April 11, 2019

Allison Duggan

The Road to Independence: Six Tips to Promote Autonomy and Celebrate Growth

Topics: Learning at Home, Learning Through Play

growth 4

No one loves independence more than the founding fathers, except for maybe busy teachers, parents, occupational therapists, and fireworks vendors in July. Independence is also the dream goal that many teachers and parents want for their children. But how can we navigate the road the independence while avoiding a meltdown, power struggle, or last-minute science fair project that is half-built at 2AM the night before the deadline? Here are six simple tips that you can begin using today on your road to independence, while still enjoying the ride.

  1. Build Up to Your Goal

Make sure the goal you have in mind for your child is one where independence is appropriate and achievable. Goals are accomplished in smaller, progressive components, like building blocks. How can your child learn to tie their own shoelaces when they can’t even put their shoes on the correct feet? Start with the basics and celebrate each mastered step along the way! It’s important to keep in mind that choosing goals that are meaningful to a child always get the best buy-in, so don’t forget to include your child in goal-setting discussions.

 growth 1

  1. Confidence Comes First

Working on independence before feeling confident is like going into battle without armor. Failures will arise and mistakes will be made. Confidence and a growth mindset can foster empowerment and grit, which help us work through these growing pains. Praise and gratitude is a wonderful way to bolster confidence. When it comes to praise, the delivery should be specific, genuine, and in the moment. For example, skip the “good job” and try “I like how you gathered all your materials before beginning your work. It let me know you were ready to start!” Don’t forget to praise a child’s process, not just finished product, and their willingness to approach a challenge. 


  1. Build a Helpful Environment

Carefully structure the environment to support the skill you’re working on. If you can’t appreciate the impact environment has on performance, think of a spelling bee being held in a slime factory. Sounds, lighting, visuals, peers, materials, furniture, smells – all of that and more are included in your child’s environment which may support or hinder their performance. Helpful additions that children can access on their own can lead to great gains in independence and confidence! If your child asks you to track their time, try an easy-to-read visual timer. Can’t find what they need? Sort materials into clear bins or add simple picture labels. Track which factors support or impede performance and replicate or eliminate these when possible.


growth 3

  1. Make “Failure” Less Scary

It’s natural to fear failure. Instead of seeing failure as a dirty word – make it a working word! Let your child know that failure can mean “I’m in progress” rather than a finite flop. Help ease some of that fear by modeling resilience after your own mishaps, like when you’re out of butter but can easily substitute applesauce on pancake Sunday. Another fun way to tackle this tough topic is to try failing ridiculously together. Let them take your lead as you laugh through a group attempt at a salsa dancing video. Share stories about grit, like all the bruises Grandad endured while first learning how to ride a bicycle. Now he’s on a unicycle! It’s important that children have faith in life after feeling failure, and know that a willingness to try, despite the outcome, can empower us to future successes!


  1. Lead Self-Reflection

Lead your child in self-reflection after completing the skill you are practicing. The child is the most important team member, so ask them how it went. Be curious and compassionate. Focus on the positive with an “I noticed” statement, such as, “I noticed you were able to solve this problem on your own!” Dr. David Nowell, Ph.D., recommends including “How exactly did you do that?” to help open the child to self-reflection on the steps they chose and completed which brought them success. Their insight will help you understand how they were able to achieve the success you noticed, and you’ll be better equipped to support them in replicating this in the future.

 growth 4

  1. Meet “Mod I” 

Modified Independence, or “Mod I”, is a therapy term that is independence achieved with a modification – such as an adaptive strategy or tool. Remember that child who was working on tying their shoelaces? If this child has cerebral palsy, they may achieve “Mod I” in putting on their shoes by using elastic no-tie laces. They’re still able to put on their shoes on their own and within a time similar to their peers. As the child progresses, they may no longer need the modification (elastic shoelaces), or they dive into the slip-on flats craze and never need to return to shoe-tying skills. Either way, they can still be congratulated as achieving a level of independence that gives them the confidence boost of autonomy.

As you walk, drive, or run the road to independence with your children, don’t forget to note the growth, and enjoy the ride!


 growth 5Allison Duggan is a practicing occupational therapist with an expertise in pediatrics. She currently works in the elementary division of The Lab School of Washington in Washington, D.C. In addition to providing good old fashioned individual therapy services, she co-leads the Knights and Ladies academic club class, centered around hands-on arts-based learning with a medieval historical theme. Never one to exclude an age group, she also practices in adult acute care occupational therapy. Off the clock, you’ll find her and her dog spending time with family and friends on a trail, on the sand, or watching the game. She loves to create, from muffins to refinished furniture, and is always game for game night.


Are you a former or current educator who is interested in guest blogging for ThinkFun? Please contact us for more information! You could be featured in our next blog post and TeachFun e-newsletter!

New call-to-action