve student mental health.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ How do you see student autonomy as contributing to improved student mental health?

➛ What practices or policies has your school initiated to reduce student stress?

➛ Do you give students leeway in designing their own learning?

References

Centers for Disease Control and ­Prevention (CDC). (2023). School connectedness helps students thrive.  

Challenge Success & NBC News. (2021, February). Kids under pressure: A look at student well-being and engagement during the pandemic. 

Feldman, J. (2019). Grading for equity: What it is, why it matters, and how it can transform schools and classrooms. Corwin. 

Langreo, L. (2023, May 9). Most students don’t have strong connections to their teachers, survey finds. EdWeek

McTighe, J., & Tucker, C. (2022). Developing self-directed learners by design. Educational Leadership, 80(3), 58–64. 

Miles, S., Pope, D., Villeneuve, J. C., & Selby, S. T. (2022). Making time for well-being. Educational Leadership, 79(9), 60–65. 

Niemiec, C. P., & Ryan, R. M. (2009). Autonomy, competence, and relatedness in the classroom: Applying self-determination theory to educational practice. Theory and Research in ­Education, 7(2), 133−144.  

Stixrud, W., & Johnson, N. (2018). The self-driven child: The science and sense of giving your kids more control over their lives. Penguin Books.  

Vatterott, C. (2015). Rethinking grading: Meaningful assessment for standards-based learning. ASCD.  

Vatterott, C. (2018). Rethinking homework: Best practices that support diverse needs (2nd ed.). ASCD.  

Vatterott, C. (2019). The teens are not alright. Educational Leadership, 76(8), 13−16.  

Vatterott, C. (2022). Lessons on student well-being from “the great resignation.” Educational Leadership, 79(9), 26−30.  

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