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How to promote independence for individuals with special needs

Advocating for the independence of children with special needs can be a challenging and lengthy journey. Whilst your instincts often encourage you to protect and nurture children, you may often remove many opportunities for a child to practice their independence without even acknowledging you’re doing so. Encouraging children of any ability to foster a sense of independence within their lives and daily routines undoubtedly requires the attention and consistency from all of the authoritative figures in the child’s life. It is this consistency, however, that can often prove to be difficult without strong communicative links between parents, carers, and professionals. 

Assuming that strong communicative links between these figures are well maintained, however, embracing the commitment to support and encourage a child’s independence will be a decision that will transform their lives. Before we delve deeper into the ways that this independence can be encouraged and established, it’s imperative to acknowledge the positive benefits that independence can have on the life of a child with special needs. Identically to neurotypical individuals, the feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction when a task or routine has been completed for the first time without support can leave children with special needs feeling ecstatic. It is this feeling of elation that is crucial to their personal and educational development as it provides these individuals with the confidence to attempt further challenges.

For a child with special needs, the ability to live a life with minimal support from others is regularly considered to be a primary ambition. Therefore, for the purpose of making this content relatable for the demographic, we are continuing to support, the following points discuss developing independence relative to life skills, although these points are easily transferable to an array of circumstances.

Introducing independence top tip number one:

Support – Aim to support a child rather than control them

An effective way to acknowledge the differences between the two actions is to recognize the definitions before translating these processes to a real-life circumstance. 

To control: determine the behavior or supervise the running of.

To support: give approval, comfort, or encouragement to.

Whilst many of us instinctively seek to control situations, especially those which involve individuals experiencing limitations, mastering independence comes from having the approval, comfort, and encouragement to attempt a task alone or with limited support. An easier way to comprehend this is by accepting that one cannot learn and develop when an action is consistently acted upon for them, but rather when one is encouraged and supported to attempt the activity themselves.

It should be noted that the switch from control to support should be a gradual process that can be achieved through slight adjustments to the body language and vocabulary you present to the child. For instance, asking a child what they would ‘like’ to do, rather than what you ‘want’ them to do, eliminates the control and replaces it with a layer of care, acknowledgment, and support. It is this newly introduced element of support that will enable the child to adopt a greater sense of self-determination.

How to encourage independence within daily routines: Rather than automatically supporting a child with their personal hygiene routine, ask or prompt them to complete the task independently first. By doing this, not only are you providing them with an opportunity to succeed, but you are demonstrating to the child that this is a task that they can complete independently. This is the ‘approval’ aspect of the support definition. Next, comes comfort and encouragement where you can actively encourage the child to at least attempt the task themselves. A notably successful approach to this comes from the idea of positive reinforcement, which you can explore in-depth here.

Introducing independence top tip number two:

Integrate the independence at a slow pace

One of the most important aspects of the transition to achieving greater independence in life is that it requires a tremendous amount of patience. From the moment a child was born, to the day their special needs were initially recognized, to now; the child has been nurtured for the entirety of their lives. Rather than attempting to empower a life with independence overnight, focus on the 1% change. By making the slightest adjustments to the day-to-day living of a child with special needs, we can introduce independence much more effectively than if these alterations were popularized instantly.

Change can be overwhelming, especially for those living with special needs where consistency, routines, and rituals are regularly favored. A gradual transition to living a more independent life is of paramount importance to the successful implementation of change. Begin by introducing increased choice and slightly more limited support to everyday situations before moving onto more challenging and diverse tasks.

Introducing independence top tip number three:

Allow time for change

Although the previous point touches upon the aspect of time, this section explores time from an alternative perspective. Whilst we may imply that we provide children with special needs apt time to pursue a task independently, this may not be entirely accurate. During our increasingly bustling lives, we often overlook perfect opportunities to advocate independence as we have programmed ourselves to autonomously complete these tasks in a manner that is resourceful and efficient. Unfortunately for the children in our care, this may result in us overlooking the opportunity to offer them the previously mentioned accepting and encouraging characteristics of the support they deserve.

To eliminate this issue, we must become more mindful by actively allowing time for change. It is considered a rarity for an individual to master a skill upon their first attempt, meaning that their initial endeavors are likely to be a long and challenging process. Although we may instinctively attempt to nurture the child by quickly completing the task for them, it is essential that we provide them with the gift of time, support and encouragement.

Introducing independence top tip number four:

Demonstrate positivity

Celebrate the small wins and attempts towards change! Attempting a task that has previously been out of your control can be daunting and anxiety-attracting time so my greeting their exertion with genuine praise and efforts can make this a positive experience. Pour your positive and hopeful emotions into your encouragement and build confidence as a result!

Here are the primary points for promoting independence in children with special needs:

  • Empower children with the reassurance and confidence to attempt tasks with independence.
  • Seek to support, rather than control the child.
  • Be positive and celebrate small improvements
  • Make a conscious effort to look for opportunities to encourage independence.
  • Focus on the small changes rather than attempting to introduce big changes in a short time frame. 

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The child who is ‘left behind’ most is the one who leaves school without transition readiness.

Dr. James Stanfield, Ed.D.

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