My Journey to Full Student Autonomy

My Journey to Full Student Autonomy

The toughest class in the building is my favorite. They are incredibly anxious students, who are easily irritated, and are incredibly defiant to authority. 

I assessed them for unmet needs and determined autonomy and belonging as the most influential to their behavior. I decided that they would be my test class for full autonomy. For context I have them for 50 minutes, two times a week on A weeks and three times a week on B weeks. 

The traditional teaching structure has a negative impact on their moods, feelings of competency and creates rifts in the class social dynamic which moves them even further away from having their needs met.  With the traditional teaching model, very little, if any teaching occurs (this still is happening in classrooms that use these approaches.) The majority of the time the adults in the room are only able to manage behaviors and even that ends up with students fighting, leaving the room, or leaving the school and trying to walk home. One of these situations happens almost every day. 

So, I thought, why not? The worst that could happen is that I don’t get to teach, which is happening anyway, right?

In The Beginning

I started in February by removing the point system, all rewards and punishments. The teacher assistant still recorded their points but I no longer mentioned points to the students. When they asked about it I would say, “I hate the point system and it makes you all anxious and I really don’t want you to focus on it, because it’s dumb.” They liked that the response was genuine and they felt similar, so losing points became less of an issue. However, I did give them feedback on whether their behavior was harmful to others or if it was unsafe.

By March removing the points seemed to not be working. I tried to go back to the point system, feeling like it was a failure and I was pretty discouraged. The class was barely manageable. I didn’t know what to do, I had no real plan anymore. 

I began to think and came to the conclusion that not having points but maintaining a highly authoritarian teaching style was counterproductive. If I was going to be authoritarian I needed to be full authoritarian, and the same for autonomous. I decided to discuss it with them. I didn’t want to make the decision for them, because that’s not autonomy. No one likes things being done to them. 

We sat down and I explained why I wanted to offer them full autonomy, how it supports my idea of what learning should be, how I think it could help them, and my concerns. It took a couple of tries to have this conversation. Whole group discussions did not go well when we first started, everyone talked over each other and got angry. After a couple of days discussing it, we all came to a decision that we would go with full autonomy, but it would be shared control because we are a community and no one is more important than anyone else.

The following weeks were hard, they were not used to making their own decisions, having group discussions, or using tools to regulate themselves. They had a really hard time navigating a space where adults weren’t doing things for them, especially handling disagreement and conflict. There was a learning curve of about three weeks, which is a long time. 


I start every class with a seven minute soft-start*. I had them shape the soft start and decide what it would look like. Some kids knew why we were doing it, others had no idea. The first week of full autonomy they took ~ten minutes to get their materials, get into their areas and start. Every class we would discuss how soft-start went and why we do it. I took their suggestions and we voted on it and as we started the next class I would remind them of what they said the class before. 

I told them that no matter what I wasn’t going to determine what soft start looked like because it is for them and they have to decide that for themselves. After a week of discussions and problem solving the following week’s setup took ~eight minutes. It took two weeks of discussions and problem solving to even have time to teach, but like I said before, very little teaching was taking place anyway so that didn’t worry me. By week three it took ~six minutes for students to get started, and today was the first day of week four and we are down to ~five minutes.


I structure my teaching as follows: I ask students what they remember from last class and we have a short discussion about what they learned. I tell students exactly what I am going to teach them that day and I show them an example. I do the process with them step by step. Then they do the skill on their own.

Every class I remind them that inorder to go to studio time** they will need to show me that they can do the skill independently. They love studio time so this is an extrinsic motivator for them. 

Week 1

Was dedicated to shaping soft-start and discussions.

Week 2

During instruction students were loud, unfocused, disrespectful, and constantly interrupting. I was used to that and it didn’t bother me. I let students know when they were being disrespectful or unsafe without judgment and the behavior ceased after the feedback but would start back up again. I didn’t threaten, or lecture, I just kept giving them non judgemental feedback. I left the last ten minutes of class to have a discussion about how they think it went, how they felt, and what they think should change. The students were used to group discussions by then so the discussions were faster and more productive. The students were angry about not getting studio time, I neutrally reminded them they have to show me the skill in order to go to studio-time and not to worry because we will try again next time. 

Week 3

By week three students were interrupting less but it was still happening. My goal is for them to come to the realization that they need to focus and for them to regulate themselves. I let them interrupt and talk to each other and I kept teaching. The students who were focused were able to demonstrate the skill independently and got to go to studio time. The students who weren’t focused had to rewatch the instruction or they asked for help from a peer. Students volunteered to help so I had students teaching their peers which is a major win both for skill retention and social skill development.

Week 4

Today was the first day of week four. They listened to music on their ipads while I taught, took the initiative to help each other catch up on anything others missed, and stayed fairly focused on the work. They still talked and interrupted but their conversations were on the skill I was teaching them. I let them know when I was about to move onto the next step, I moved on regardless if everyone was paying attention. The kids that were paying attention finished early and got to go to studio time. The others didn’t get any studio time, but they weren’t frustrated. In fact they were all in really good moods. 

A student asked why they didn’t have studio-time and I told them that listening to music while I teach is slowing us down because I have to reteach or they have to wait for a peer to help them. Next class we are going to discuss that.


My plan is ever evolving, like now I see the importance of them coming to certain realizations on their own and not through adult intervention. So letting them listen to music isn’t ideal but they have to realize why and they have to realize it for themselves. The same with studio time. I didn’t know if they would resist not getting studio time, but I noticed when they have freedom of expression, mobility, and pacing they don’t need studio time to motivate them, they are motivated to do what I want them too and become less concerned with studio time. 

The Wins

There were some major wins today too. One of my extremely argumentative students asked if they could listen to music while I taught. I told them that I don’t think it is a good idea because they have a hard enough time following along without music, but I wasn’t going to decide for them. The student quietly pushed their headphones away. This student was also one who finished early.

Another win was that I didn’t have to fight anyone about cleaning up. Which is a historically rough time. One of my most defiant students never stops working when directed, however today they were cleaned up and out the door on time, and I wasn’t even in the room. The teacher assistant facilitated the clean up. They asked her for more time and she gave them 30 more seconds and then they all cleaned up without any issues or complaining.

We have three more weeks left of school and I am excited to see how this progresses. 

If you would like to have my guide to assessing students’ needs or want more information on the soft-start check out the Neurodivergent Toolkit. It is an excellent prerequisite for starting something like this in your classroom. Check it out here: The ND Toolkit

For the previous post explaining the importance and benefits of student autonomy click here: Why Sharing Control With Students Shouldn't Scare You

*Soft-start is a time where students ease into the class by doing a quiet easy activity in their area. 

**Studio Time is independent time when they can sew, use clay, paint, or build with cardboard and hot glue.

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1 comment

I love this journey and thank you for sharing. I hope to give my students autonomy and make decisions as a collective group through building consensus through discussion and voting as we build routines procedures and community agreements. I am wondering about non-judgemental feedback and what that sounds like. I am trying to think through the common behaviors I need to correct and how to give that feedback without being judgmental. I want to rehearse the "scripts" so I can be more prepared regulated and calm when managing behavior. I have a second job in event staffing security and our training teaches us to do crisis rehearsals before work, thinking of the most common situations that might happen at work and how we would respond honoring the 5 universal truths (everyone wants to be treated with dignity and respect, everyone would rather be asked rather than told what to do, everyone wants a second chance etc) from verbal judo (de-escalation techniques). In a mindfulness training I did assigning any term to something like they are happy or they are sad eas considered judgemental (we were practicing noticing and describing things in a non judgemental way). Typically I might say something like you were talking when Suzie was talking that was not respectful. I gave specific and clear feedback but it was judgemental . I think even rephrasing it to I noticed you were talking while Suzie was talking. When this happened she frowned and put her head down. Was that respectful? Is still a judgement because I expect the student to say no it wasn't. So maybe I noticed when you talked while Suzie was sharing her ideas she frowned and put her head down. How do you think she was feeling? Were you upholding our community agreements? Might be better. However I also teach 1st grade and multilingual learners so I think the language might be too complex. Any feedback you have would be great or examples of what you say as non-judgemental feedback when someone is not being safe, responsible or respectful. For positive feedback I say I noticed you were focused on your work for the whole work time. You completed your project and I really enjoyed the sentence …. How does that feel? I use how does that feel instead of food job to have students identify the emotion and feel those feelings to build and maintain intrinsic motivation.


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