Independence can seem like a distant goal for parents whose children struggle with learning disabilities. These children are unique learners and independence is one more thing that they must learn in a different way.

Independence is being able to function on one’s own without assistance. This is an important part of the developmental process. It begins as early as the child begins to see themselves as separate from their parents. Independence occurs through a series of predetermined developmental milestones. These developmental milestones are physical, emotional, and cognitive.

This is a natural and important part of a small child continuing to mature and develop. Their ability to impact people, places, and objects that surround them develops in complexity. The feedback between mastering the world and planning their actions begins to develop the brain. This increases the child’s ability to function in their physical environment. Emotional security develops, and this enhances cognitive development.

These processes repeat themselves time and time again throughout childhood development. Your child needs a lot of support to develop a sense of comfort and independence, even in their familiar home environment.

Begin the process of developing independence at an early age by praising your child when they manage through a situation without your guidance. To develop and encourage independence, choose activities which your child appears to already have developed a sense of mastery over. Help them experience the joy of independently solving problems and overcoming obstacles. The important thing is not whether or not the teacup was glued together accurately. Rather, the behavior of solving problems independently is what is important and needs to be rewarded.

The goal is to develop independence in your unique learner. Keep in mind that the potential for independence will vary between unique learners. Many are capable of total independence while some will be capable of less independence. However, every unique learner can improve in this area with a goal of reaching their full potential.

These strategies can help you manage, and hopefully improve your child’s independence and as a result, their ability to function in the classroom and at home.

Understand that your goal is to move your child along a path toward improved capabilities. This path will be more difficult in some areas than others depending on your child.

I want to stress that the changes you desire won’t happen overnight and will require consistent effort on your part. Keep these general goals in mind when dealing with your unique learner.

Build and Foster Independence:

Expect your child to look after their own needs if within their ability, or to cooperate with hand-over-hand assistance to complete the task. If they can walk don’t carry them, they need the practice and you can save your back.

If your child gets into a dangerous situation and/or one where they cry for help, don’t just rescue them unless absolutely essential. Teach them with hand-over-hand or hand-over-foot assistance to extricate herself so that they will be able to do it themselves next time.

Allow your child to initiate their own activities. If they have difficulty initiating an activity, try to get them involved in something and then leave them to complete and carry it out.

Allow your child to “work out” problems – both physical and social – by themselves if possible. Be close enough and aware enough to intercede if necessary (without making moral judgments – you may not have seen the beginning of the fracas).

Unique learners often need the adults in their life to help them develop independence by “standing in” for the developmental process that might not be progressing smoothly. With your help, however, unique learners can develop independence. As independence begins to progress, you will also see an increase in the child’s self-esteem toward themselves. This not only serves to further improve independence but also improves behavior in general.

Read on for suggestions on developing independence in the unique learner.

(Note to Reader: Before we get into strategies, here is a definition of hand-over-hand assistance: Place adult’s hand over child’s hands so that your child follows through to complete each step of the task. As your child is able to complete the last step of a task (reverse-chain) withdraw hand-over-hand for this final step and begin to decrease, fade the degree of help i.e. slight pressure on the back of the hand – lower arm – upper arm until no further physical cues are needed.)

All children need to learn how to live independently. The strategies here can be used for typical learners and for unique learners. However, unique learners usually need more understanding and patience to learn these skills. These strategies are geared more toward young children, but you can adapt them to work with your older unique learner as well.

Teach Your Child How to Give Attention and Focus:

  • Expect your child to look at you and listen when spoken to – get down to your child’s level.
  • When first introducing ‘look’ and ‘listen’ use verbal and gesture e.g. look – indicate eyes, listen – indicate ears.
  • Make a difference between ‘look’ (refers to eye contact) and ‘watch’ (when your child is to focus attention on tasks).
  • Expect your child to complete tasks (hand-over-hand help if required).
  • Expect your child to respond to simple verbal directions e.g. ‘sit’, ‘hands down’, ‘wait’, ‘look’, ‘listen’. Follow through with physical help if needed.

If your child does not respond 1:1 instruction may be required.

Teach Your Child the Skill of Cooperation:

  • Expect your child to keep specific materials in appropriate areas e.g. paint at the easel, playdough on a table, etc.
  • Expect your child to complete and replace toy/puzzle on a shelf before he gets another.
  • Expect your child to pick up dropped or thrown toy/material.
  • Expect your child to participate in group activities, take turns, etc.
  • Expect your child to stay sitting at the table until finished eating or drinking. If your child gets up:
    • Warn him once to stay sitting: if he does not –
    • Remove food but keep it in sight – bring him back and offer food again
    • If he leaves again remove food completely.
  • Expect your child to participate in “clean up” in kitchen, bedroom, or playground according to his ability.
  • Expect your child to walk, NOT run, in halls or stores. Do not chase or participate in games or ‘uproar’.

Help Your Child Learn to Take Care of His or Her Own and Others’ Belongings.

  • Expect appropriate use of materials and equipment e.g. books, musical instruments, climbing apparatus, blocks, etc.
  • Do not allow your child to damage or misuse items and if this occurs, remove your child or equipment – whichever is least heavy.

Practice Problem-Solving Activities.

  • Engage in multistep problem-solving activities – card games, computer games, cooking, gardening, etc.
  • Plan structured, age-appropriate group activities, such as a reading group, a gardening group, a neighborhood walk club. By playing with other children, your child will have the opportunity to practice problem-solving.
  • Develop a long-term project and plan the timeline together. For example, encourage your child/student to develop a “future interests” list and have them consider potential future occupations when they are adults. Help your child connect their acts of independence with job skills down the line.

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Suzanne Cresswell Administrator
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