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Promoting a Child’s Independence Within Daily Routines

One of the greatest joys of teaching students with autism is watching them become more confident in their abilities and take pride in their accomplishments. As they learn salient skills for completing daily routines and develop a greater sense of responsibility, students naturally become more self-determined and desire greater autonomy. Given systematic training, coaching, and a supportive environment, children learn to become more independent during daily routines.

To understand more about how to apply instructional strategies toward greater independence at home or in a classroom, we look at current research. The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations of Early Learning (CSEFEL) at Vanderbilt University provides helpful tools and strategies for teachers and parents to provide instructional support for developing independent daily routines. Their research provides guidance for age-appropriate instruction and focuses on teaching children with different abilities and challenges who may need additional support.

I have taught exceptional children and worked collaboratively with parents and related service providers for 16 years. The following tools and strategies outlined by CSEFEL have proven to be an effective framework for teaching my students to be more independent during daily routines. I have applied this framework with children and adolescents with a range of abilities and learning styles. Choose a simple routine that you will do daily with your child or student, and keep it in mind as you read this framework. Examples might include toileting or hand washing, brushing teeth, unpacking a backpack, going through a cafeteria line, and many more.

The excerpt below is adapted from The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning. “Teaching your child to become independent during daily routines.” Vanderbilt University. http://csefel.vanderbilt.edu/documents/teaching_routines.pdf


  1. Begin by getting down on your child’s eye level and gaining his attention. (i.e., touch your child gently, make eye contact, physically guide, or jointly look at the same object).


  1. Break down the routine into simple steps and state each step one at a time with positive and clearly stated directions. Sometimes we make the mistake of telling children what not to do or what they did wrong, such as, “Stop splashing in the water.” However, it’s more effective and clearer to say, “All done washing, now it’s time to turn off the water.”


  1. To clarify steps even further, you could take a photo of each step in the routine and post it where the routine takes place. For instance, with hand washing, you could post photos above the sink. As you state one step at a time, show your child the photograph to illustrate what needs to be done.


  1. When teaching your child to do each step, model (i.e., demonstrate) how to do each step. After your child begins to learn the steps, you can take turns showing each other “how” to do the routine. Be prepared to provide your child with reminders about what to do. As a child first learns a skill, it’s common to forget a step and need assistance. You can simply model and say, “Look, do this,” and show how to do the step that is causing difficulty. If needed, you can gently physically guide your child in how to do the step so that he/she can feel successful.


  1. For activities that might be difficult or not preferred, state the direction in a “first, then” phrase. For instance, “First wash hands, and then we can eat snack”; or “First brush your teeth, and then I can give you a minty fresh kiss”; or “First get dressed, and then you can choose milk or juice with breakfast.”


  1. Offering children a “choice” during routines increases the likelihood that they will do the activity. With brushing teeth, you could say, “Do you want to use the mint toothpaste or the bubble gum toothpaste?”


  1. It is very important that you encourage all attempts when your child is first learning how to do a routine. If you discourage or reprimand your child because it was not done quite right, his/her attempts at trying might stop. It’s important to let your child know you understand his/her feelings and then assist your child so that he/she feels successful. For example, “I know it’s hard to brush your teeth. Let me help. (Singing while you help brush) Brush, brush, brush your teeth; brush the front and back . . .brush, brush, brush your teeth, attack the germs right back.” Remember that young children need a lot of practice – and your support – before they are able to do new skills independently.


  1. Encourage your child as each routine is completed and celebrate when the task is done.


With the routine you have in mind, make a plan using this framework first. Always know what changes you plan to make and communicate those to all family members who will help the child prior to beginning. Let the child know that the routine will be different as well. Some children have difficulty with new skills and may use challenging behaviors to communicate that the task is hard or that they would rather do a preferred activity. Validate their feelings, provide additional support if needed, and allow for unrushed time. Celebrate successes and reinforce the desired independence. Your positive reaction and praise increases your child’s confidence, autonomy, and self-worth.


Matt Dye, MEd, BCBA, in the Charlotte region, can be reached at mdye@autismsociety-nc.org.

ASNC’s Clinical Department staff is composed of PhD and master’s-level licensed psychologists, Board Certified Behavior Analysts, and former special education teachers. We provide individualized intensive consultation using evidence-based practices to support children and adults across the spectrum in home, school, employment, residential and other community-based contexts. We also deliver workshops to professionals on a wide range of topics including but not limited to, strategies to prevent and respond to challenging behaviors, best practices in early intervention, functional communication training, and evidence-based practices in instruction for K-12 students with autism.

To find out more, contact us at 919-390-7242 or clinical@autismsociety-nc.org.

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