“I Can Do It!”: Supporting Your Little One’s Emerging Independence

Nora Hedgecock, OTR/L - June 25, 2020

My parents still tease me about my first sentence, “I’ll do it”, to this day. However, my insistence on doing whatever it was by myself was not unique. 

Around 2 years old, and sometimes as early as 18 months, toddlers will show growing independence and a sudden spark in motivation to do things on their own. This change, often accompanied by proclamations like mine, is an important milestone that signifies social-emotional and cognitive development. As important as your child’s growing independence is to development, it can also lead to challenging behaviors – hence the name “terrible twos”!

Your little one’s inner drive to explore and master their environment on their own will lead to countless learning opportunities that will support their motor skills, problem solving, emotion regulation, and more. As adults, it can be tempting to jump in, knowing that we can do the task faster, more efficiently, or more safely than our little ones. However, many tasks can be modified so that our little ones do them independently or with a little help, which will support their self-esteem and problem solving. Providing safe and controlled opportunities for your child to be independent may help turn some of those “terrible two” moments around.

Ways to support your little one’s independence:

  • Allow opportunities for independence: Toddlers can do a lot – take off and put away shoes, clean up toys, begin to undress themselves, and more! Recognizing the tasks your child is able to do and encouraging them to consistently do them independently will support their confidence and open the door for new skills. 
  • Toddler-proof the house: Placing dangerous or precious items out of your toddler’s reach will keep the house a safe place for them to explore independently and limit the number of “no’s” you have to say.
  • Break it down: For tasks your little one hasn’t yet mastered, show them the ropes by breaking the task down into small steps and showing them how you do it. If you are working on getting their own snack from a serving bowl, narrate and demonstrate each step (get plate, bring to table, put snack on plate) and give lots of praise for all their efforts in trying something new.
  • Give ample time: Since all these skills are still new to your little one, simple tasks might take them a while - this is ok! Allowing extra time in your family schedule for tasks like cleaning up, meal times, getting to and from the car, etc. will make it easier to let your little one try things on their own without the pressure to jump in and help for the sake of time.
  • Create a consistent routine: Having a consistent routine and telling your little one the plan for the day will help them know what to expect. A predictable routine will help minimize power struggles and support your little one’s regulation during transitions, which will promote independence.
  • Offer controlled choices: Providing choices, within limits, is a great way to promote your little ones independence. Allowing your child to choose between two options (that are both ok with you) will be a win-win for their independence and your peace of mind. For example, “Do you want carrots or cucumbers for snack?” or “Are you going to put the blocks away in the blue box or the red box?”
  • Play! Play is how our little ones learn. Through play, children gain problem-solving skills, motor skills, and learn how manage frustrations and challenges, all of which will support their confidence and success in taking on simple tasks by themselves.

Allowing your little one to make simple choices and giving them the opportunity to try things on their own with the safety of your support when they need it will support their confidence and self-reliance from an early age. 

Have fun celebrating all the exciting new skills your little one will gain!