Language Play: Growing Independent Children

Working Towards Independence

This week I have been thinking about independence. As a parent, grandparent, and a professional who works primarily with children, I know how difficult it is to protect our children and at the same time 
foster their independence. I have seen children who have a nurturing paraprofessional who inadvertently makes the child dependent on them. I have seen older children who are not at all prepared for their futures because everything was done for them. I have seen parents who 
choose not to discipline because they are afraid to lose their children’s love. They won’t ask the child to do something because it is so much easier to do it themselves. We all have done these things, but if we have our children’s best interests in mind, we know that we should help them to feel capable of accomplishments as a priority.


It is difficult to parent and make decisions while right in the middle of the process. I often wished I had had a support group of parents with children both younger and older than mine who could talk to me
 about their experiences. In a perfect world. If nothing else, a parent needs time away from their children to envision them as independent 18 year olds, and use this to guide their actions. They need to remember that there are many small steps to this goal. It is a long term assignment to raise children.

Back to some basics. As an SLP and educator, I have learned some basic levels of prompting that help me think about levels of independence.

  • The first and lowest level is imitation. Can the child follow a model?
  • Hints that don’t include the answer, but almost do.
  • Hints that are less obvious.
  • The level where the child can produce an answer without any hints is 
an independent level.

Prompting requires that the prompter is aware of what level they need to use to support the child best and where they want to get to. I try to start at independence (top level), then work back down through the levels of hints to “find” what works. I feel this is the most respectful and accurate way. If a teacher is using imitation only (bottom level), the child will never display any independent skills. Also, it’s important to remember that the hints can be happening so subtly that the educator or parent is unaware. For instance, a teacher, after an error, may not say anything for a few seconds, which
 signals to the child that that’s not the answer and they should guess again. Or maybe the teacher’s body language is a clue. To really assess a child’s capacity or knowledge, a teacher or parent must try
 to give as few clues as possible (finally a reason to be clueless!).

Here is information about the hierarchy:

They also must remember that children are always changing, and are in the process of acquiring more skills and growing through stages of development. We will have to adapt to their growth. In the process we can easily lose our way or get exhausted! This is why we need that ultimate independence goal to aim for.

Whenever I work in schools, I hear teachers lament that a child does his homework but “of course we’re not sure if his parents are doing it for him.” I think that parents can help the teacher by writing the
 level of help that was needed on the homework. You’ll need to try to be aware of the level of prompts you used so you can give valuable information to your children’s teachers. Be a partner and communicator with your children’s teachers. As far as I can see, anything that knocks down a “them and us” mentality ensures that the children are the priority.

So, when you are with your kids, pick you battles carefully, use perspective taking and problem solving skills, use great patience in a step-by-step approach towards goals, and forgive yourself for all the
mistakes that you and all of us will make along the way. Most of all remember to use laughter! Let’s try to prepare our children the best we can for their futures!

P.S. Speaking of independence, be conscious of how you introduce apps. It is always a good idea to introduce an educational app to your child after you play with the possibilities yourself, read the instructions, or watch the YouTube instructional videos. Play with it together, and then let them explore it independently. This will make their play a reinforcement of the skill the app is teaching, rather than just free play.


Kathy Puckett

Kathy is a private practice speech-language pathologist living in Shelburne, MA and the author of our monthly speech and language column, Time to Talk. Living in Western Massachusetts since 1970, she raised two children here and has two grandsons, ages 15 and 8 years old. She has worked as an SLP with people of all ages for the last 14 years. She runs social thinking skill groups and often works with teens. As a professional artist, she has a unique and creative approach to her practice. She loves technology, neurology, gardening, orchids, and photography. She uses an iPad for therapies. She grows 500 orchids and moderates her own forum for orchid growers (Crazy Orchid Lady). Kathy is dedicated to the families of her private practice, and offers practical, creative ideas to parents. She blogs about communication at

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