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Developing Student Independence


The article (posted in 2012), "Developmental Stages of Infants and Children", issued by the Wisconsin Child Welfare Training System ( describes typical school-age development of children. Some of the key takeaways from this document highlight how a child as early as seven years old (if not earlier) can begin to show independence in completion of routines and learn to screen out distractions and focus on one task at a time. A child can also begin to feel anxious to please others and become sensitive to praise and blame. As they go through ages eight, nine, and ten, they learn how to cope with losing at games, can become increasingly attentive to peer pressure, and respond relatively easily to discipline. By age ten, a child's friends can begin to be more influential than parents. As they enter early adolescence (around age 11), they can become anxious about peer acceptance, test limits of family dependency, change friends frequently, and have a strong need for achievement and recognition (though masked by feigned indifference). While not all children will experience all of these examples (or at an exact age), they represent trends in behaviors for children that may be working through similar psychosocial crises. What these examples do highlight is, during the ages of around seven to eleven, a child needs to show that they *can* be successful as much as they need to be *shown how* to be successful - this is not an inherent trait of human development. It is this latter development of being shown how to be successful that I would like to address in later sections.

The 2011 book series, "What Every [K-5] Teacher Needs to Know About Setting Up and Running a Classroom", by Mike Anderson (Northeast Foundation for Children, Inc.) looks at typical student expectations for specific grade levels. Some of the key takeaways from this book series highlights how a child as early as six years old (e.g. first grade) may begin to test the limits of authority, conceptualize cause and effect, become interested in learning and doing "work", and enjoy explaining their thoughts how things happen/work. As they move through to around eight years old (third grade), students begin to take more risks (recovering quickly from mistakes or problems), be more concerned with fairness and justice, becoming intensely industrious with increased interest in logic, and eager for approval of peers and adults. By the time the child is ten going on eleven (fifth grade), they develop a more mature sense of right and wrong, sensitive to issues of fairness, and able to enjoy cooperative and competitive games as they have learned to enjoy rules and logic, able to concentrate for a longer period of time, and are becoming increasingly able to think abstractly.

It is important to also consider the roots of modern research, theorists such as Jean Piaget and Erik Erickson. Piaget developed cognitive stages that address abilities of humans from birth to adulthood: sensorimotor (ages 0-2), preoperational (2-6), concrete operational (6-11), and formal operational (12-adult). Each of these cognitive stages develops a complexity of thought that compounds as each stage increases a person's ability to accomplish higher levels of critical thinking to solve problems. Erickson also developed stages of human development but from a psychosocial perspective: trust vs mistrust (0-2), autonomy vs shame/doubt (1-3), initiative vs guilt (3-5), industry vs inferiority (5-13), identity vs role confusion (13-21), intimacy vs isolation (21-39), and so on. Each of these psychosocial stages develop throughout a person's life as each stage adds complexity to their awareness and management of personal, social, and societal expectations. When you align the cognitive and psychosocial stages and apply each unique development to a grade level, you can see grade levels experience particular developmental transitions. The K-2 grade levels are experiencing a cognitive shift into concrete operational thought and entering a psychosocial stage of industry vs inferiority. The 3-5 grade levels are experiencing a mastery of concrete operational thought and, by fifth grade, introducing hypothetical reasoning of a formal operational stage, while also working through the heart of the psychosocial stage of industry vs inferiority. As students move through grades 6-8, they are mostly all cognitively ready to connect concrete and formal operational tasks while also entering a psychosocial stage of identify vs role confusion. Students that seem to be exhibiting particular behaviors outside of theses developmental stages will not ahead or behind their entire lives but may need patience from those in charge of their development as instruction cues their development but, at the same time, let development guide instruction. This awareness of developmental transition can help teachers better analyze pre-packaged curricula from publishing companies and discuss in teams how to address particular student needs.


In my experience as an upper-elementary classroom teacher, I have seen many students enter my classroom over the years with particular habits in place that have been trained into them through past experiences. The child internalizes, through observations of causality, a perspective toward their role as a student in relation to their teachers and parents, and how much they, as students, are responsible for their own learning. I will be referring to the words: beliefs and values. In the following example, I will be applying an assumption that a core long-standing belief in the value of anything depends on the personal and social interactions over an extended period of time.


If a school chooses to value homework as a means for developing student responsibility and accountability, the student that does not complete homework and experiences inconsistent or meaningless consequences may develop a belief that homework has little value to them as a student. For K-2 teachers, a consistent and meaningful system for celebrating homework develops in children a belief that homework is important to complete and turn in to their teacher every day. Homework at these grade levels need not be rigorous to the point of dissatisfaction or confusion but instead be focused on simple short tasks that train students to take home, complete, share with parents, and return the homework to their teacher the next day. For K-2 parents, a healthy reaction to such a system is equally as important to developing this belief that homework must be completed at home and turned in the next day to their teacher. Any routine that supports homework completion during these K-2 grade levels must involve parental oversight and accountability. Just as teachers are celebrating homework completion, so must the parents celebrate the completion of homework each night as well as the follow-up the next morning to ensure that homework is with the child when they return to school. This is all part of the process of developing student habits in children that may not yet developed the self-awareness needed to monitor their own responsibilities. For homework to have value to the student, it must also have value to the parent and teacher – every single day. For a student that begins a school in a later grade, the celebration of homework may not have been part of the belief system in place between the school and family. A school's ability to influence habits at home is limited to the ability a school has to communicate with the family's limitations for routine, oversight, and accountability. The consequence of a family that is not influenced in habit can not only affect their child's success in that school (i.e. rules, rewards, and punishments may rely partly on these habits) but also risk influencing other students that observe any lack of consequence by the school or parents for not sharing a belief in that particular value.

For the school that values homework, developing a belief in the value of homework in the K-2 grade levels provides the foundation for the next critical development: self-reflective awareness toward the value of homework and its relation to success on academic assessments. With support from the K-2 grade levels, it is the third-grade classroom that can make the largest impact on a student's belief system regarding student effort and academic success. During third grade, the majority of students begin actively developing a heightened cognitive awareness toward the cause-and-effect of their behaviors on themselves and their peers. Students at this point that have not developed a belief in the value of homework may struggle with concepts of inferiority as they begin questioning the fairness of punishment for not doing a task they may never before valued.

This can be the case when a new school opens and students in grades three through five are coming from other schools that may not have developed this particular value in their students. In such an example, incoming students will have had several years of cognitive and psychosocial development that have set a foundation for how they perceive their responsibilities toward their own learning as students. However, with respect to the 3-5 grade levels, as students get through fourth and fifth grade, they begin to defend their desire for independence as they continue to explore concepts of fairness, justice, and other abstract ideas that can entail complex networks of cause-and-effect and incorporate the concept of exception as well as situational context. This is where students that may not have developed a belief in the value of homework prior to entering the 3-5 grade levels may have a harder time with such particular school policies on student expectations.

As students in the upper elementary (and into middle school) develop particular beliefs regarding their responsibilities toward their own learning, a new heightened awareness also comes in to play: they begin to create rules and identities for themselves within their social peer groups. The students that are consistently being reprimanded for not conforming to values to which they hadn't had to conform in earlier years will have the cognitive capacity to begin challenging (often simply and ineffectively) the authority on which those school values and beliefs are based. As a student continues to transition through this heightened awareness of identity and independence, having gone through the past few years being punished for their belief about their own belief toward the value of homework, their personality may begin to see the effects of those consequences in compounding stages of psychosocial development. It does not seem unreasonable, given the development of a typical upper-elementary student, that they question the fairness of such discrepancies in beliefs and begin experiencing deeper effects how they cope with shame, how they respond to guilt, how they overcome feelings of inferiority, and how they now identify with peer groups that are beginning to form.

It is important to note that this example targeting the value of homework is not speaking in favor or disfavor of homework or the value for which it may serve a school. This particular example serves only as a vehicle for reflection of a school's particular beliefs and values and how they can be aligned and adjusted to meet the developmental needs of students. There are a myriad of different beliefs and values toward education that may exist in a number of combinations and permutations. The point of this example is not to foster a comparative perspective toward any particular beliefs or values but to provide context for schools to develop those beliefs or values important to them. A school with a positive and constructive perspective toward prioritizing beliefs and values will be able to adjust with the changes in school culture that develop as students transition both cognitively and psychosocially through the grade levels.


As students enter my classroom on day one, I have come to recognize both the individual student as well as the class of students. This has become a revelation (common to veteran teachers but revelation to new teachers) that every student is two people when they enter a classroom for the first time - both of which represent the whole. A student is first an individual, developing skills to identify and manage their own personal world. A student is second a peer, developing skills to identify and manage social interactions within a world over which they may not have much control. At the earliest grade levels, I may see one individual student enter the school nervous about their personal well-being in a new environment, another individual student not hesitate to begin conversation with another student seemingly unaware of their environment, and still another individual student may walk their parent to their assigned classroom on the first day with a confidence that speaks to their awareness of their own role as a student at that school. Yet, once in the classroom, colleagues continue to tell me how these same students will react and respond to each other and challenge each other and their various degrees of different beliefs and values they bring from home. The degree of development that occurs prior to these earliest grade levels cannot be controlled by the school. Instead, schools adapt to the needs of students that enter the classrooms at the earliest ages. Thus, it is my belief that, at these earliest ages, the idea of developing independence in students must exist within an environment of managed compliance that cultivates the beliefs and values of the school's vision for independence.


Cultivate = try to acquire or develop a quality, sentiment, or skill.

Management = the process of dealing with or controlling things or people.


I will continue to apply the previous assumption that a core long-standing belief in the value of anything depends on the personal and social interactions over an extended period of time. Each student that enters a school at the earliest grade levels will begin to be cultivated to meet the beliefs and values held by that school. Those beliefs and values will be instilled through expectations of behavior to which students are required to conform. It is common for schools to develop a cause-and-effect system of expectations, rewards, and punishments meant to encourage students to conform and eventually internalize the school's beliefs and values. Through this compliance, beliefs and values toward independence may also be instilled - typically in later grade levels as developmentally appropriate. A school may incorporate independence in the lowest grade levels but may want to embed the concept into the structured expectations that align with the school's beliefs and values for lower grade level compliance. The rationale for compliance at these lowest grade levels is due to both the wide variety of child development of students entering a school at those grade levels as well as the development of independence as a concept that most children may not yet be ready to fully internalize and implement even semi-independently. The majority of students at these lowest (K-2) grade levels will need time to develop according to the school's beliefs and values enough to all be closer in developmental progress. Note: it is recognized that students (and families) entering that school in First or Second grade may experience an increased difficulty shifting to a school’s beliefs and values.

This is not to say that it isn’t possible to develop independence in students at the K-2 grade levels. Independence in these lowest grade levels would be implemented within a K-2 environment of compliance. An example of independence through compliance at the K-2 grade levels may be incorporated with student activity rotations. Rotations as a classroom management strategy is not a new idea and typically involves small student groups that rotate on the teacher's command through a handful of different tasks that target particular academic skills. Rotations at these young ages are often taught explicitly to be done with strict guidelines and students are routinely guided through repetitive steps to ensure that each activity can be done by students on their own, within their small group, so that the teacher can monitor all students while working with one small group at a time. At the Kindergarten level, it may be that this level of independence is the goal to be met at some point during the second half of the school year. If these Kindergarten students are successful, their experience in First grade may include this same level of independence but is cultivated as a mid-year goal. This same class of students may then enter Second grade with this level of independence being practiced within the first three months of a school year, allowing for more complex independent tasks to be explored. Please note that, although there are many ways to approach the implementation of rotations, what is important here is that the concept of independence can be cultivated through compliance at the earliest grade levels.

A school's overarching vision for independence through compliance at these early grade levels can then create a strong support for the developmental transition that occurs in the 3-5 grade levels. Independence versus compliance in the upper-elementary grade levels will depend on the percentage of students that have the same foundation of beliefs and values toward their role as students at that school.

As stated in the prior section of this article:

“With support from the K-2 grade levels, it is the third-grade classroom that can make the largest impact on a student's belief system regarding student effort and academic success. During third grade, the majority of students begin actively developing a heightened cognitive awareness toward the cause-and-effect of their behaviors on themselves and their peers.”

Due to the developmental transition that occurs in the upper-elementary grade levels, it is important to consider how to address the shift from independence through compliance to self-managed (or self-directed) independence. This does not mean upper-elementary students are intended to be left on their own to be completely independent and self-reliant toward learning. This means the vision of the school is dedicated to shaping upper-elementary students to begin accepting responsibility of their own learning through an approach that scaffolds student management of their academic, personal, and social goals. As students enter third grade, they will likely be expecting the same independence through compliance they were taught in the K-2 grade levels. The shift in third grade may be that a more self-managed or self-directed independence is introduced the second half of the school year. If successful, that same class of students can enter fourth grade and spend the first half of the year in a hybrid traditional rotation and self-directed independence. In this way, those students may enter fifth grade ready to end their elementary school education as self-directed learners.

It is important that students achieve this level of self-awareness and ownership of their own learning by the time they finish fifth grade because, by this point, the next transition will have already begun for a number of students. This transition will include an ability and willingness to explore more abstract and hypothetical concepts as well as concepts of identity with regard to peer groups and family relationships. What is important is that schools begin to cue and front-load students so they may work through these points of developmental transition.

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