Supporting self-reliance: Me do it!

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Children are making moves towards independence from their earliest days. Nursery workers should take care to encourage them without pushing for perfection or taking advantage of the extra pair of helping hands, says child psychologist Jennie Lindon

Children are making moves towards independence from their earliest days. Nursery workers should take care to encourage them without pushing for perfection or taking advantage of the extra pair of helping hands, says child psychologist Jennie Lindon

Babies and toddlers need a great deal of physical care because in the early months they cannot look after themselves. But it is surprising and impressive how soon babies want to use their physical skills and feel part of what happens. Toddlers and young children are keen to feel competent. They may announce a firm 'Me do it!' and even become distressed if they are not allowed to have a go.

Our role as helpful adults is to support children and to appreciate the value of this area of their early development.

We talk sometimes about independence, but this word can be misleading, especially where adults are tempted to want children to manage without any help or thanks at a young age. Perhaps it is better to think about how young children steadily learn to manage the skills of self-reliance by carrying out daily tasks. Another approach is to see how under-threes learn to share in their own care.

Within the first three years, young children become able to take an active part in their own physical care and to be a trusted helper in the nursery or their own home. They become steadily more able to:

  • Manage their own toileting and hygiene - the actual physical skills and the intellectual task of remembering and following a sequence

  • Feed themselves, handle drinks and make choices about food

  • Dress and undress, expressing preferences about clothes

  • Take appropriate responsibility within their nursery or home by taking part in idying up, serving out food and helping in routine daily tasks

  • Make choices about activities and plan a bit ahead with the support of a patient adult.

Children's growing self-reliance will support their all-round development.

  • When children are enabled to become self-reliant at a steady pace, their skills support their emotional and social development. They have a growing sense of self-worth from thinking, 'I can do it' and, if they get stuck, from knowing, 'It doesn't matter; I can ask for help'.

  • Such an outlook will continue to be very important for children who have disabilities that mean their skills of self-reliance will take longer to develop or will always need respectful adult support.

  • By being a trusted helper you will support young children's thinking skills. To carry out daily routines, a child often needs to recall steps in a simple sequence or to notice that something has been forgotten. You can help them by asking, 'What do we do next?'

  • Helping children make choices about what food they want to eat, or which way to turn on a local outing, encourages communication and the weighing up of simple alternatives.

Young children need to feel confident enough to practise existing skills and have a try at new ones. Your outlook and actions will be fundamental to boosting this confidence.

  • Be generous with your encouragement, saying enthusiastically, 'Well done, you got your socks on', or 'You found another spoon - good for you!'

  • Be patient and give children time. Their self care or help with daily routines will take longer and may not be done to your standards. Yet time is worth giving for children's learning, and a task can be done well enough.

  • Value the time you give when children choose to struggle with their coat buttons. Watch, offer help but do not insist. Only step in if time really is important, which is not that often.

  • Help children to be pleased about what they have managed and avoid any suggestions of 'You're nearly three, you ought to be able to ....'. Find a way to confront any adults who take this discouraging approach.

  • Even when children can do something for themselves, they sometimes just want you to do it. Some children may need to be encouraged away from a 'helpless' attitude. But many just fancy a bit of caring from you today.

  • Look for opportunities to let children do something for you. You are perfectly capable of fetching the register from the other side of the room or reaching over to get yourself another sandwich. Yet, in an affectionate nursery atmosphere, very young children will relish doing such tasks for you sometimes.

You will see them flourish after being sincerely thanked for their efforts and complimented for their skills.

Good practice in supporting 'independence' is based firmly on a perspective of learning and encourage- ment. With this outlook, you will not fall into the trap of pushing young children into inappropriate responsibility for themselves.

Case study: a positive image Childcare staff, childminders and nannies all play a large part in the day for young children, toddlers and babies, writes Alice Sharp. While they are being cared for outside the love and security of the family bond, staff must ensure they help the children to have a real sense of themselves. From babyhood, children can be encouraged towards a positive self-image. This can grow when they listen to the carer telling them how wonderful, beautiful and bright they are; when they watch themselves in the mirror; and when they develop their self help skills.

During free-flow play time, the materials and resources available to the toddlers and young children should allow for ease of access, choice and comfort. Children should be offered support to make these choices but not continually presented with an ideal to achieve. Yes, children need to succeed, but they also need to make decisions that perhaps are not always the best choice.

The staff team in Southgate College Nursery in London, for example, has an agreed approach. The team works together in planning, implementing and extending learning opportunities. At this nursery, snack time is seen as an important opportunity to allow children to make independent choices. The bread, butter, choice of fillings and appropriate crockery are made available for the children to lead the activity themselves.

While some children go about making their sandwiches, others set the table, share the snack and invite friends to join in the experience. Each child finds their own role, with support and direction if required. Once finished, the toddlers place their used utensils into a washing bowl, and some wash, some dry and some clean the table and put away the items no longer needed.

Allowing young children to make choices allows them to develop interests, to find out their likes and dislikes and to try out different ways of learning. If they are encouraged to be spontaneous they will be motivated and may be more focused, determined and likely to become absorbed in their play.

Very young children take great pride in their achievements. A positive way of celebrating this is to give them a 'special' place to put their work. This could be a box or pigeonhole for each child, which they can easily identify as their own and where they can happily store their 'treasure' to look at later, or share with parents at home-time.

Encouraging young children and toddlers to respect their 'space' will again support them in becoming independent. Each time they take off an apron and know that they have to hang it in a specific place, this will lead to the next child finding it without support from an adult. If construction toys are tidied properly into boxes where they belong, other children can choose them and be able to use them with confidence and a sense of achievement, without having to 'dig' around for the piece they need, or ask someone for help.

It is important to allow children the time to try dressing themselves. Stop play sessions a few minutes early so that they can persevere with the tasks that may present difficulties. Hand washing, brushing teeth and going to the toilet are other routines that have great potential for giving a sense of self-reliance. Make them into an experience where the children are allowed time to wash effectively, concentrate on brushing teeth and be unhurried in using the toilet.

The staff at Southgate College Nursery believe that while it is important to nurture the independence of children under three, there should be a balance of self-motivated, adult-directed and supported play situations to ensure they are exposed to a breadth of experience and a balance of opportunity. By supporting young children in caring for themselves, we can highlight the importance of personal hygiene and safety. Through these experiences we help develop the young child's sense of self, sense of security and independence
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