3A’s and Psychological Safety

McLean’s 3A’s have really helped me think about the needs behind the behaviours that kids/students (or really any humans) express. We learned that learning inherently requires risk, because learning requires people to stretch their comfort zone and to do something they don’t yet know how to do. This means emotion is also involved and we need to feel psychologically safe enough to take the risks we need to take to learn. To feel psychologically safe, our needs for the 3A’s need to be met (I am also realizing through my own experiences in school how true this is).

  • Affiliation – we need to feel connected, belonging and like we have strong, positive relationships with others
  • Autonomy – we need to feel like we have control over our own learning
  • Agency – we need to feel like we can do it, and we need to experience mastery and success that proves to us that we can do it

McLean talks about the “dark side” to each emotion: a lack of affiliation makes students feel alienated. A lack of autonomy makes students feel anxious. A lack of agency makes students feel apathetic.

Learning about the 3A’s reframed for me how I think about students and their behaviour. For example, I have one kid in mind who I knew through a volunteer experience who would always say what we were doing was “stupid.” Before I had characterized him as a problem child and just badly behaved and now I question whether he was feeling alienated, anxious or apathetic because he wasn’t experiencing affiliation, autonomy or agency. His behaviour now seems more like an expression of his needs or insecurities. We also learned in our ed-pscyh class that students whose needs for the 3A’s are not met may withdraw their assent to learn to protect their sense of self. This might look like they are failing to learn or acting defiantly (e.g. by saying the activity is stupid, purposely not paying attention, purposely not trying or performing badly) but they are actually trying to maintain their dignity so they have something to attribute their failure to.

Distorted / restricted autonomy

I am slowly starting to realize that structure is not a bad thing. I came into teaching from an outdoor ed background that emphasized non-directive leadership and teachings from working in Indigenous education and health around focusing on the process and letting things evolve organically. I still definitely see the values in these ways of doing things but now also see that structure can be a good thing. I have especially learned that through the Wednesday visits I have been doing at a middle school with a grade 6 class – I have realized the students need direct instruction and scaffolding (including clear directions and modelling / examples) to know what to do and when and this helps them feel engaged.

This correlates with what we learned about in ed-psych. Not enough autonomy (restricted autonomy) can make students feel controlled and like they don’t have the freedom to learn (and I don’t like the idea of relying on arbitrary structures to “keep kids in line”). However, I have learned that too much autonomy can paralyze students and that boundaries/limits/directiveness actually help kids feel secure. It’s nice to feel like someone (e.g. your teacher) knows the answers and will set up the structure for what is appropriate and not. Also, some structures are necessary to manage large groups of people. For example, while you might not need to implement hand-raising as a way for students to signal that they have something to say in a small group, in a larger group if you don’t use this the more talkative students’ voices will likely be heard over the quieter students’ voices because the talkative ones will speak first. When kids raise their hands, I can give some wait time (something I need to practice) and rephrase the question a couple of times to give those who don’t have an answer ready right away some time to think and give those kids a chance to answer questions too.

While I don’t want to forget the value that there is in letting students experiment and learn things through experience, next semester I am going to try to focus on providing some structure and trying to hand control over to my students more slowly (e.g. using the gradual release of responsibility model – I do, we do, you do). I am putting a picture below of the agenda my mentor teacher puts up on her board every day, which I think is an example of structure that helps students feel safe and secure.