Early Years and student agency.

Agency is the latest buzzword in educational circles, especially in international schools. So what is everyone talking about, just what is Agency in relation to students and the IBPYP? And how can I, as an Early Childhood teacher, interpret this?

The IBPYP defines agency as the power to take meaningful and intentional action, and acknowledges the rights and responsibilities of the individual, supporting voice, choice and ownership for everyone in the learning community. IBO – THE LEARNER IN THE ENHANCED PYP

The part of this statement that stands out to me the most is supporting voice, choice and ownership for everyone, and the first question I have to ask, is do we really do this in the PYP? When it is teachers that design, plan and implement each unit, how can any student have agency if they are simply following the teachers lead?


Early Years teachers would, on the whole, say that their students have greater agency than others further up the school, due to not having as many academic or other requirements placed on them. In the Early Years, children often explore their units through play and this naturally lends itself to giving agency to our youngest students.

But does it really?

If play is setting up activities that all the students must complete, if it is asking all students to engage in the same thinking routines or presenting assessments that look eerily similar, then I would question, where is the play and where is the agency?

I believe, in the Early years, teachers should and must think through play, not playful activities that all children complete, but child initiated and led play. Play with or without a purpose, it is in these moments that students find their voice, action their choices and untimely take ownership of their learning. And this learning should look different for every student. No teachers’ classroom look the same, yet we consistently ask students to be the same, it is easier for us if they are, after all, we can track the progress of our units better if we use one measuring stick!

But what if we changed the way we think of and view our units of inquiry? What if we wrote units that allowed students to interpret them in their own way and in their own time? What if we designed units that were open to the student’s interests, that fit their thinking.  In doing this, would we not give students a strong sense of agency?


At my current school, we asked these very questions. Our answer was to look at our units, do they naturally lend themselves to what we see in our students play already? Those that didn’t we rewrote to better fit our students. We then took the bold step of deciding to run all of these units year long, our vision was for individual students to dip in and out of each unit throughout the year. Most importantly, no two students inquiries would look the same. It was our job as teachers to interpret their play, questions, thinking and reflections into these units.

To help us, we adopted a digital portfolio platform – Storypark. This platform is designed especially for Early Childhood and gives us greater opportunities to track each students learning through anecdotal stories. The programme allows us to tag units, concepts, learner profile and attitudes, as well as ATL’s to each story we write. Our stories can be individual or group and as our Early Years is an open, free play environment, teachers can write stories about all students in the EY, not just those in their class. We write about the student’s questions and our shared journey to find answers, we write about wonderings that have come out of each student’s play and how we extended their thinking, we write about conversations with teachers and peers, and we write about their challenges and successes. By following the students lead in what they want to learn about we are striving to give a strong voice, choice and ownership to each student.

Our students lead their own learning, it is their passions and interests that drive our day. On any given day we can be discovering the solar system, creating a robot hand, exploring bugs and experimenting with colours in art, all at the same time. At first glance none of these fit within our units, however, as a team, we have chosen to view our units differently, they are broad and open and can be interpreted in various ways. By giving fluidity to our units, our students know that they are listened to, their questions and wonderings are followed and their ideas are actioned.

It’s not perfect, at times it is loud, messy, and crazy, but it is never generic or the same for all. It is student agency at its imperfect best.


  1. I really love the idea but I am wondering how you fill up the planners and keep track of learning experiences. Also I am a PYP coordinator (new in this position) and I would love to hear how you were able to shift the mind of teachers who are holding on to old fashion teaching style, who need to have step by step unit approach (in order: by LOI or Teacher question) to feel reassure and comfortable.
    From WDC, USA


    1. Hi Rebecca,
      Thanks for your email. I have found that the Storypark online documentation tool helps me keep track of everything. It not only allows me to record the children’s play/learning but it has other great tools that help me keep track of every student. I tend to fill in the planner in two ways, sometimes I will fill it all out with what I think might happen or want to happen and then at various points in the year go back to the planner and fill in what actually happened. Or I leave most of it till the end and write what the children did, using Storypark as my reference point and evidence. Both have their pro’s and con’s, but either way I have found that the deeper you understand your central idea and concepts then the easier it is.

      As for shifting others thinking, I think the best option is to take is slow and try to win over just one. That one person becomes your role model and it also helps the others see the new way in action. It is more often the not the unknown that worries them and they tend to think the worst, but being able to see it in action takes away some of that worry.
      So start small and only change small bits at a time. The more they are involved in the change the better as well.

      Let me know how you get on.


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