The “90%-10%” Method for Creating Student Agency

During my 50+ years of working with children and parents, I observed that the most effective way to cultivate agency in children is what I call the “90%-10%” method.

by Charles Debelak

This article was written for the community by Birchwoods Head of School Charles Debelak and appeared in the January 2021 Westlake Neighbors magazine. Mr. Debelak’s writing provides parents with information about sound educational principles and child development issues gleaned from history, contemporary research, and his 50+ years of educating, coaching, and counseling children, young adults, and parents.

During my 50+ years of working with children and parents, I observed that the most effective way to cultivate agency in children is what I call the “90%-10%” method.

To understand the “90%-10%” method there are three things we should understand about the term agency. First, we give it a clear definition. Agency, better termed self-agency, describes a motivated and self-disciplined young person: a boy or girl who has learned to accept responsibilities and meet standards of expectation.

Second, self-agency is a learned behavior. This is important because if self-agency is a learned behavior, then parents can play an important role in its formation.

Thirdly, self-agency is a habit requiring practice over the course of many years, especially during the most formative years – ages 6-15. For parents, this implies a long-term investment of time, effort, and heart.

The “90%-10%” method understands these three factors, and then offers a strategy. In this method, the “90%” references efforts which address a child’s continuing need for inspiration, encouragement, and unrelenting support. It is essential to remember that the process of learning responsibility is hard work, and I have never known a child who eagerly awaits hard work! Therefore, 90% of the time, children need someone who comes alongside them to be their coach, their guide, their counselor, their advocate. Children need a loving and compassionate adult committed to walking this rigorous path with them.

The “10%” percent references a commitment to firm, uncompromising standards of excellence. These standards will vary depending upon a child’s aptitude and maturity. Nevertheless, in order to learn self-agency, children must learn to be accountable to standards of effort and performance. Ten percent of time must be dedicated to firm, unrelenting standards.

Without the “90%,” children can become overwhelmed with their responsibilities. They fail, quit, and become discouraged. Without the “10%,” they may never learn responsibility and the value of quality and excellence.

Finally, the application of the “90%-10%” method requires a basket full of wisdom. When to be firm? When to be supportive and understanding? It varies for each child under the guidance of a dedicated and loving parent. But given this commitment, time is always on the side of mom and dad.  

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