Agency is so much more than choice and voice

Agency is a concept that is familiar, but not always well understood in early childhood education and care (Burr & Degotardi, 2021). Whenever agency is made reference to in early childhood publications, the standard definition in the Glossary of the Early Years Learning Framework is often quoted to frame the discussion (see The Spoke – Tisdall, 2021; ACECQA, 2018; 2015). However, no further questioning of this definition is ever provided. I believe this has worked to further our misunderstandings of agency in early childhood, as it has much simplified and constricted what is a complex and important concept in human development and wellbeing.

Here is the definition in question –

Agency: being able to make choices and decisions, to influence events and to have an impact on one’s world (DEEWR, 2009, p.45)

From a critical theory lens, I ask:

  • Where did this definition originate from?
  • Who is being privileged in our considerations by this definition?
  • Who is missing from our considerations by this definition?

It can be easily argued that this definition focused on choice and influence privileges those who are in-language and independent in their movements … no guesses for who in our settings then might go largely unconsidered when facilitating meaningful opportunities for agency!

A deep dive across psychology and sociology research reveals this EYLF definition stems from a Westernised viewpoint centralising individual rights and independence. Though cross-cultural studies counter the belief that agency is a synonym for independence, and in fact affirm that it is our inter-dependence which strengthens agency (Helm, 2012), and herein lies the complexity.

Embracing interdependence in early childhood settings needs to involve appreciation of the power imbalance, or asymmetry, that exists in our interactions with children (Ghirotto & Mazzoni, 2013) and this requires recognition of how we should act ethically in order to design practices that involve children’s meaningful participation.

This approach I believe provides a much more inclusive space for an understanding of agency and opens up many considerations for our practices and interactions with all children in our settings:

  • Are children invited into daily rituals and routines, or are they told/taken to participate when the educator decides?
  • Are educators responsive to children’s non-verbal cues as communication of their wishes, or does the educator decide what’s best for them?
  • Do children have choice in when they want to eat, or does the educator decide when everyone eats together?
  • Are nappy changing and toileting times relaxed and respectful times of connection, or are they seen as educator tasks to complete?
  • Are doors open to outdoor spaces for children to access during periods of play, or do educators decide where children play and when?
  • Do children have access to a visual depiction (ie. photo display) of their daily routine, or do they have to rely on educators’ verbal instructions to know what is happening next?
  • Are your interactions with children, and observations of their play mostly slow-paced, attuned and responsive times, or do you often feel hurried, and task focused?

A responsive interdependent interaction, or partnership in practice, can provide rich and regular opportunities for a child to grow awareness of their valued place in relationship to others, and in turn, time and space to assert their agency.

Next time you consider how you facilitate children’s agency in your program, I encourage you to go beyond a simple definition, and collaborate and embed intentional practices which recognise the value of interdependence and help you to be in genuine partnership with a child.



ECA Recommends

Stepping back and stepping in: Promoting children’s agency
By Caroline Scott

Facilitating children’s agency is an important part of educators’ work. While the concept of children’s agency is familiar in Australian early childhood discourse, it has not always been clear how educators can support children in enacting their agency through everyday practices. This Research in Practice Series book presents an understanding of children’s agency that includes recognising the essential influence of educator practice and suggests different ways of engaging in practice to facilitate agency.

Purchase it on the ECA Shop here.

Tanya Burr

Tanya is a lecturer and researcher in the School of Education at ACU in Brisbane. She is currently completing her PhD at Macquarie University with her research focus on infant and toddler pedagogy. Tanya has a background in psychology and the early years. She has worked as a teacher, centre director, and early childhood consultant for state-based and national organisations for the past 20 years.

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