The Ordinary Magic of Initiative

As they searched for more magic in the forest, two girls heard a loud screech. The dragon had sent one of his minions, who had snatched up their friend the gnome!

Quickly, the girls rushed to help him, stroking the tiny leaf as they ran. They grabbed his legs and held on  with all their might, even though they knew that they, too, might soon be someone’s dinner. With a twist and a yank, they pulled their friend to safety.

Initiative, very broadly, is our ability to act on our own ideas. It’s about being able to make choices and allowed to see how they shake out.

A cornerstone of child-centered and emergent curriculum practices, initiative has been one of the most challenging protective factors for resilience for teachers to preserve as we have navigated the waves of accountability and been swamped by ever-earlier standardized assessment. The perfect context for initiative is play, which, by definition is an activity which is self-motivated and child-directed.

BUT… offering kids the chance to follow their own “wonderful ideas,” as Eleanor Duckworth called them, means that teachers have to give up some of their control over the direction and outcomes of children’s activity in the classroom.
THIS. IS. SCARY!!!

Understanding why initiative, or having mastery over our environment, is such an important aspect of resilience may help us to rethink our strategies.

Dr. Masten (2015) explains that different theorists have had different takes on, and different labels for, this aspect of resilience. Sometimes it’s called

  • mastery motivation.OR
  • agency, OR
  • self-efficacy, OR
  • initiative!!

It’s all about motivation though…just watch a child’s steady focus and persistence as she figures out how to propel herself on the swings, when it’s HER idea, and you’ll understand the magical power of initiative, no matter WHAT we call it.

In young children, initiative includes skills and dispositions like

  • trying new activities,
  • showing an interest in learning new things,
  • using different ways to solve a problem, and
  • showing confidence in his/her abilities.

While many of the behaviors that demonstrate initiative overlap with executive functions (discussed below), Masten also describes the JOY and satisfaction that young children experience when they make things happen in their worlds as an essential part of this element of resilience.

We can provide children with lots of opportunities to independently act on their environments, as we guide them to develop new skills, on their own terms. Allowing them to TRY is critical to the development of a child’s sense of self-efficacy.

As Masten says: “Self efficacy arises from the experience of overcoming manageable challenges…a robust sense of self-efficacy in turn fosters persistence in the face of adversity, which is more likely to lead to success than giving up” (Masten 2015 p. 161).This persistence, or, what Masten describes as “motivation to succeed” is important for all children, but especially for those whose home experiences have not offered them the encouragement (or, in some cases, even the opportunity) to keep trying when things get hard.