The long road to independence

Plotting a route to independence is best managed through a partnership between schools and parents

Plotting a route to independence is best managed through a partnership between schools and parents

A few days ago I referred to a blog written by Nancy Gedge (No Right of Access to the Ordinary World March 16th). Nancy often has interesting things to say about her experiences as both a parent and a teacher. On March 24th she posted a piece titled Getting Children to do Stuff in which she describes her feelings about gaining a balance between giving children direct instructions and expecting them to conform, and giving them opportunities to make independent decisions. At times she reflects upon this issue in relation to her own son Sam who has Down’s syndrome.

Many parents can recall times when they made decisions that involved an element of risk. The first time that their child was allowed to cross the road alone, or stay out with friends late into the evening is often an occasion of some apprehension for parents. Thankfully all usually ends well and gradually the same challenges lessen until we are happy that our children can conduct themselves safely in a range of situations which were previously viewed as fraught with danger.

Nancy makes a number of interesting observations about these situations and how the way she perceives them may be different in respect of her son Sam. The protective instinct in parents is an important feature of enabling children to grow up in security and to move gradually towards independence. But as Nancy relates:-

“Sometimes, the Down Syndrome means that we are treading the same old paths for longer than we ever thought possible.  Sometimes I admit that I just want them to do what I want them to do because I want them to do it and that is that.”

When I was teaching in schools I often heard colleagues referring to parents as being “over protective.” It is an interesting expression and I appreciate the fact that we should be encouraging children to gain independence. However, I would rather a parent who was over protective than one who might be negligent. But as Nancy reminds us, not all children will move at the same pace and we need to ensure that a balance between protection and independence is maintained.

How we achieve this balance is a difficult question to answer. Nancy discusses this issue using some interesting words. Combining her roles as teacher and parent she says:-

“So when I look at the children around me, both at home and at school, I know that the very last thing I want for them is blind obedience.  I especially don’t want it when it is coupled with compliance.  And I certainly don’t want to see those qualities celebrated in end-of-term assemblies.  Yes, they need to do as they are told, yes, there are times when they need to do it straight away, no questions asked; but as they grow, as they turn from the children they are into adults, I want them to turn from obedience to discipline.”

I am interested in the journey that Nancy describes here; that involving a transition from childhood to adulthood with recognition that there should be a lessening of compliance and a move towards self-discipline. Like any journey this is generally taken in stages from unquestioning obedience through choice and decision making to independence. For all children this is a gradual progression, but for some it is a much harder route to follow. The decisions that parents have to make are often difficult and the influence of schools can be great. Teaching children to make independent choices, to understand the consequences of their actions and to recognise risk is something that can be managed within the relative security of the classroom. Opportunities to begin learning these skills need to begin early during schooling, but in some instances is left until far too late in the education process. As Nancy states, compliance can be a stifling factor on the road to independence and schools need to be aware of this.

For parents of children described as having learning disabilities the journey to independence can be longer than they would wish and certainly more arduous than for many of their children’s peers. Schools can do much to support both children and their parents on this journey if they choose so to do.

Nancy’s blog piece “Getting Children to Do Stuff” can be read at:-