Helping young people develop a sense of agency hands them a key to their future.

Whereas around 30% of the general population has attained a Bachelors degree, only 2.5% of foster youth have attained the same degree.

In her doctoral dissertation, “Narratives of Former Foster Youth in Higher Education,” Kathleen Douhat examined why it is that the outcomes for foster youth in higher education are so often different from their peers.

In her research she spent time listening to the stories of foster youth and former foster youth who are enrolled in a community college in the South. Her hope in listening to their stories was to understand how these individuals made sense of their experience in college and how did that experience shape their identity.

In their narratives Douhat identified four particular lenses through which they all viewed their experience. They will likely not surprise you: transition, connection, preparation and agency. By and large they saw life as too transitional to settle into academia, they felt unprepared, they struggled with connecting and yet were desperate for community.

However, I was most interested in how they viewed their sense of agency.

Agency is the ability of individuals to act as individuals. It is having the authority to make decisions for oneself and knowing that those decisions affect life outcomes.

The opposite would be having decisions made for one, thereby having little say in one’s own life outcomes. As Douhat states, it is about having a sense of control and such a sense is essential for healthy identity formation.

A sense of agency is what all humans require to set boundaries, boundaries through and in which we let others know this is who I am.

For these young adults many were learning for the first time in college what it was to possess a sense of agency. For many the system had defined their decision making and their identity for many years. For some it continued to do so as they opted for extended foster care.

Unlike many of their peers they had not had a healthy adult presence that could hold space for them to make decisions and learn from those decisions in a safe space.

In light of this study I am reminded that one of the great gifts we can give our youth is helping them develop a sense of agency.

Such a gift is founded in our willingness to allow our youth to join us in a decision making process. Such a simple act will allow them to feel a sense of control, which according to all the studies will allow them to continue to form a healthy sense of self. It doesn’t matter how seemingly small the decision.

It is the gift we give when we allow them to help in deciding an activity, or have permission to tell their story, or we take time to listen to their experience without judgement. It is the gift of allowing them to come up with goals for the year or week or hour we spend together.

That safe space we create in any given week allows for discovery, discovery of their agency and thereby a discovery of defining self. What a gift.

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