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Posted By Amanda Leaman, Wednesday, October 2, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, July 30, 2014

CSEE’s most recent publication, Breaking into the Heart of Character, made the point that educators—in all fields—increasingly see the importance and power of fostering autonomy, connectedness, and competence in students. Here’s one more example.

The September issue of Educational Leadership focused on resilience, including an article for math teachers. After touching on the subject in the article, Stanford School of Education professor Lisa Medoff, addressed autonomy, belongingness, and competence specifically in a subsequent blog post for ASCD, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development:

“By two weeks into the quarter,” she says, “my college students can anticipate when I’m about to recite one of my mantras about adolescents. They chant phrases along with me like... 'Don’t forget your ABCs!'” Yes, the ABCs: autonomy, belonging, and competence.

Autonomy: as simple as giving students choices (and listening to their voices). Without choice, whatever natural motivation students had for the subject is further undermined. The more choice we can reasonably offer, the more autonomy is fostered.

Belonging: it's is all about relations. True relatedness is not just getting along at school, it’s the sense that “People here care about me. People here support me.” Kids are more willing to grapple with difficult concepts for teachers if they think teachers care about them. Kids can concentrate better in classrooms where they feel like they “belong” to the group.

Competence: this is the sense that “I can learn, I have the ability to meet the challenges ahead of me.”

Medoff tells her blog post readers, “It’s very important that math teachers keep these three needs in mind.” But she speaks to all teachers:

“It’s incredibly important that educators incorporate adolescents’ needs for autonomy, belonging, and competence (the aforementioned ABCs) into many aspects of school, from classroom structure to curriculum and assignments.”

Why would Medoff say “It’s incredibly important”? It’s because these are not just good ideas, they are basic human needs. The ABCs affect motivation to learn, motivation to get along with others, motivation to perform to one’s best in virtually all areas. They are “incredibly important” and they are incredibly easy to incorporate into any class, in any subject, at any level. Teaching without attention to the ABCs is like driving with the brakes on.

See Medoff’s blogpost.

See the Educational Leadership article: “Getting Beyond ‘I Hate Math!’”


Four decades of research with kids ages 20 months through college all point to several beneficial effects when educators (and parents) work to foster autonomy, belonging, and competence:

  • greater psychological health
  • better coping with disappointments
  • better understanding of academic concepts
  • better academic performance
  • more enjoyment of courses
  • better attitudes toward school
  • better ability to regulate behaviors
  • more creativity
  • more altruistic behavior

That’s a lot to gain, especially when there is no cost other than a different kind of teacher attention.

See more about fostering the ABCs in CSEE’s Breaking Into the Heart of Character.

Tags:  [Grade: Lower]  [Grade: Middle]  [Grade: Upper]  [Subject: Moral Development & Character Education]  [Type: Article]  [User Group: Parents]  [User Group: Teachers]  autonomy  belonging  competence 

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