Every parent and caregiver wants their children to lead a happy life. When we dream about the future, parents have hopes that their children will be part of a community, have friends, live independently, and enjoy health and well-being. We already know that the skills and behaviors children develop early in life lay a strong foundation for their adolescence and adulthood. For this reason, we need to think about how we can begin early to promote lifelong independence for our children.
Consider for a moment what the following three images have in common:
All of these images show a child interacting with the world by making simple choices. Another way to think about this is that these children have some sense of control over their environment. You may hear professionals use the term self-determination to describe this important concept. Self-determination is about being able to express choices, identify preferences and have a sense of independence or autonomy about our own lives. To read a personal story about one young woman’s journey to independence, please read Journey Toward Independence and The Journey Continues.
What Should We Know About Self-Determination in the Early Years?
Basically, self-determination is about making choices and decisions that affect one’s own life. It’s about a child knowing who she is, what she wants, and how to go about getting it. Some examples of self-determination in early childhood are choosing who to play with, where to create a block tower, or getting napkins from the drawer to help set the table for dinner.
Many people think of self-determination as a basic civil right that all human beings deserve. Many also believe that having opportunities for self-determination improves a person’s quality of life. For children with disabilities, acquiring skills related to self-determination is especially important. This is because their freedom to move around, express themselves clearly or interact with others may look different than what other children typically do. Some adults may mistakenly provide more support for a young child with disabilities than the child might actually need. We know that sometimes when a child is consistently overprotected or prevented from taking even small risks, he may learn to feel helpless or dependent, rather than self-reliant.
Self-determination is not about letting young children make every single decision that affects their lives, such as what time to go to bed or deciding not to wear a coat in the winter time. We know that children need very clear expectations, protection from harm, and loving guidance from the adults in their lives. Self-determination is about providing opportunities so that children develop the skills necessary to become independent as well as to interact freely and joyfully within their environment.
When children grow up to be adults, we want them to have the necessary survival skills such as speaking up and voicing opinions. Self-advocacy, the ability to speak on one’s own behalf, is an important and powerful outcome for children and adults, especially those with disabilities. By learning skills that promote self-determination as a young child, we begin paving the way for them to effectively use their voice or other means to speak up on their own behalf.
Just like we need to practice the piano to become proficient, young children need on-going practice to gain skills related to self-determination. When children have numerous opportunities to practice making basic choices or solving simple problems, they build confidence and trust in their own abilities. Children also build the competence and ability to master new skills that can last a lifetime.
How Parents Can Promote Self-Determination in the Home and Community
It is important to remember that some families may feel more comfortable than others when it comes to independence and their young child. Each family has unique views about independence that are shaped by their own cultural beliefs and personal values. For some families, the value of interdependence may be more important than independence, especially in young children. Therefore, families might find it helpful to explore some of their values and beliefs to get a clearer understanding of how important self-determination may be in their lives. Here are some questions to get you started:
Additional questions may help parents to see what opportunities are needed during daily routines and activities to promote self-determination.
Creative Strategies for Fostering Opportunities for Self-Determination
The following strategies are designed to offer suggestions for promoting early self-determination at home as well as in the community. You can choose the ones that work for you or adapt some of the suggestions so they match the preferences of your child and the rest of the family.
These are just some suggestions to help you start thinking about ways to promote self-determination at home. The key is to create opportunities where your child can feel happy, safe, and free within the world around him.