Letting go

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Yes, that’s what we have to do with children learning self-regulation. We have to allow them time and space to become more independent.

Our ultimate goal in teaching self-regulation is for children to make choices for themselves. They need to develop a sense of freedom. This means they become more autonomous …. and they don’t need us so much.

How do you go from hovering so disasters don’t occur to giving children space to become more independent? How do you stop acting as children’s frontal lobes?

First of all, we have to teach them how and when to regulate their bodies, thinking and emotions. They need help to become aware of their ability to self-regulate, of when and where they need to use these skills, of how to be more resilient and how to advocate for themselves. We don’t just throw them into a situation and hope they can swim!!

Find the balance between your actions and your words. Stay calm (calm adult = calm children) and show confidence in the children’s ability.

The words we use are critical. Even if you’re not sure the children understand everything, at the very least they’ll understand your tone of voice. When working with children with autism, we become used to telling/ordering them what to do. We also help them a lot – doing things for them. These are ‘doing-to’ and ‘doing-for’ approaches that ultimately keep children dependent on the adults around them.

There’s a time and place for telling children what to do (like, “Stay away from that dog!”). Some ‘doing-for’ things are steps in the right direction. For example, when we set up visual schedules and streamline the environment, it’s clearer to children what they’re expected to do. Over time, we want them to organize themselves and cope with some uncertainty.

We need to move to ‘doing with’ the children. That means becoming a learning partner. It’s not easy to do. You have to be willing to wait, watch patiently, and let the children make mistakes. You have to focus on the end-goal: we want children to do-it-yourself. We want the children to plan and organize on their own, inhibit unhelpful behaviors, remember what they plan to do, check their own progress, and change approaches if need be.

That’s huge! But here are some beginning steps:

  1. Sit back and pretend you’re in the passenger’s seat and the child is the driver. Trust yourself and trust the child. 
  2. Use inclusive language. Use “we”. It’s a simple but powerful way to tell children you’re in this together and you’ll be there to support them if needed. 
  3. Ask rather than tell. Use words like “How about …?”, “What do you think if we do it this way?”, “What’ll happen if we do it this way?” when making suggestions. 
  4. Give hints and encouragement. Prompt children to think for themselves and figure things out. Ask them, “Did you notice this thing over here? Do you think that might help you?”, “What do you need to do?” or “What could you do to help yourself?”
  5. Give them choices. Choices can be about what to do, how and/or when or by giving a reason when choice is limited. Choice is powerful. It tells the children they’re important and have some say. Choices can start out really simply. For example, you decide what things need to be done but the child determines the order for completing them. You offer milk and juice and the child selects one. Remember, once children make a choice, you have to respect it … even if it’s not what you had in mind. 
  6. Invite and value their opinions. Ask about what they’d like to do, how they’d like to do it, why they don’t want to do it, etc. Listen to their ideas and respond to their suggestions. Acknowledge their outlook even if you disagree.
  7. Think out loud. Explain in simple terms what you’re thinking and the reason you want to do things in certain ways. You may not get your way but the children will learn about other ways of doing things.