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Developing Autonomy in Children

As children grow, their brains develop endlessly, absorbing information like a sponge. However, unlike adults, children naturally lack mental and physical capabilities and hence, independence. Developing autonomy brings many benefits for the children. One of them is fostering self-confidence to undertake and overcome life’s challenges. It adds meaning to their lives and encourages them to live life.

What does ‘autonomy’ in children mean?

Autonomy literally means ‘freedom from external control or influence; independence’ in the dictionary. In early childhood, it is the ability of a child to act on his or her own free will and perform tasks independently without an adult’s assistance.

Benefits of Autonomy

Naturally, as parents, we have the urge to overprotect our children as we do not wish for them to go through any harm or pain. However, it is important not to overdo the protecting and hinder their discoveries as doing so might stunt their confidence and turn them into fearful and timid children. While we mean well for our children, we must be aware of our actions as they can influence the children’s characteristics as they journey into adulthood. 

Autonomy would ease your child into braving through and solving life’s problems and go through them ‘safely’ by learning to cope with failure. As a result, children would develop confidence, self-esteem, and feel more capable of making their own healthy choices. The bonus point is, they pick up family values, social norms, and essential skills along the way for them to survive adulthood! 

How to Encourage Autonomy?

When children learn to be autonomous, they naturally grow to be independent adults through new skills they pick up during their childhood. As the child grows, you can recognise his/her efforts at home through very simple examples like putting on the shoes, eating, and dressing himself/herself independently. 

Below are some ways and examples to guide them into developing autonomy as they grow from infants to preschoolers.

Infant (0-1 year)

At this age, children are not capable of tasks and decision making. However, we can encourage them to “participate” in straightforward tasks like holding still during diaper changing with the distraction of a toy. 

Toddler (1-3 years)

With young children, we speak of autonomy as "self-sufficiency", that is to say, the behaviours that allow one to take care of oneself. This mainly concerns motor autonomy: moving, clothing, feeding, and cleaning oneself. For the child, it is, therefore, a question of his ability to "do alone" acts of daily life, to take an active part. Apart from these behaviours, autonomy is also found on a psychological level, namely playing, or even falling asleep by oneself.

The period of 18 to 36 months is crucial in the development of autonomy and self-esteem. It is at this age that children start to want to do things on their own. But at this stage, the child is likely to be clumsy, takes time to complete tasks, makes mistakes, like putting on the wrong sides of the shoes, etc. At these times, the child needs the adults’ encouragement the most, to feel that the adult believes in and trusts him. This helps to build the child’s self-esteem and encourages him to keep trying until he gets there!

They can start with simple tasks like putting their toys in the right boxes. When a child explores a risky situation, instead of saying “Don’t go, it’s dangerous!” or “Be careful or you might fall!”, say this instead: “Go ahead but be careful, the floor is slippery.” These words encourage him to face his fears while introducing the notion of security. This is also a time to kindly encourage the child after he makes a mistake. You are the parent and role model of the child. You can show your child how to perform the desired task. Several conditions and adults’ support are necessary to raise an independent child. A key phrase from Maria Montessori says “Help me to do it alone” – meaning, a child needs to do tasks “with the adult” before being able to do it by themselves.

Preschooler (3-6 years)

Children at this age have definite choices! Encourage them to make their own choices. For example, “to wear the red or the blue shirt?” Build up the complexity of their tasks like putting their shoes on themselves. You can also encourage your child to try tasks that he/she has never done before.

Autonomy at La Petite Creche

At our nursery, daily observation from our team as well as frequent exchanges with families allow us to follow the child's development. We adapt to their pace and support their desires for independence. There is no hard and fast rule for determining the age at which a child should dress by himself, eat independently, or care for his hygiene, etc. The child demonstrates to us, and we let him experience his abilities with his own free will! 

We support his abilities but remain available for the child's assistance at the beginning of the child's autonomy - which can be chaotic sometimes.

For example, take the case of a child who wants to put on his shoes by himself. We demonstrate it to him, then let him try it. We do not take the lead by forcing children to put on shoes by themselves just because they are "old enough" to do so. Autonomy requires prerequisites, as well as a degree of emotional and psychological maturity of the child. Usually, children have a 'sensitive time' when they want to do certain things on their own. We use these moments to promote their quest for autonomy and offer them activities or tasks that they are able to do on their own!

When the little one begins to take an active part during meals, we operate with a 'double spoon' approach: one spoon for the adult, one spoon for the child. Thus, by imitation and experimentation, the child can try to use the spoon as he pleases. The experience may be a bit disorderly, but we let him try. In this way, the child learns to handle his spoon properly and ends up eating on his own. Once he does, he would refuse help afterwards.

Other examples:

Each child has his own shelf where he can leave his belongings. He has the possibility of taking his blanket or pacifier in his own will, depending on his needs.

For children who are able to blow their nose on their own, we provide boxes of tissues placed at a reachable height.

During free workshops, the child chooses his activity. Depending on his abilities, he is guided by an adult in carrying out the activity. The child then puts the equipment back where he took it.

Also with the aim of developing children's autonomy and boosting their self-esteem, children have responsibilities at our nursery, such as distributing water bottles to the whole group, for example. They can fill their own water bottle at the water cooler, with or without an adult's help.

Self-sufficiency also involves potty / toilet training. When changing, a child displays his autonomy through his initiatives, such as putting on a fresh diaper, throwing the soiled diaper into the trash, and washing his hands afterwards. In coordination with the child's family for successful learning, we encourage the use of the potty or the toilet. This is also the time when the child can practice dressing on his own.

You can also read: Say goodbye to diapers! 

To Remember:

  • Allow the child to make mistakes. Do not put your expectations on the child and do not expect him/her to succeed in the first few attempts. Also, make sure to offer realistic choices. 
  • During failure, encourage the child to keep trying.
  • Ensure that the decision-making or tasks are suitable for the child’s age group. 
  • Do not hinder the child, but rather, support them by acknowledging and respecting their efforts.

Sources:

    1. https://complexcareathomeforchildren.com/prepare-your-child/encourage-autonomy/
    2. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/childdevelopment/positiveparenting/infants.html
    3. https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/how-parents-can-foster-autonomy-encourage-child-development-0704184
    4. ‘A Word from Our Pedagogical Director… How to Guide the Child in the Development of His Autonomy?’ by Maria Raphel Lamrani Alaoui, Pedagogical Director of the La Petite Ecole Group.

Photo by Stephen Andrews on Unsplash.

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