Photo: SKITTERPHOTO/PEXELS

Encouraging autonomy in children

As the world emerges from confinement and we take a giant step towards normalcy, students of all ages are back in schools full time. Parents are commuting to work, and our youngest learners are exploring the world of pre-school education and, for the majority, being away from their parents for the first time.

As schools have once again reopened pre-school education, classroom teachers, heads of schools, behavioural psychologists and educational researchers are witnessing a new pattern emerge.

Our pre-schoolers are now nowhere near as autonomous in their actions and development as their peers were when entering early years’ education, prior to the pandemic.

Although this development is explainable as our youngest learners have been at home with parents, grandparents and extended family and friends, where opportunities have not been available or made for the development of their autonomy.

Parents have been working online whilst, at the same time, providing childcare for the family. Work/life balance has merged into no balance and constant pressure.

It is vital that schools, parents and educators work in unison to ensure that our children are now allowed the freedom to make choices and control their actions.

Research has long established that autonomy is a basic psychological need that requires fulfilment in order for our children to flourish. Allowing and planning for children to behave autonomously is essential for their wellbeing. If autonomy is not supported, and children are always controlled, research indicates that children can become anxious and find that socialisation with their peers can become problematic.

Good schools such as Eupheus in their Pre-School will have anticipated the need for an outstanding and carefully planned active curriculum, where learning is practical, hands on, tailored to, and guided by each child’s choices and interests.

Autonomy is planned for, and each child is supported in their independent learning journey. Extended periods of play are openly encouraged because, in the words of Albert Einstein, ‘Play is the highest form of research’.

At home, it is important that children are given structure. Clear rules and boundaries actually support the development of children’s autonomy. Talk with your children about weekend plans, and when they will have free time to simply play and explore. Allow your children to choose how they would like to spend their free time. Ensuring that children have freedom of choice is vital to developing their autonomy.

Ensure that your children have plenty of opportunities to play on their own terms. Give them space in the house or outside, which is their own. Creating hiding spaces and making dens is loved by children of all ages. It is simple to facilitate. A few old bed sheets or towels, a packet of pegs and they are all set for the creation of their own make-believe space. This simple act allows children to assert their autonomy by creating their own magical world, and develop feelings of control.

At the same time, it is also important to allow our children to take risks. Taking measured risks is a part of life. Teaching children the skills to learn how to assess risk is vital to support the development of their autonomy.

In every situation, it is crucial that, as parents, we talk through the potential risk, and offer support in their autonomous decisions. For example, encouraging children to climb trees evokes a wonderful sense of freedom, whilst talking through safe heights to climb, the risks associated with broken branches and what could happen if they let go whilst swinging from a tree enables even the youngest children to make informed, yet autonomous decisions.

“Listen to the desires of your children. Encourage them and then give them the autonomy to make their own decision”
– Denis Waitley.

By Penelope Best, Head of School,
Eupheus International School, Loulé