Parents and therapists often ask us how they can “work” on their child becoming more independent. The irony here is that we want our children to play, entertain themselves and complete life skills independently, yet we try and teach this to our children. This seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? How do we do this then?
We are happy to give some more of our “secrets” away as we want to support more families all over the world. There are different areas where we would want our children to be more independent: playing, life-skills, initiating conversations, etc.
Let’s focus on these more generally and during other talks we will go into more specific strategies that can work for each of these areas.
Preparation is key – yes, we do need to apply some learning techniques. We want to always let our children know what is expected of them. This makes the task at hand – to occupy themselves or complete activities less “scary”. During the preparation period it really should be tailored to your child’s developmental level, his or her interests and material that is easiest for your child to understand (ie visual, vocal, tactile prompts or clues). Let’s choose a topic that we want to encourage our child to complete independently. One of our main queries from our clients are to help teach children to independently “keep themselves busy”.
Some strategies to prepare your child adequately:
- Create a visual schedule – this is always a good idea as our children thrive on predictability, routine and consistency (like all children…). The visual schedule should be based on your child’s developmental level – so if your child is not reading, writing or speaking expressively – a visual schedule that has real photos of items will be appropriate. Also, don’t have the schedule too detailed at first. You can always start with a “first-then” visual and then a “first, then and lastly” card. From there you can move to a daily schedule and later, to a weekly schedule. Once your child understands the purpose of the schedule and shows consistency of utilizing the schedule to prepare himself or herself, it’s important to add a “change” icon or word within the schedule. This will allow for changes in the schedule – such as weather conditions when an outing is not possible.
- Then we want to start adding “free time” in the schedule, where we first give our child different possibilities of things to do. Remember to show exciting and motivating activities or toys for your child to play with during these “free time” sessions. At first it will be taught – you are right – and then we will systematically decrease our presence (in terms of vocal affirmation and physical prompts by playing the game with your child).
Play stations: although we are not the biggest fans of a scenario that seems too contrived (as it seems fake), we do like the idea of setting up a “play station” somewhere for your child. Let’s discuss some strategies here:
- The play station should be filled with favourite toys and activities. Some novel ones. Your child should have access to these toys and activities at all times. The idea here is that we want him or her to go independently, so we shouldn’t restrict this area.
- Keep a short “to do” list stuck on the wall or somewhere nearby the play station for your child to tick boxes (if age-appropriate), where they have to tick “took activity/toy”, “played” and “packed away”. You can obviously change this description or instruction, but the point here is that we want our children to learn to start and complete an activity – play included. We also want to teach our children, as much as what should be considered as “normal” that the play area should be tidy.
- You want to start by showing your child how to choose a toy or activity, completing it or playing for an amount of time and then returning the toy or activity.
Promoting independence in children
This is where the fun starts really! You want to create the idea that having more opportunities to go to the play station is a great thing. So, every time your child is doing something well – sitting, speaking, using PECS, etc. tell them that they can now “go play” and then remove yourself systematically from their immediate surroundings. You can pretend to be busy, flip through a magazine or even (if appropriate) walk away to get a glass of water. In more behavioral terms, therapists would say to “fade your prompts”. What this really just mean is that from playing together with your child on completing a motivating activity with them, remove yourself slowly by giving less physical prompts, then vocal directive prompts to gestural prompts (maybe even glancing at the table where the toys are).
We do understand that this all seems very “easy” when you read it and then the practical conundrum kicks in – your child doesn’t want to go to the play station, they like throwing some of the toys at your face perhaps or they seem to be disinterested in all your efforts.
This is another trick that we have learned through the years – although it seems at first that there is NO WAY your child will be able to do an activity independently, it takes consistency, keeping it fun and doing it “one more time” for your child to actually want to participate. Our children are truly masters in the art of avoidance at times. Although we can joke about this, it might be due to some anxiety that they might have. So, continue to support your child as you are doing and we promise you – you WILL see results. Better than that – results with happy smiles.
Please let us know how it went! We can’t wait to hear all the happy stories!
And also, we can’t wait for you to have a night off where you can tell your child to “go play” and it gives you time to watch one episode of your favourite show that you miss so dearly.