Skip to main content

Youth as authors of their lives

By Jessica Pierson Russo

Young girl writing in journal
Youth, no matter what age, can achieve great things. But do they believe it? Many youth, especially adolescents, can feel as though they’re at the mercy of the world around them. But if they can feel a sense of self-agency, they can begin to see themselves as the authors of their lives and find a kind of personal leadership that brings self-confidence, hope, and expectation for their futures. 

I define self-agency as a sense of yourself as the agent, or leader of your life—your ability to use your resources, to be effective, influence your own life, drive change, and take responsibility for your behavior. It is important to note that youth will express self-agency differently, depending on their cultural background and personal experiences. For instance, the value of independence so strongly valued in the United States may not be so strongly emphasized in other places. However, self-agency is important because it helps youth feel distinct from others. Years of research on the topic prove its importance to overall health and well-being, academic motivation and achievement, and personal development—including the development of self-esteem and identity. Self-agency is important for all youth, though those with the most risk factors may stand to benefit most. Developing a sense of agency allows youth to confront the barriers in their lives with hope that they can be overcome. To develop agency, youth need opportunities to build confidence in exploring the world and themselves, asking questions and contributing ideas, and learning from their mistakes.

Here are some strategies that youth programs can use to foster self-agency in adolescents. 
  1. Encourage self-reflection and self-awareness through activities like journaling, mindfulness, and self-assessment so youth can gain a deeper understanding of their strengths, weaknesses, and values.
  2. Help youth learn goal setting and planning so they are able to set specific, achievable goals and create plans to achieve them.
  3. Use autonomy-supportive discipline in your programming by providing youth with opportunities to make decisions, take responsibility, and exercise autonomy with your guidance and support.
  4. Help youth develop problem-solving, decision-making, communication, and self-regulation.
  5. Provide constructive feedback and positive reinforcement to motivate them to strive for self-agency.
  6. Mentor youth by modeling positive relationships.
  7. Create a supportive environment that fosters autonomy, youth voice and choice, self-discovery, and self-expression.
What do you think about the idea of developing self-agency in youth? How do you actively support youth seeing themselves as the authors of their lives?

-- Jessica Pierson Russo, Extension educator

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.

Print Friendly and PDF


  1. As a teacher, I have seen students (even successful, engaged students) feel like passengers in their own lives. Their choices are limited and the feeling is that things happen to them not because of them. I saw the turnaround in one teenager when their favorite backpack's zipper broke. The backpack had some history and it was sad to have to replace it with a new one but that seemed the only option. Once the youth learned that the zipper is something that could be replaced with a little time and a trip to a fabric store, the once favorite backpack became even more special to this individual as they connected to it on a deeper level. This empowered them to see the backpack (and by proxy their world) as something they could impact and change for the better.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Mark! That's true--the more we learn, the agency we feel, so teaching kids how to fix things (from the zipper on a backpack to a math error, to a torn relationship) is a great way to help them feel a sense of control in their lives.

  2. Something I've picked up on as I work on my bachelor's degree is that youth are a marginalized group. Allowing them to realize they have agency, however much they may have, is so important. And hopefully, they have some support including from our team.

    1. Youth are definitely a marginalized group, because adults tend to see them (and they tend to see themselves) as incomplete humans. But when we can see them as whole, when we can see the real and tangible contribution they make, then we become better listeners for them. When we take them seriously, they take themselves more seriously. This helps them develop that sense of self-agency.


Post a Comment