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Encourage independence

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Between the ages of three and six, children should learn to dress themselves and pick up their own plates, says Anjali Kalani

How often do you do things for your child or have another adult do them? Like taking your child's plate to the sink or dressing your child? It is important to let children do things on their own. Studies have shown that by fostering independence and providing freedom within limits, we lay the foundation for raising self-confident, responsible children who have good self-esteem. All these qualities manifest themselves in an interest in learning and consequently, good grades. In my previous article, I focused on instilling independence in children from birth to the toddler years. This article, focuses on encouraging independence in children between the ages three to six.

Dr. Maria Montessori, who is credited for the Montessori philosophy, believed that parents were the child's first teachers.  A servant, she wrote, does things for children. In contrast, the role of a parent is to guide their children by showing them how to do things. As Montessorian John Snyder wrote in his book, Tending the Light,  "Give a child a ladder and they will climb to the next grade. Teach the child to build their own ladders, and they will climb to the stars."

Suggestions to promote independence in children


Teach children how to dress themselves. Focus on one movement at a time and pause before the next step. Allow children the time to practise, and offer to help only if you sense they are reaching a point of frustration. Be prepared to repeat the procedure several times. Set them up for success by avoiding belts, suspenders and tight clothing. Begin with pull-on pants and shorts, and shoes with Velcro. Gradually increase the level of difficulty after they master what you have taught them.


Use rich, respectful language when conversing with children instead of talking down to them and expose them to multiple languages, if possible. But be cautious about what you say around them. Children up to the age of six have what Dr. Montessori termed as an "absorbent mind" and consequently soak up both the good and the bad from their environment.

Support independence through the environment 

Provide children with light, portable step-stools which help them reach sinks and counters on their own. Set up a snack station on a low shelf complete with healthy snacks and child-sized bowls, plates, glasses, spoons and forks so children can serve themselves. For independent play, set-up a few developmentally appropriate, non-electronic toys that spark creativity as well as books in an orderly manner on low shelves. Rotate these on a fortnightly basis to prevent clutter and boredom. It is important to show children how to use the toys. Also, demonstrate turning the pages in books. 


Resist intervening in conflicts with other children unless there is physical violence involved. Conflicts provide opportunities for children to become independent problem-solvers.


Involve children in everyday activities in the home. Show children how to fold laundry, water the plants, wash dishes and involve them in food preparation. Bear in mind that the goal is not the chore itself but the independence, concentration and the control of movement children achieve through working on the activities.


Children thrive on routine. A warm bath and story time are soothing before bed. Leave the room while children are sleepy but awake so they can fall asleep on their own knowing they are comfortable and safe by themselves.

Offer choices

Empower children by giving them two choices that you control. For instance, say "Would you like to brush your teeth first or would you like to take a bath first?"

By giving your children the gift of independence, you are providing them with the tools they need to be successful adults. In her iconic book, The Absorbent Mind, Dr. Montessori wrote, “To be able to do a thing without any help from others: this is independence. If it exists, the child can progress rapidly; if not, his progress will be slow."

Anjali Kalani is mother of two independent, precocious children and an AMS and AMI certified Montessori guide who teaches children ages three to six in Houston, Texas.

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