I started this article with an assumption that freedom is a shared value for all of my readers, that we would all take it for granted that freedom (particularly for adults, but possibly for everyone) is a prerequisite for thriving.
But before I dive into the question that makes up the title of this article, I want to try to get on the same page about this idea.
Miki Kashtan first described power to me as “the ability to gather (and access) resources to attend to needs.” I guess, then, that freedom is unhindered access to that power, and choice in how one uses it.
When we are free and have the requisite skills, we have much greater access to what is called self-connection, an understanding of our own feelings and needs in any given situation. And when this happens, we have access to sanity, clarity, efficiency (my favorite), joy, fulfillment… and all the rest of those lofty goals we see marketed to us every day.
But freedom is such a slippery, abstract idea. How can we think about freedom in a grounded way?
In six words, what is the structure of freedom?
The question almost seems like a paradox: how can freedom have structure? In fact, “structuring” freedom reeks of philosopher monarchs telling their subjects what to do and well-intentioned adults instructing children how to behave. While telling them that they are, in fact, free.
Obviously, that’s not what I’m going for. But I’ve grappled with this question consulting and visiting a variety of gifted and 2e schools.
How can we create a culture of freedom in such a structured environment as school?
I believe it can be done. I have to. And it starts with buy-in.
Frequently at meetings, when colleagues propose actions that would impact the children, I ask “In the name of what needs?” All too often, there is an insufficient assessment and the lack of a profile of needs, longings, and hopes that could increase buy-in from all involved.
Requests, both for connection and solutions, are best delivered upon a foundation of shared understanding at the needs level. One concrete strategy is to include all stakeholders, including children, in meetings that plan how they will spend their time.
There is precedent for this in many school districts’ special education departments having Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings with the kids present, as well as in mental health agencies offering “wraparound services”.
You can either let kids be fully heard about their hopes and levels of willingness, or they will use some combination of passive and active aggression in the classroom to speak louder to the same needs.
If the kid can speak up before that happens, at the planning time (although all moments are moments of choice), then they are more accountable for their own choices about production and honoring agreements. If they are presented with a pre-packaged curriculum, any medium-high functioning educator can subtly undermine their voice by pushing an agenda they had no say in.
To propose that their expressed needs are every bit as important as those of the adults also increases self-responsibility, and is consistent with progress in many domains (including civility, ingenuity, and perseverance).
Honoring the needs, first by hearing them, is one key step in structuring freedom. I’d love to hear in the comments below strategies you have used to help children express their true hopes and longings.