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Supporting Children in Their Steps Towards Independence

Children who know how to look after their self-care needs are proud of themselves. This sense of pride and accomplishment is important in building a child’s self-esteem. Each of your child’s steps towards independence should be applauded no matter how small!

  • “No more diapers!”
  • “I can sip from a cup!”
  • “Great work! You sat in the chair for five minutes!”
  • “Wow! You used your pictures to let Daddy know you want to use the washroom!”
  • “I can tie my shoelaces!”

Parents sometimes have a difficult time knowing when their child is ready to participate more in his self-care. This is especially the case when a child has special needs. Most parenting books that outline child development milestones are written with the typically developing child in mind. If your child has special needs, focus on the progression of skills rather than the age at which a child is ‘supposed’ to be able to do something. It also helps to follow your child’s lead. For example, if he likes to watch you wash the dishes and enjoys the soapy bubbles, you could start teaching him how to wash his hands.

For many adults, it is tempting to jump in and help a child who appears to be struggling with a self-care task. Sometimes adults are quicker to offer assistance when a child has special needs because they assume that he needs help. We often forget that part of learning, for both children and adults is to struggle.

In order to be able to take care of himself, a child should have the physical ability to carry out the activity. Children with physical disabilities might find it difficult to complete certain tasks without some assistance from a friend or adult. Your child should also know when and who to ask for help. In a school setting, just knowing that someone is available to help can ease a child’s anxiety about taking care of himself.

While some children will ask for help when they need it, others may struggle in silence. Let’s use the example of a child who is trying to put on his boots to look for some behaviours that can help determine whether he is:

Truly struggling with the task OR
Trying to ‘figure things out’.

He is probably trying to ‘figure things out’ if he:

  • Appears to be talking himself through the process, “Foot in boot.”
  • Follows a visual sequence through the process.
  • Is testing different solutions to the problem such as taking his foot out of a boot if it doesn’t fit properly and trying the other boot.

He is probably struggling if he:

  • Appears angry or frustrated.
  • Looks from shoe to boot without taking any action.
  • Repeatedly does something incorrectly such as putting his right foot in wrong boot.
  • Looks at, or, gestures to those around him.

If a child is struggling with a self-care task, an adult can help by simply stating, “I see you want to put your boots on. ”Suggestions or help can be offered by asking, “Can I help?” or saying, “Try……” or “Let’s try…..” When help is offered in a warm and friendly manner, it maintains a child’s selfesteem. We must always consider whether we are asking or expecting a child to complete a self-care task before he is ready. If a child repeatedly experiences great difficulty, has frequent accidents, or is unable to complete a self-care task, it is best to give him all the support he needs to be successful.

When your child requires assistance or has the occasional accident, it is important to let him know that these things happen to everyone. If a child feels punished for wetting his pants or spilling food, his self-esteem may suffer. You can assist your child by helping him wash and change into clean clothing. When your child spills food, try to include him in the cleanup even if it is only to hand you a paper towel. As your child gets older, he will know that he is responsible for cleaning any messes he makes.

Some children may resist becoming more responsible for their own self-care. They may show this by refusing to participate in their self-care or deliberately having ‘accidents’. Receiving care from a parent or a loved one is very comforting for children. If your child is experiencing a lot of changes in his life or wants to spend more time with a particular adult, he may ’resist’ independence in order to maintain the security of receiving care. Preschoolers often ‘forget’ new independence skills they have learned when a new baby is in the house.

The road to independence can sometimes be rocky but setting small, realistic goals and having a sense of humor can make it smoother for both you and your child.

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