An ALF’s Hierarchy of Needs

Being an ALF includes 3 major areas of endeavor:

  1. Upholding Physical Safety
  2. Establishing Emotional Safety & Building Relationships
  3. Making and Supporting Offerings

Upholding Physical Safety

First and foremost, ALFs help ensure that the choices made by students and facilitators are physically safe, legal, and respectful. Physical safety includes making sure that tools are used appropriately, people are accounted for, and no one’s body is in harm’s way, minimizing risk of serious injury or bodily harm. Confining options to those legally permissible helps ensure that the school can continue to exist and operate.

Kids with the freedom to make choices will inevitably engage in risky play. This is how they learn emotional regulation - you can read more about this on Dr. Peter Gray’s insightful Psychology Today blog. If you feel unsafe with something going on in front of you, check in with yourself to see what’s going on. Usually it’s one of two scenarios:

  1. You have been trained in your life to view the particular situation as dangerous (for example, kids using power tools). Your inclination is stop what is going on or do the task for the child.
  2. You notice a hazard or risk in the situation that the child is unaware of that they should be alerted to.

If you feel like what is going on is legitimately dangerous, it is your job to intervene. However, there is a way to point out risk without using your authority to undermine the child’s autonomy: reflecting risk or hazard you observe, summarizing why it is dangerous, and offering an alternative.

Here’s a hypothetical - you walk into a room where a group of a kids are climbing a wobbly bookshelf. Your knee-jerk response is probably something along the lines of, “Stop! What are you thinking? That’s dangerous, get down from there!” While this response comes from a valid place of concern about the children’s physical safety, the language implies that either the children are not capable of recognizing danger or, recognizing it, are choosing to ignore the danger because they are irresponsible and reckless. This puts the children in a defensive position, and in doing so you forfeit the opportunity to collaborate with them to create a definition of a non-dangerous climbing space.

When mitigating physical hazards, it’s important to use language that opens the door to a more grounded conversation: why is this particular activity dangerous, which parts of it are risky, and how can that risk be reduced or eliminated? We find that offering a redirect is much more effective than asking a kid to stop something wholesale. In the bookshelf hypothetical, that might sound something like: “I notice the bookshelf is wobbling when you climb it. I don’t think it’s made of wood sturdy enough to hold the weight of human bodies and I’m worried it’s going to collapse and hurt one of you. The climbing tree outside is a lot sturdier - what do you think about moving your game out there?”

Know that there is inherent authority in the ALF/Student relationship. Don’t abdicate your authority. Own your authority while supporting their autonomy.

Establishing Emotional Safety & Building Relationships

Choice is a vital part of self-directed education; for an ALC community to thrive, all the members must make choices that respect the needs and feelings of others in the greater community. The biggest barriers to self-directed learning is usually social-emotional - feelings like fear, uncertainty, or anxiety. Creating an emotionally safe environment includes working with students to keep the space free from bullying, ensuring everyone feels they can express themselves without fear, and approaching each student as a person whose thoughts and feelings are valid.

Notice if a child is feeling left out, lonely, or unsafe. Listen for how conversations are conducted when you are in the room vs. when you are not. If a child has been recently added to the school from an environment where they did not feel safe, those feelings can linger for a long time and express themselves in patterns of communication that are harmful to others. As with physical safety, use your observations to reflect when actions and situations that are emotionally loaded - make the implicit explicit to foster the behaviors you want to see in your community without using your authority to undermine the children’s autonomy.

Beyond mitigating the bad habits and hurtful behaviors that we bring to ALC from our default cultures, it’s the ALF’s role to reinforce the understanding that learning is natural and happening all the time. Being in relationship with your students is the only way to know when to step-in and when to step-back. How can we provide the maximum amount of support with the minimal amount of interference in a self-directed education environment? Because there are so few examples in the world of self-directed education, it’s helpful to children (and their parents!) to have the vocabulary to describe their learning. You can do that by reflecting when you notice learning like:

  • Creative problem solving
  • Leadership and coherence-holding
  • Time management
  • Critical thinking
  • Decision making
  • Planning long-and-short term projects
  • Responsibility for intended and unintended consequences of their actions
  • Traditional “academic” skills in other contexts (e.g. learning math by making change at a store)

This list can go on and on. Language is powerful, and by using descriptive language to give names to the skills that children are already practice, we reinforce the understanding that learning is natural, their choices are valid, and they are creating an education that has meaning.

Remember that modeling and building a authentic relationships with the students will be the most natural way students will learn how to self-direct their education. One of the most powerful features of ALCs is the age-mixing of children and grown-ups into one community. The age-mixed environment provides kids with lots of models for different kinds of relationships; an age-mixed environment with a strong, positive, inclusive culture will support kids of all social-emotional backgrounds with a sense of safety and security as they begin to explore their own interests. As a member of an ALC community, you are continually modeling how to be in community with others, form and support a myriad of relationships, communicate your needs and expectations, ask for or offer help, manage your time, try new things, be vulnerable, and practice gratitude. Practice mindfulness, because they are always watching you (even when you think they’re not paying attention!).

Making and Supporting Offerings

Offerings are like classes except they are entirely opt-in and can be proposed and run by any member of the community. The person making an offering is the “coherence holder” - students, ALFs, parents, volunteers or any combination thereof can coherence-hold for an offering. An offering might happen only once, or become so popular it recurs weekly or daily. Some offerings may require commitments beforehand because they involve travel logistics, purchasing specific materials, or taking volunteer time and it’s important to make that clear when proposing the offering. Most offerings, though, operate assuming that children will come and go freely as they please. Offerings are most often scheduled at Set-the-Week (more on that below), though they may arise spontaneously in the course of a day. There are a few different ways that ALFs can support offerings:

  • Introduce offerings that are exciting to you without being attached. Remember to hold space for offerings brought up by the students so the space doesn’t become filled with only offerings made by adults.
  • Attend offerings made by students. Don’t worry if you’re the only attendee; by virtue of being present, you and the student are making the offering happen (and once it is happening you may draw other humans curious to see what’s going on…).
  • Reorganize the space so materials are visible and easy to access. Think about laying “invitations to play” attractively around the building. Spontaneous play with new tools or ideas often leads to recurring offerings based around those interests.
  • Research local volunteer/field trip/day trip opportunities to learn from people in your area.

Sometimes, offerings get scheduled but don’t happen. It could be for any number of reasons - the regular participants of an improv class all happen to be offsite on a field trip, the kids who intended to play kickball are absorbed in finishing their watercolor paintings, the members of math club have been struck by what a beautiful day it is outside and find themselves too consumed in tree-climbing to come back inside. As long as there wasn’t a commitment required, this is fine. The hardest part about supporting offerings is releasing your expectations about who will or won’t attend. Actually, choosing not to attend an offering can be as important a learning experience as going to one: struggles to limit work-in-progress, estimate how much time a game or task will take to complete, or balance long-term goals with short-term satisfactions are powerful teachers of planfulness, are skill that children develop over time, through trial-and-error.

Further Reading:

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