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Independence Days

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Independence Days

By Margaret Oliver, MEd
Autism Asperger’s Digest  July/August 2014

I remember the point in my teaching career when I realized that I could influence my students’ ability to be independent. It came on the heels of recognizing that I was doing too much for them. That’s the irony of life: you become an educator because you are giving, empathetic, and helpful. These same traits might hold you back from promoting student independence unless you widen your lens.

Teacher Resistance to Teaching Independence

Here are some of the reasons I shied away from teaching independence:

  • They’re so young!
  • I feel uncomfortable when I see them struggle.
  • I can do it faster/better than they can.
  • They already have so many challenges.
  • I like to feel needed.

Even with this awareness, I was hesitant to move forward. What really held me back? In measuring the multitude of my teaching duties, I gave independence a low priority. Even though our students have approximately 18 years to achieve independence, I needed to make it a now instead of later priority.

Detecting the Need for Independence

We see the generic demands for independence that are in plain sight—completing seatwork, transitioning to the next class on time, or getting organized and ready to work upon arrival. Some of our students’ next steps toward independence may be subtle, but we can find them. After giving directives and prompts to our students, we sometimes catch ourselves thinking, “This is the tenth time I told you this!” You have just revealed a need for independence. Not all opportunities for growth are exposed, though. Continue being an independence detective because the nonobtrusive, serene student can go unnoticed yet still have the same need for independence, especially with initiation skills.

Once we’ve identified which independence skills to teach, we’re ready to make a plan. A caveat: measure out your growth demands so that the student is not overwhelmed with too many requests for independence or with an independence request paired with several other interventions for growth.

Student Resistance to Independence

When the educator focuses on teaching independence, she might uncover some of these barriers in her students:

  • fear of change or fear of the unknown
  • familiarity—the routine for dependence is established
  • the new skill being requested is too difficult
  • perceived loss of connection with student’s teacher or assistant

Our students need two things to step into independence: courage and a safety net. You can help them find the courage; and, as in any intervention, you can create a safety net.

A Successful Plan

The fun begins here! Even on our most demanding days as teachers, we can use the following plans with ease to maintain the priority of teaching independence.

Frequent Flyers Club. Perform a brief survey of your daily routines. What actions happen frequently? You may find that the majority of recurrent activities are nonacademic. In my classroom, the most repeated action is when students check their schedules every 15 minutes. I put a lot of effort into teaching independence for this routine—imagine if I had to prompt students through the process 140 times daily! The more independent the students are with routines, the more time you have for teaching and the more time the students have for learning.

Beginning at the end. We are familiar with task analysis where we break a task into steps and teach a portion at a time as a way of building a skill. Sometimes this is referred to as chaining. An effective twist is backward chaining where you teach the last step first. For example, you perform the steps in tying shoelaces but save the final tug for the child. Once the child has mastered the last step, you work backward so the child first learns step 3, then learns steps 2 and 3, and finally chains together steps 1, 2, and 3.

When my students arrive, they are supposed to go to their lockers and put items inside. My students have a much easier time with putting items in the lockers than they do actually going to their lockers. Far into the academic year, they still wander the room before arriving at their lockers. Backward chaining works perfectly in this instance. First they learn to physically put coats and backpacks in lockers. Next they learn to take these items off independently. Finally, we work on teaching them to walk directly to their locker upon arrival. Backward chaining eases up on stressful or complicated demands that occur at the beginning of the task.

The Initiation Factor

I worked with a student to help him learn independent toileting skills. He made fantastic progress, yet still had occasional accidents. Instead of voicing his need to use the bathroom, either vocally or with his communication device, he opted for an accident. The student needed initiation skills to find full independence in toileting.

Your student is showing that he owns the complete process when he initiates a newly learned task. If he struggles to be independent in a task that you believe he can accomplish, analyze his actions to determine why the breakdown occurs. Is it because the skill is not yet learned, or because the student lacks initiation skills? Both you and the student will become frustrated if you continue to teach the task when the skill of initiation is the true deterrent to independence. Initiation is an indicator of self-advocacy, and it is never too early to teach this skill.

My students and I both stand a little taller with pride as they demonstrate independence. No wonder it’s a national holiday well worth celebrating!


Margaret Oliver is an intervention specialist for students with ASD for Akron Public Schools in Ohio. She acknowledges that she was not skilled at teaching independence as a new teacher. Her students made their needs for independence known, so she learned on the job from the most effective teachers—her students.

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2014. All Rights Reserved. Any distribution, print or electronic, prohibited without permission of author.

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