Advice Column, Child, Parenting, Toddler

Encouraging/Fostering Independence in a Child’s Early Years

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“I can do it myself”

If you show me, I see….  If you tell me, I hear …  If I do …I understand!

From an early age, a child’s search for independence is energised by the desire to make things happen and to feel capable and competent.  A young child’s opinion about their capabilities is, to a large extent, based on their environment provided, and on their parent’s and caregiver’s responses.  In the context of lifelong learning, self-regulated learning is an important competence.

Children between 3-6 years of age are at such a crucial stage in their lives to develop this skill.  That is why parents, caregiver’s and teachers play a very important role as their role models.  As an adult, your role in fostering independence is to provide lots of love and support, encourage curiosity and exploration, teach skills, and allow the child to make the appropriate choices.  Your enthusiasm for a child’s investigation sends a message that the activities that they have chosen are appreciated by you.

One of the main parenting jobs, is to help children leave home one day, knowing important life skills and how to pay bills on time etc.  We already know that the skills and behaviours that children develop early in life, lay a strong foundation for adolescence and later adulthood.  For this reason, we need to think how we can begin, early on, to promote lifelong independence for our children.

Young children might become frustrated while trying to master a certain task and the desire to make things happen, takes them down paths that require limit setting.  It is still appropriate to allow for small doses of frustration and to expect mistakes.  The key is to provide an emotional safety net when trial and error results occur.  Like other developmental milestones for young children, successful accomplishment of self-care tasks is age specific.

Preschoolers can verbally express many feelings, thoughts and needs, and are ready to take bigger steps towards independence.  Encourage and support preschool children to be independent in dressing themselves, going to the toilet and personal care.  Persuade them to do things for themselves daily, by allowing them to put away their toys and clothes, helping prepare meals and setting the table, putting their dirty clothes into the wash basket and carrying their own school bag into school.  This will help build a sense of competence and teach children how to do things for themselves and others.  Make some drawers/shelves in their cupboard accessible to them and make their toothbrush/paste and hairbrush easy to reach.

Although it is necessary to establish limits and maintain firm rules about important issues, it is equally important to respect children’s choices whenever possible.  Offer choices and ask your child’s preferences for activities or objects.  Ask which of the 2 books do they want you to read, do they want to sit next to you or lie down to hear the story?

Provide a personal space for your child’s privacy and comfort e.g. a space where they can safely go, to be alone.  Provide a full-length mirror in their bedroom so they can see themselves when getting dressed or brushing their hair/teeth.  Create places for your child to see their work or art displayed.

Some tips for parents to instill independence in young children:

  • Having routines and responsibilities will let your child know what to expect.
  • When children do something against the rules, explain simply and clearly, in a few words, what they did was wrong.
  • When a rule is broken, a consequence needs to follow.
  • Consequences need to be meaningful, simple and age appropriate.  E.g. If your child rides a bike without a helmet, the bike is off limits for the morning.
  • Teach the rules about helping with the daily routines.
  • Children do best when they know what to expect.
  • Children feel important when adults give them focused attention, eye contact and take the time to listen and talk to them.  This helps them gain self-confidence.
  • Allocate responsibilities so when young children copy everyday household tasks, they are really learning how to contribute.  With encouragement and support, tasks will be done with some reminders.  As they become older, they will be more confident and willing to take on more, such as:  feeding the pets, packing away their toys, hanging up their towel.
  • Encourage independence in bathing, dressing and using the toilet.  (With supervision, depending on their age.)  Involve them in getting their clothes ready the night before so the morning routine will only involve getting dressed.  This way, they can focus on one thing.
  • Give your child expressive praise for their efforts and successes e.g.  “You did a great job getting yourself dressed for school today.  I’m proud of you!”

Teaching simple rules about safety with adults:

Keeping your children safe is an important job for parents.  You want your child to trust and respect others, but you also need to teach your child to be wary and careful.  Relay some simple rules that enable you to start a conversation with your child about different safety issues:

  • “If ever you are not sure about anything, please just ask me.”
  • “If an adult asks you to do something that you are sure is NOT okay, always ask me first.”
  • “Certain body parts are private.  No adults or children (except parents, doctors and nurses) should touch you there.”

Helping your child become a good friend:

Guide your child on how to solve their social problems.  (This helps build up their verbal skills.)  It can be very tempting and sometimes a lot easier for parents to try and solve these problems themselves.

Help your child to understand another child’s point of view. 

  • “I am sure that Suzie would like to have a turn as well.”

Teach your child to stay calm, not to grab or push and encourage them to verbalise what they are feeling or wanting.

Use sentences like:

  • “I feel very sad when you talk to me like that.”  
  • “I feel unhappy because you grabbed the ball from me.”

Stand close by and observe the children solving their problems.  This is how they begin to develop the skills and confidence to communicate calmly, honestly and politely with others.

By Bev Bouton Teacher at Crawford Pre-Primary Village

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