Support Systems and Student Autonomy: What to Focus on When Schools Reopen

By Jeffrey Benson

Many times as a principal, I sat with the school staff after a traumatic event in our community and pondered how to best help students process their experiences. We knew our efforts to resume the typical business of teaching and learning would be unsuccessful without a thoughtful re-entry plan. As teachers and school administrators across the country plan to re-enter the traditional classroom this fall, it is essential that they consider students’ needs to process the turmoil of the past year and a half—and the diverse ways in which individual students will want to do so.

The pandemic reaffirmed the importance of a number of protective factors that promote our students’ resilience. Among the most evident of these are opportunities for student choice and autonomy, and systems of support for everyone across a school. I believe the provision of choice and the upgrading of systems of support is where teachers and administrators should focus their attention as students return to school—and forever after that!

When I led my school community through re-openings after other traumatic events, what became abundantly clear in those experiences  was that each student had a different pace for refocusing on the curriculum. Some students longed to return to their desks and their pencils and erasers and notebooks; nothing would soothe them more than a well-organized worksheet. Others wanted to sit with a few friends for 30 minutes at a table in the cafeteria. A few wanted only to be left alone within the solid and predictable walls of the building to read or draw or do puzzles. Many wanted a check-in with a trusted adult who could bear witness to their stories, concerns, and tenacity.

And so we offered our students those options for their first few hours back—and were not surprised that almost all of them made a deliberate choice in how to take care of themselves. Simply put, they could read their own minds better than we could read their minds. Of course, planning to accommodate so many students was hard, and imperfect, but not completely impossible. We did well enough, and so did our students. A few students required a lot of adult accessibility for the first couple of days, but that was a finite group, far from the majority. For the rest of the students, having the autonomy to make a choice from a specific set of options was as much a part of our community healing as was the actual activities they chose.

The meta-lesson for the staff was to make absolutely obvious all the forms of support we offered students every day, and to build a culture in which choosing to access supports was the norm: a sign of self-care, and a way to leverage the relationships that are the foundation of all our work with children. We wrote up a big list entitled “Who to See for Support.”  The list was displayed in the lobby, printed in the front of the handbook, and reviewed at parent night. Each year at an assembly we had student volunteers, including a few with strong standing among their peers, talk about their experiences choosing from the list. Our list—which can and should be modified to suit the grade levels in your building and other variables—included:

  • If you want a peer to study with, see Ms. J in room 105
  • Need to change a class, see Mr. V in the Guidance Office
  • Want tech support, go to room 411
  • Are worried about someone, see Ms. J in the Guidance Office
  • Have a health concern, see Ms. R in the Nurse’s Office
  • Want to get more exercise, see Mr. V in room 212
  • Want a job, see Mr. S in room 101

Initially we thought students could just ask any adult where to get such support, but it turned out that finding the right time and place and person with whom to be vulnerable and reveal one’s needs was a barrier to access for many students. Better to eliminate the go-between step.

This is just one method for encouraging student autonomy and choice while also making supports easily accessible. This intersection of autonomy and support will play an essential role in building student resiliency, and needs to be the focus not only of our return to school, but also of our long-term commitment to being more inclusive, caring, and attentive to the diverse population of students who walk into our buildings every day.

Jeffrey Benson has over forty years of experience as a teacher, consultant, mentor, and school administrator; his focus is supporting schools that can work for all students. His books include Hanging In: Teaching the Students Who Challenge Us Most; Teaching the Whole Teen; and Improve Every Lesson Plan with SEL. He can be reached through his website, 

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