Dear Dr. Rene,
My, just turned three years old, son knows his alphabet, colors, shapes and dinosaurs. He is beginning to spell and can manage 48 piece puzzles by himself. He is very interested in learning and listens intently and soaks information up like a sponge when interested. My concerns are when he has to do things for himself such as turning a doorknob, getting dressed or playing independently. In these situations, he always fights it. He resists and exaggerates his attempts. Sometimes he doesn’t even try, he will just lay down and say he is “resting” until I am able to help him. I try to give him more play time alone, but he has a hard time occupying himself. How do I encourage his independence in situations he isn’t interested in?
There really are two issues here. The first is learning to play independently. The second is learning to do for yourself and being able to move forward taking on greater responsibilities rather than continuing to rely on others to do so for him.
To build independent play skills there needs to be adequate downtime. Downtime is truely unstructured, go play time. This may be indoors or out, alone or with you and any siblings available. The idea, though, of downtime is you are not organizing for the child, you are not providing entertainment. The child is left time to entertain themselves. They can also be unproductive if they choose. Real downtime means they can watch the clouds or play with dripping water at a sink if that’s what occupies them. To get good at this, most children just need more practice. This means, stop entertaining them. A little boredom here is a good thing as it prompts play.
To encourage independent play, you might also give them things to do that are like or nearby what you are doing. Meaning if you are cooking, give them pots, pans and spoons with a bit of water. If you are on the computer, give them a leap-pad on the corner of the desk, so they can do their work beside you. You might also give them things you start together such as a big puzzle. Sit together for the first few pieces, and then make trips away.
Encouraging a child to take ownership and increasing responsibility for life tasks is a harder thing. I think the first thing to do is focus on teaching them to do for themselves. If they struggle with parts of getting dressed, which may sink the entire effort, sit and practice that piece. Give them ample practice when you are there to help. Once you know they are capable, move back and give them space to work through. This may mean you are out of the room to avoid doing for them. Think of each challenge as opportunity for them to master the task and to at least learn from the experience.
When they are frustrated, give hints and suggestions to get them back on track. Avoid doing for them. Be sure to give lots of empathy for the frustration and encouragment for the task. Focus your praise on their effort and process rather than the outcome. Notice the hard work and the additional attempts, comment on the time and energy required to get it right. When available, give them opportunity for decision making. Children are much more likely to buy into doing if they are in charge of the process.
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Cynthia’s child could also have some challenges with motor-planning and ideation. The skills he is good at require little body integration and once memorized little ideation, planning or sequencing. An occupational thereapist or developmental pediatrician can assess these areas for a developmental delay and develop a plan to support and strengthen.