DEVELOPING CHILDREN'S AUTONOMY
As children grow up, their brains continue to develop, absorbing information like a sponge. However, unlike adults, children naturally lack certain mental and physical skills, and thus, independence. Children massively benefit from gaining in autonomy, becoming more self-confident when it comes to tackling and overcoming life’s challenges. This gives meaning to their daily lives and encourages them to live life to the full.
What does “autonomy” mean in children?
Autonomy is defined by the dictionary as “freedom from external control or influence; independence”. During early childhood, this refers to a child’s ability to act on their own accord and perform tasks independently without adult assistance.
BENEFITS OF AUTONOMY
As parents, we naturally feel the need to overprotect our children because we do not want them to experience harm or pain. However, we must not limit their process of discovery by overprotecting them, since this could affect their confidence and turn them into fearful and shy children. While we have good intentions for our children, we must be aware that our actions can affect the character of children as they grow into adulthood.
By gaining autonomy, your child will be able to tackle, resolve and “safely” overcome life's problems through learning to cope with failure. Children therefore develop self-confidence, self-esteem and feel more comfortable in making their own informed choices. Beyond that, they also learn family values, social norms and essential skills along the way to survive through to adulthood.
HOW TO PROMOTE AUTONOMY?
As children naturally learn to become autonomous, they become more independent through new skills. As the child grows up, you will recognise their efforts at home through very simple examples, such as putting on their own shoes, and eating and dressing themselves. Here are some ways that you can help them become more autonomous as they make the transition from infancy into early childhood.
“DOING IT ALONE”
Toddler (1-3 years old)
With toddlers, autonomy is defined as “self-sufficiency,” or behaviours that enable self-care. At this age, children are typically autonomous in their motor skills: moving around, and dressing, feeding and washing themselves. For children, it is therefore about their ability to “do it alone,” to independently carry out everyday actions and play an active role in meeting their own needs. As well as these behaviours, autonomy also refers to a child’s psychological state: knowing how to play, and even, falling asleep alone.
The 18-36 month period is crucial to the development of autonomy and self-esteem. This is the age when children start wanting to do things for themselves. But at this stage, children are often clumsy, take a long time to carry out tasks and make mistakes, such as putting on their shoes backwards. It is during these moments that children need encouragement from adults the most, in order to feel that people trust and believe in them. This helps build self-esteem and encourages them to persevere until they do things right.
Children can start with simple tasks, such as putting their toys away in the right boxes. When a child explores a risky situation, instead of saying “Don’t go there, it’s dangerous!” or “Be careful or you might fall!”, say: “Go ahead, but be careful; the floor is slippery.” These words encourage them to face their fears while also introducing the notion of safety. It is also good to encourage them after they have made a mistake. As a parent, you are a role model for your child: you can show them how to do the task properly. A key quote by Maria Montessori is “Help me to do it alone,” meaning that a child needs to do tasks “with the adult” before they can do them on their own.
Pre-school children (3-6 years old)
Children of this age make specific choices. Guide them through these choices, for example: “Shall I wear the red or blue shirt?” Encourage them to try increasingly complex tasks, such as putting on their shoes by themselves. You can also encourage your child to try tasks they have never attempted before.
AUTONOMY AT LPE SG
At La Petite Ecole, Singapore, autonomy is promoted in children aged 1-5 years, since our preschool and nursery school teachers help children carry out increasingly complex tasks. Children take part in activities that promote their autonomy, from the moment they first arrive at school in the morning until the end of the school day. When they first get to school in the morning, our preschool pupils place their backpacks, water bottles, snack boxes and cuddly toys in designated baskets labelled with pictures of each item. These labels help them identify the correct baskets for each of their belongings.
Autonomy is also practised and encouraged in the classroom and during daily workshops. At our preschool, children are encouraged to imitate the behaviour of their teachers while putting away games. Teachers also talk through what they are doing as they are tidying up, naturally encouraging children to imitate their actions. However, teachers encourage children who do not imitate their actions to participate by adding an extra element of play and fun to the activity. In the first year of nursery school (Petite Section), the role of keeping the free play areas clean and tidy is assigned to two children at a time.
Before and after meals and during toilet breaks, all children are accompanied to the bathroom to wash their hands. Posters above the sinks remind and guide children through the steps of effective handwashing so that they grow up with this habit. Facilities are placed at child height for easy access.
As they prepare to head home for the day, children have one last opportunity to practise their autonomy by putting on their own shoes.
- Allow children to make mistakes. Don’t put expectations on children and don’t expect them to succeed after the first few attempts. Make sure you give them realistic choices.
- Encourage children to persevere if they are unsuccessful.
- Make sure the decision-making process or tasks are age-appropriate.
- Don’t hold children back, but rather support them by acknowledging and respecting their efforts.
- Consider making the purpose of each task clear so that children understand what is expected of them and why.