What does it mean to be self directed?

Most people consider that they are self directed. They will believe they make decisions freely for themselves and their families and that they are autonomous in their lives to a large extent.

This confidence in the idea of being self directed extends to beliefs. Most of us argue that our beliefs are our beliefs because we chose them. It seems that way I know but it is not hard to understand that we are highly influenced by family background and social conditioning.

To be truly self directed or to be as free as possible is quite a bit of work. We need to understand how we got to believe what we do and so, through this understanding, become more open to alternative beliefs, behaviours and lives. That offers us more choice.

Right now, as we are all going through the Covid 19 social experience and crisis we are all being tested. The test relates to how well we can adjust to the new circumstances. How well we can manage psychologically and emotionally when structures that families are knitted into like schooling for instance or regular work patterns suddenly fall away.

Can we adapt quickly? What do we resist and how much autonomy do we really have?

This has much to do with families and family wellbeing. For when the structures collapse or change radically we can find ourselves struggling to know what to do next. When we have relied on external structures to dictate to us how to routine our days, what time to be at school or work, then, when they are removed as has been done in this crisis, we can find it tough to adjust.

We can then ask ourselves just how self directed we are actually are. How comfortable are we at organising our own time and lives when the frameworks we have relied on are gone? How well can we generate focus? And how do we manage time when hours and hours suddenly flood back into our lives, un-allocated, unpressured?

Being over conditioned and dependent on other institutions to regulate us is usual but not necessarily good for us. Why not? Being over regimented by an institution leads to feelings of impotence, loss of control, over dependence and depression. This is especially true if people work jobs they don’t really like. For young people it is often a huge part of mental health problems and a source of conflict inside families.

In this time of lockdown family wellbeing can be thought of as the outcome of how the separate parts of a family meet their own and each other’s needs for the overall benefit of the individuals in the family. This is complicated to adjust to especially if the leaders in a family, usually the parents or parent struggle to change and are in crisis.

What balances feelings associated with loss of control is not being controlled by someone else but being able to have some control over areas of your own life. We all need an area of life where we can direct what happens next from our own sense of individuality. We need to be able to experience self direction.

This is one of the main reasons teenagers on their way to adulthood rebel. Most young people’s lives are super controlled by systems or parents or carers or other authorities. Out of balance, they finally understand that adulthood approaching is where they will get to experience more self direction. Spurred on by the idea of freedom they start to see just how that can work.

We want to be self directed as adults in the main. Most of us dislike feeling controlled and being told what to. Parents ought to want their children to grow up independent, interdependent and able to direct themselves. The trouble is that we end up providing precious little of this self direction to our children across the childhood. And we often don’t set great examples as adults.

It applies to adults too. If we are to stop feeling like mice on a wheel or cogs in a machine then we need to be able to embrace self direction four our adult selves.

In practical terms this means balancing out the family system so that both the need for order and the need for un regulated experience are met. Here are some suggestions.

  • Work out by keeping records (notes) how much of aspects of your family life time is organised by whom.
  • Who decides things like what is eaten and who cooks?
  • What entertainment do you watch and how?
  • If you have children of school age who decides what they learn and when? This may well be their school or college.
  • Who schedules homework?
  • Who manages waking and sleeping times?
  • Who decides how money is spent?

If you are a family with children then most likely you are thinking that obviously the adults decide all the above. That may be the common belief but it may not necessarily be the best way to develop and maintain a family. Depending on the ages of the younger members the adults will be fulfilling their parenting responsibilities but it is key that decisions and choices that can be cascaded to other family members are.

Self direction within a family setting allows others to feel more empowered as part of that family. It allows them the feeling that their choices and wants matter. That they are respected and trusted.

In education, self direction is tougher to offer as an experience as children are bound by the system set up and promoted by the school.

Where you can introduce it is around homework management.

The short excerpt from our book Jump Fall Fly further below sets out some thinking and approaches we have used to foster self directed learning.

It is not only younger people that benefit from practicing deliberate self direction. While many people live highly structured lives many people I coach complain that their lives are too structured; that they don’t have enough time to map out and manage their own time. Often this complaint is linked to the fact that much of their time is already mapped for them by others, Work, schools, family responsibilities. Compromise in a life is also a requirement as we cannot have everything just jump to our command and wishes in any given moment. So the art is to find ways to emerge into various times in your day and / or week where you have chosen activity or non activity entirely to suit your own wishes, without thought to anyone else’s or any other organisations.

This can be harder to do that it might appear as we all carry emotional resistance to letting go of the things that seem to matter most and which we feel we ought to let come first.

Working with a partner if you have one is good as you can cover for each other.

So, back to your experiment on finding out who really is managing and organising everything in your household. It might be a shock or a little uncomfortable. You may be the one who is most incharge. If you are then what would be like to let go a little and open up yourself to the idea that you do not have to decide, schedule and manage everything. That things won’t just collapse around you.

If the insight you gather is that you are not being able to manage or organise enough, that someone else or other organisations are too in charge of your life then adjusting that will be to your benefit.

In either case start slow with small changes. Share this project with other members of your family and see what thoughts they have.

Excerpt from Jump Fall Fly – from Schooling to Homeschooling to Unschooling

Self directed learning

  • self-directed, adj
  • (of study, learning, etc.) regulated or conducted by oneself

This is a simple definition with huge consequences. Common beliefs about children are that given half a chance they won’t want to learn anything. By now we have busted this myth (I hope). Children love to learn when they are curious, interested, having fun and feeling good. Can they develop the grit and focus to delve into a learning moment even when it requires concentration and commitment? Yes they can, especially if adults around them are supportive, and especially if they see it modelled to them by those adults. Another way of looking at this ability to focus and commit to something is to understand the importance of the experience of flow, which has been mentioned in this book several times. The flow state reduces learning stress, which in turn increases engagement. What is the parent’s part and contribution to the self-directed learning approach? In short, we facilitate, provide support, and assist with accessing books, and websites, pictures or whatever is required.

We talk to the children about what they are learning about with an emphasis on what they are enjoying about what they are doing. We look for what they are benefiting from and self-manage ourselves to not focus on what they have not yet learned. Glass half full is a good approach. We also do what we can to bring into the environment at home books or objects that may provoke curiosity. See the ‘strewing’ example below.

What is self-directed learning in action?

It is the going with what arises. Saying ‘yes’ a lot. Ok, admittedly if a child wants to build a rocket and fly it to the moon, it may be tricky but still there is surely something you can do with that. Or a child wants to set a tree on fire to see what happens, you may have to work around that in a creative way too. But to me it is going with what is in the moment. I find that I have had to learn how to let them learn, that sounds strange, but I am so conditioned really, so I have had to learn to unlearn. Like the other day when one of them wanted to fry an ice cube in oil, I immediately wanted to say ‘no, that won’t work, that is crazy’ but I try nowadays to say ‘yes’ to things. I think self-directed learning from a parent’s perspective is saying yes to things as much and as safely as possible. From a kid’s perspective, it really is just living, playing and learning, which they do without thinking much about it. I guess my job is to keep them safe within all that and to keep myself sane in the process.