What is Independence?
Independence is defined as freedom from the control, influence, support and aid of others. This is something that we all strive for, having the independence to live our lives free from being dependent on others. It is the knowledge that wherever we go and whoever we are with, we are capable and competent. We can trust our ability to make our own choices and plan our actions accordingly. The more successfully we negotiate challenges and succeed at tasks, the more self-confident we feel and the greater our self-esteem becomes.
What are the elements of independence?
This is the ability to understand and manage our own behaviour and emotions. It is very important for children to learn from a young age how to self-soothe e.g. use a dummy/ soother, blanket, taglet or other comfort items to self-calm and maintain a state of calm-alert. As they get older it is essential that they learn to identify and acknowledge their own emotions and learn how to work through them in a calm and logical way. They also need to be able to manage their levels of alertness so that they feel alert during the day and can wind down at night. If they can’t self-regulate, they will be reliant on others to help them manage their emotions and behaviour and cannot achieve independence.
Try: Allow your small children opportunities to soothe themselves with soothing items. Have a routine for eating, sleeping and waking. Have a strict bedtime routine which encourages winding down. Discourage excessive screen time (more than 30 minutes up to 3 years to 60 minutes for older children, per day) which interferes with regulation, attention and sleep-wake cycles. Acknowledge your child’s emotions and give them words for it e.g. “I can see you’re feeling sad…”. Give them examples of what to do e.g. “when mommy is feeling sad, she likes to have a hug and read a story.” Model the behaviours you would like them to perform e.g. don’t shout and scream out of frustration and then expect them to behave differently when they are frustrated. Show them that you have confidence in their abilities!
Children learn through play. Play comprises of imagination and exploration. It is the opportunity to freely experiment with different ideas and observe the outcome. The key word here is FREEDOM. The freedom to initiate action and explore all possibilities. It is essential that children have the opportunity for free, un-supervised, non-directed play. They need to use their imaginations, explore different properties, plan different scenarios and experience different outcomes. Along with this, they also need to be given the opportunity to try things for themselves e.g. help with dressing, feeding themselves, baking, opening containers, choosing their own clothes etc. If they don’t try, they won’t learn.
Try: Make sure that your child has time each day to engage in free play. Make sure he has a variety of objects which he can use to experiment with and explore. Alternate which toys are available to help with creativity. Encourage both indoor and outdoor play. Encourage your child to interact with the world around him e.g. feel different textures, hear different noises, see different sights, feel different movements, smell different smells and taste different foods. Let him help with small tasks e.g. stirring the baking mixture, pouring the water into the glasses, loading the washing machine, watering the garden, wiping the windows etc. Encourage imaginary play.
Time is a rare commodity these days! However, time is essential when it comes to learning. When trying to use something new, we need the time to observe it, to manipulate it, to try out various methods of using it and then once we know what to do, we need time to practice or get used to using it. The same goes for our children, who will only learn how to learn if given the time and space to do so. In a very rushed and crazy world, it is difficult to give time… but will it not ultimately save us time???
Try: Be patient. Give your child time to learn new skills. Show him how to do something, let him watch, do it hand over hand and then let him try. Repetition is key. Don’t rush learning. If the week is too busy, take time over the weekend to teach new skills.
Problem solving is an essential part of independence. It is defined as the ability to overcome difficulties by trying out solutions. Life is filled with many challenges and problems that we need to work through on a daily basis. Problem solving starts from infancy for e.g. “how will I get this rattle to make a noise?” and continues as children get older e.g. “how can I make mom believe that I really need to have this toy?” An inability to problem-solve results in a lack of skill development, affects our ability to plan and impacts on our capacity to generate solutions. If we cannot solve problems effectively, we feel incompetent and this impacts negatively on our self-esteem. We therefore feel the need to consult others in order to make decisions or find solutions to our problems. This results in dependency on others. Again, just a reminder that in order to develop problem solving skills, we need the opportunity and the time to be able to experience challenges and find solutions to them.
Try: Encourage problem solving in play. Create problems within their games e.g. “oh no, the Lego building has fallen over onto the road, now your truck can’t get past. What shall we do?” or “doll’s food was left in the oven and it’s burnt. What can we do?” Give them opportunities to problem solve whenever a problem arises e.g. “your ball has gone over the wall, what should we do? Do you think we should jump over or is it too high? Would it be better to go next door and ask the neighbour to fetch it for us?”
This goes hand in hand with problem solving. Once we come up with a solution to the problem at hand, we need to create a plan of how to achieve it. “E.g. If I want to convince mom that I need a new toy car, I need to get rid of my old toy car. So, I will hide it at the back of the cupboard where it’s dusty and no one ever looks, then I will look very sad when mom gets home. When I see that she is happy (because then she normally says yes), I will tell her I need a new car or else I won’t be able to play with my friends at school”. This also starts at a very young age e.g. “to get my rattle to make a noise, I need to bang it on the floor”. It is important to encourage planning skills from a young age to promote independence in tasks.
Try: Encourage planning within play e.g. “Let’s build a Lego house. Which blocks will we need? How big will it be? Which colour should we use for the roof and which colour for the walls? Let’s draw a picture of it first”. Let the kids help with easy children’s baking and follow the steps. When you are doing tasks talk to them about the steps e.g. “Should I just put it in the oven, or do you think I should mix it first? “Let them do chores e.g. setting the table and planning how many plates, knives, forks are needed etc.
In order to be independent, we need to be able to organise ourselves within our environment, organise our environment and organise more complex concepts like money and time.
Try: Let them perform chores at home. Be organised yourself so that they have someone to model! Teach them to look after their belongings. Teach them to keep their own toys organised e.g. these toys go in the cupboard and these in the draw. Always tidy up after tasks. Let them help with cleaning their rooms and packing their clothes away. Teach them the importance of being on time. Give them pocket money when they are old enough. Let them work towards goals e.g. “when you help with these tasks you will get a star, when you have 20 stars, you will get this toy or this outing.” Let them help with choosing their clothes and packing their school bags.
Independence in tasks also requires that we have the adequate skills to be able to carry out the tasks. This includes refined sensory integration skills, self-regulation skills, language and communication skills, fine motor skills, gross motor skills, social skills, planning skills, problem solving skills and organisational skills. A delay in any of the above skills is likely to result in feelings of incompetence, dependence and a lack of self-confidence.
Try: If they have difficulty in any of the above areas, get them the help that they need to develop those skills. This can be done through professionals or you can research ideas of how to help them at home. Speak to their teachers for suggestions on how to develop the age-appropriate skills.
It is essential that when we perform tasks, we can evaluate ourselves accurately so as to adjust our actions as necessary. Children are initially reliant on feedback from their parents and they slowly learn to develop their own self-evaluation skills. It is thus important that we give our children honest evaluation of their tasks i.e. “the cutting on the straight line is very neat, but do you think you could have cut more slowly around the curve to make it neater. Let’s try that.”
Try: Always give constructive and honest feedback in a positive way. Don’t criticize your child as this will damage their self-esteem. However, don’t tell them that they’ve done very neat work if it is in fact untidy. They will not learn how to evaluate themselves subjectively. Always praise and acknowledge the effort they’ve put in. Help them to self-evaluate e.g. “You tried so hard, well done. I can see that your colouring went out of the lines because you were working so fast. Do you think it will stay in the lines if you colour-in more slowly? Let’s try.
Written by Tamaryn Hunter – BSc (Occupational Therapy – Occupational Therapist)