An Emerging Web of Parent Agency

December 18, 2017 by Rebecca Kisner


Six months into our Learner Advocate Network pilot, our families are teaching us what it looks like to be an “agent” of their kids’ learning in a complex, dynamic world. Their demonstration of agency is deeply informed by the experience they’ve had interacting with the education system over time, and the expectations they bring to it.

It’s clear by now there is much more to parent engagement than showing up at school events and supporting with homework. And while academic partnership is a very important piece of the puzzle, the beliefs and values parents hold about the purpose of school, the experience they themselves had in school, here or abroad, and how they think about their kids identities’ as learners, all have a huge influence on how, when, and where learning plays out for their kids.

Agency is a hard concept to define but it’s easier to recognize in action. Even though there are many different definitions of agency, most of us can instinctively tell when someone is exercising it. The kind of agency we’re talking about has to do with self-determination; how people shape their own lives. Simply put, the more agency we have, the bigger the world of possibilities feels to us.

Of course, our agency depends on other events and circumstances - how healthy and able-bodied we are, how much money and power we have, and the strength of our relationships and networks of support. Our sense of agency is also impacted by the institutions we engage with (where we’re housed, where we eat, where we work, where we play, where we pray) and the bias and discrimination (racism, classism, and sexism) that those systems perpetuate.

It’s the intersection of internal agency and external circumstances that is especially interesting to us at ReSchool. Through our pilot, one of the many questions we’re asking is: given a family’s beliefs, values, identity, and culture, how does a parent engage with systems of learning - both within school and beyond - to get their kids the best experience they can?

One of the great benefits of our Learner Advocate Network is the freedom to build deep relationships with families outside of any one institution. After doing this for six months, we’ve seen families in many facets of their life - at work, at home, at school, and in relationship with other family members, coworkers, classmates and friends. This allows us to witness how families interact with multiple systems - and how empowered or disempowered they feel in the process.

One of the parents in our pilot is a working dad named Miguel. He and his wife Maria grew up in Mexico and did not go through the U.S. education system themselves. Since they immigrated to the U.S. to achieve a better life for their three young kids, they don’t think it’s their place to demand much more of the education system here - even though they have all kinds of worries and concerns about their kids that keep them up at night and distract them at work.

Miguel thinks his oldest son Manny is doing okay since he was told he’s in a special program at school; Miguel doesn’t know what it is exactly, but he thinks it might be gifted/talented. But at home, Miguel worries that Manny spends too much time on  devices and not enough time in activities, and is becoming overweight. Miguel and Maria think a good solution would be for Manny to learn how to swim, something they didn’t do as kids. But Maria had a negative experience at the recreation center in their neighborhood because the person at the front desk did not speak Spanish and gave her misleading information about how to apply for a scholarship.

As Miguel explained to us when we first met him, “I live in a bubble. My whole world takes place in the few miles between home and work.” But even in a short amount of time, as Miguel takes steps to expand that bubble by seeking  resources, leaning on friends, asking questions at school, and trying new things, his sense of agency has grown - and along with it, a growing world of possibilities for his kids.

So how do you capture a snapshot of agency at this moment in time? And is that even worth doing?

We felt that in order to be effective advocates and walk alongside families in their educational journeys, it was important to know where families had been and where they wanted to go, so we could better support their growth over time. We needed a new kind of tool to further this conversation.

We decided to compile indicators of agency, pulled from the experiences we’ve been witnessing over the course of our work. In other words, when our parents are showing agency as it relates to their kids’ learning, what do they say? What do they do? What do they feel and believe? We’ll use Miguel as our example for what fully realized agency might look like:

  • Miguel is in tune with his educational values - that is, his family context, cultural identity, and life experiences that influence how he thinks about the role of learning in his kids’ lives.

  • Miguel has a deep understanding of the school environment and other contexts in which his kids are learning. He knows the challenges and opportunities those environments presents, and the real and perceived barriers that inhibit his kids from achieving their aspirations.

  • Miguel is in touch with his kids’ whole “learning profile,” going beyond just grades and proficiency to honor a broader set of strengths and needs, as well as passions and identity.

  • Miguel chooses schools and other learning environments in partnership with his kids, at least partially based on his kids’ “learning profile.” By doing this, his kids access a broader set of learning opportunities over time.

  • Miguel advocates for himself and his kids’ at work, at school, and throughout the system.  He is confident, empowered, and resilient.

  • Miguel actively seeks resources, and cultivates and leans on his network of support.

  • Miguel believes that learning can take place at any moment, and models behaviors that promote learning with his kids. Miguel values learning that happens everywhere.

  • Miguel knows he is as important to his kids’ learning as their formal teachers are.

Now we felt like we had a much more complete story about parent agency at any given moment. But since agency is not a linear progression, but one that expands and contracts over time as circumstances change, it didn’t feel right to demonstrate agency on the same rubrics we always use. We're all accustomed to orienting ourselves to rubrics that send implicit value judgments that being in that far right column is inherently better than the far left.

The real way we think about agency is not like a rubric, but like a web. When your sense of agency is small, the world subsequently feels very small to you - or as Miguel put it, like a bubble. As your kids begin to explore interests and develop their sense of self, as your perspective begins to shift on your role in their learning, and as you cultivate your own network of support with people who validate your strengths and assets while pushing you to step outside your comfort zone, your horizons suddenly feel much more expansive.

We wanted a visual of agency that matched with that feeling of a big world.


This tool continues to be a work in progress, as we learn more from our families and their experience navigating their kids’ learning and lives. Over the next few months, we’ll continue to gather groups of parents and practitioners to wrestle with the question of agency and the way it influences how we each experience systems.

Are you interested in being a part of that conversation? Click below to send us an email.

Contact Rebecca