As children progress through your setting, it is important that they grow in their independence, so that they can grow in confidence, and so that they are ready for future steps such as school. A child that is independent is far more likely to have the confidence to attempt new things and learn new skills than one that still depends on adult help for most day to day tasks.
Whether it is getting dressed, putting shoes and coats on, toileting by themselves or seeking their own activities, independence can’t help but build self-esteem. Below are some tips for encouraging early years children to begin to become independent with every day tasks.
Teach them how to do each thing – don’t assume they will know.
We take for granted the things that we can do and that some more independent children can do, and forget that at first, children just don’t know how to do things independently – you need to teach each and every skill just the same as we teach a child to read and write. Tidying up is a great example of this – many adults get frustrated when children don’t tidy up but often they don’t know how. They don’t remember where everything came from, so they can’t put it back. You need to help them learn the right place for the things they play with.
Make sure children can physically manage the task.
Sometimes the thing preventing a child doing something by themselves is the fact that they can’t physically do it, despite knowing what they need to do. Take wiping their bottom, for example. A lot of children aren’t able to do this successfully because they are unable to reach behind them. It’s the same skill needed to be able to put on a coat – putting your arms behind you. You can’t expect a child to become independent at this until they can physically manage it, therefore throughout each day, schedule opportunities for children to develop these physical skills. So, for reaching behind their back children need to practise clapping behind their back, passing a bean bag and pulling off pegs that are attached to the back of their clothing. This way, there is nothing holding them back. Likewise with tidying up – can they physically reach the places that they need to, to put things away? Can they manage to open the drawer? Is there room in the drawer? If children can’t physically do the task that is expected of them, then they won’t become independent at it and you are setting them up to fail.
Don’t do it for them!
I know this seems obvious but us adults are always in a hurry. As a parent I certainly am. If you finish a task for a child, then you are teaching them that you can do it better than they can. Have patience and let them figure it out for themselves.
We all know that children watch everything we do. Show them that you can do things for yourself and encourage them to do the same. You can do this both in real life situations and in role-play.
If a child is still learning a skill, then giving them verbal instructions is great, but it may be difficult for some children to process these instructions, especially if you are using too much language. Plus, the words have gone as soon as they have been spoken, so the child is left trying to both remember as well as process what was said. If you display these instructions visually using visual symbols or photos, then a child can take their time to process them, follow them and keep checking back if they need to.
Praise, praise, praise.
I’m sure you do this anyway, I hope you do! I can’t stress this enough. Children love attention, especially positive attention so give lots of it when they achieve something new.
Give positive and constructive feedback.
If a child is trying hard but not just managing a new skill independently, it’s helps to give them constructive feedback amongst positive feedback. In teaching, there is a marking method called ‘star, star, wish’ where you say two brilliant things about a child’s piece of work and then one thing they could work on next time – the thing that you ‘wish’ them to do next. There is no reason that this can’t be applied to verbal feedback.
“If you finish a task for a child then you are teaching them that you can do it better than they can. Have patience and let them figure it out for themselves.”
Peer support – elder children supporting younger children.
We know that young children love to watch, and be like, older children. What better way to teach new skills than by having other children model it? Get them involved!
Encourage parents to share what children are doing independently at home.
It may be that the child is able to do more than you had realised. You could get parents to share achievements as a ‘wow’ observation, so that you can both celebrate it, and have the same levels of expectation both at home and in your setting.
So there we have a few tips for encouraging children to do things by themselves. They don’t just apply to practical things such as getting dressed, but also apply to just ‘being brave’ and having a go at new things by themselves. Teach children that it is ok to go wrong – the important thing is that we tried!
Good luck and have fun!
About the author
Gina Smith is an experienced teacher with experience of teaching in both mainstream and special education. She is the creator of ‘Create Visual Aids’ – a business that provides both homes and education settings with bespoke visual resources. Gina recognises the fact that no two children are the same and therefore individuals are likely to need different resources. Create Visual Aids is dedicated to making visual symbols exactly how the individual needs them.