COVID-19 came out of nowhere hitting the world with bewildering force and enforcing astounding changes to the lives of everyone. For many being cooped up in a restricted home space, facing challenges of adjusting to a changed work environment, juggling parenting needs, remote learning and online therapy, alongside domestic responsibilities of running a home at the same time was exhausting! Now that things have moved towards some semblance of normalcy, our schedules continue to be busy but are a very different way.
Hectic busy lives often lead to the feeling of having insufficient time to get things done. While it may be quicker for you to complete tasks independently in the short run, there is no doubt that if you choose to pause, mindfully shift the responsibility of the task to your child and allow your child the opportunity to take an action, it will help ease the load in the long run. Independence can be encouraged for any child, whether typically developing or children with special needs and can be encouraged regardless of where in the journey towards independence your child happens to be.
Independence allows individuals to develop a sense of self-efficacy, the feeling of ’I can do it’, which in turn develops self-esteem and confidence while simultaneously promoting motivation and perseverance. Many people relate independence to self-care and while self-care is important, it is helpful to think across topics. Independence can be about acquiring hobbies, gardening, a fitness regime or things that they like to do independently of you. Chores, like helping with the family laundry for example, lead to more independence and also to a sense of family and of being together.
To start with, we must have the 'vision' of the 'type' of independence we would like our children to acquire. Ask yourself what you are doing for your child that your child could do independently (i.e. feeding himself, cutting her food, putting on his shoes, cutting her nails etc.). Reflect and compile a list of tasks your child can take responsibility for and then set a plan in motion to achieve this. This could either be a task in itself like washing the dinner plates or it could be part of a task like carrying the dishes to the sink. Stop doing for your child what he can already do for himself and you will be surprised!
(1) Picking the right goal - Pick a goal with the least number of obstacles to allow for the best chance for a successful completion: taking your plate to the sink vs. tying shoelaces. As you move along and as your child gains more competence, more complicated goals can be tackled. Obstacles also sometimes diminish as independence emerges.
(2) Be flexible - To achieve your goal, a plan is important but it’s imperative not to be too plan-oriented as this often leads to inflexibility and you may find it difficult to ‘go with the flow’ as a situation unfolds. For example, if there is a spill while making a hot drink, some might focus on making the hot drink which was the original plan, whereas the process of cleaning up the spill is a missed learning opportunity. Once a goal is selected, have a rough idea of the direction you want to pursue, allowing yourself the freedom to navigate whatever comes along to help your child gain more independence in the chosen task.
(3) Determining a distinguishable end point – This is important because usually after a goal is achieved, there is often another layer to the goal that needs to be achieved. Encoding that a goal has been achieved before layering up to the next milestone is important for self-esteem and motivation to develop.
(4) Focus on noticeable differences - Try and focus on small noticeable differences instead of watching for obvious milestones. For example, you can hold a glass of juice a little farther away each time, to encourage your child to put just a little more effort into reaching for the glass. The child should barely notice the difference BUT the difference should be there as you slowly pull back. Allowing your child to take on more responsibility in this step by step fashion will make a difference to your child taking on more responsibility.
(5) Celebrate each step - It is important to remember that every 'tiny' step forwards, is actually a 'big' step and should to be celebrated. It is the small steps forward that adds up to the biggest steps!
(6) Be playful – It is helpful to be playful when you engage your child while presenting an opportunity for more independence.
(7) Establishing and acquiring independence takes time - It is useful to think of, and to focus on, where your child will be in a month's time, 3 months, 6 months or even a year from the starting point. It is also important to remember that some goals will be achieved faster than others, so try not to compare one goal with another.
COVID-19 has resulted in many being able to work from home and this in turn has opened up the opportunity for parents to be more involved in their children's lives. What a golden opportunity! Why waste it? It is never too late for your child to gain more independence. It is possible. It is doable! It is achievable! A lot depends on you and you will be pleasantly surprised by the results.
Jennifer Peters-Lee is a Speech-Language Therapist & RDI® Program Certified Consultant who has made meaningful communication her life’s work.
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