When our children are young, we make all of their decisions for them: what they will eat, what they will wear, how they will spend their time. We sign them up for music class or soccer; we balance their plates with fruits and veggies; we pick their playdates and lace their sneakers.
The purpose of all of this control? To ultimately give it away.
We want to raise children who are safe, happy, and independent – autonomous beings who can make good decisions, care for themselves, and relate well with others. And in a typical trajectory, our children pull away from us slowly and begin to make these decisions on their own.
My 14-year-old, for example, gets very annoyed with me if I suggest he use the bathroom before getting in the car. And one magical day, I realized I no longer had to ask if he brushed his teeth before leaving the house. (My guess is having fresh breath for his friends or a girl in his class had far more influence than I did.)
Children with complex challenges can learn this same independence. However, they often need to be explicitly taught the habits and skills that come intuitively to their regularly-abled peers.
How is a parent to do this? How do we develop and reinforce independence in our children with complex challenges? Here are four simple suggestions.
#1: Start small.
As with learning any new skill, it’s easier to adopt one change or behavior than changing an entire routine. Help your child slowly gain independence by working on one skill at a time. When that skill is mastered and becomes automatic, move on to another.
For example, if your eventual goal is for your child to do their own laundry, begin by having them put their clothes in a hamper when they get undressed. When the routine becomes internalized, move to the next skill: taking the hamper to the laundry room. Continue to break down even seemingly small tasks into their component parts, and teach each part explicitly and repetitiously.
#2: Visualize everything.
This sage advice comes from Dr. Russell Barkley and Dr. Cheryl Chase, who say if you want your child to perform a task in a set period of time, give them a timer and provide them with visual reminders of what they need to do.
Using the laundry example: After you talk to your child about putting their clothes in the hamper, reinforce it by posting signs with visual representations in places where your child changes clothes. There are great free resources for pictures on Pixabay, Unsplash, and Google Images that can help.
Calendars, schedules, and sequences should be taken out of verbal language, out of your child’s head, and put into visual reminders. Yes, my house looks odd with laminated sheets hanging in many rooms, but oh well, it works.
#3: Give praise.
I have written about praise many times before and I will continue to do so because there is no better way to sculpt childrens’ behaviors than through regular compliments.
Whether your child is young, a teen, or a young adult, praise works. Studies on human behavior have repeatedly shown that punishing undesirable behavior has unpredictable effects, whereas praising and rewarding desired behavior causes more of the desired behavior.
Back to laundry. When it is time for your child to get changed, say “Make sure you put your clothes in the hamper.” Support that with visuals. And when they succeed, praise them a lot. Follow the same pattern of reminders, visuals, and praise.
Praise does not cause a perfect performance every time, but it is the best tool we parents have. Whenever your child expresses a desired behavior and expresses their independence, praise them. Compliment them. Encourage them to keep it going.
#4: Accept Plan C.
Plan C is Collaborative and Proactive Solutions jargon for “planned ignoring.” This means that if your child has not yet developed the cognitive skills for a task, let it go.
If your child cannot undress themselves independently, requiring them to do their laundry may hinder rather than help your efforts. This does not mean giving up or having low expectations – quite the opposite. It means focus on what you can accomplish and what you are working on and return to the other tasks later.
This formula – break down the task, give visual support, praise their efforts, and know when to let it go – will help your child with complex challenges develop independence at a pace that works for them.
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