Developing Autonomy in Children

As children grow, their brains develop endlessly, absorbing information like a sponge. However, unlike adults, children naturally lack certain mental and physical capabilities and hence, independence. Developing autonomy brings many benefits for the children. One of them is fostering self-confidence to undertake and overcome life’s challenges. It adds meaning to their lives and encourages them to live life meaningfully!

What does ‘autonomy’ in children mean?

Autonomy literally means ‘freedom from external control or influence; independence in the dictionary. In early childhood, it is the ability of a child to act on his or her own free will and perform tasks independently without an adult’s assistance.

Benefits of Autonomy

Naturally, as parents, we have the urge to overprotect our children as we do not wish for them to go through any harm or pain. However, it is important not to overdo the protecting and hinder their discoveries as doing so might stunt their confidence and turn them into fearful and timid children. While we mean well for our children, we must be aware of our actions as they can influence the children’s characteristics as they journey into adulthood.

Autonomy would ease your child into braving through and solving life’s problems and go through them ‘safely’ by learning to cope with failure. As a result, children would develop confidence, self-esteem, and feel more capable of making their own healthy choices. The bonus point is, they pick up family values, social norms, and essential skills along the way for them to survive adulthood!

How to Encourage Autonomy?

When children learn to be autonomous, they naturally grow to be independent adults through new skills they pick up during their childhood. As the child grows, you can recognise his/her efforts at home through very simple examples like putting on the shoes, eating, and dressing himself/herself independently. 

Below are some ways and examples to guide them into developing autonomy as they grow from infants to preschoolers.

Infant (0-1 year)

At this age, children are not capable of tasks and decision making. However, we can encourage them to “participate” in straightforward tasks like holding still during diaper changing with the distraction of a toy. 

Toddler (1-3 years)

In relation to young children, we speak of autonomy as "self-sufficiency", that is to say, the behaviors that allow one to take care of oneself. This mainly concerns motor autonomy: moving, clothing, feeding, and cleaning oneself. For the child, it is therefore a question of his ability to "do alone" acts of daily life, to take an active part. Apart from these behaviors, autonomy is also found in a psychological level, namely playing, or even falling asleep by oneself.

The period of 18 to 36 months is crucial in the development of autonomy and self-esteem. It is at this age that children start to want to do things on their own. But at this stage, the child is likely to be clumsy, takes time to complete tasks, makes mistakes, like putting on the wrong sides of the shoes, etc. It is at these times that the child needs the adults’ encouragement the most, to feel that the adult believes in and trusts him. This helps to build the child’s self-esteem and encourages him to keep trying until he gets there!

They can start with simple tasks like putting their toys in the right boxes. When a child explores a risky situation, instead of saying “Don’t go, it’s dangerous!” or “Be careful or you might fall!”, say this instead: “Go ahead but be careful, the floor is slippery.” These words encourage him to face his fears while introducing the notion of security. This is also a time to kindly encourage the child after he makes a mistake. You are the parent and role model of the child. You can show your child how to perform the desired task. A key phrase from Maria Montessori says “Help me to do it alone” – meaning, a child needs to do tasks “with the adult” before being able to do it by themselves.

Preschooler (3-6 years)

Children at this age have definite choices! Encourage them to make their own choices. For example, “to wear the red or the blue shirt?” Build up the complexity of their tasks like putting their shoes on themselves. You can also encourage your child to try tasks that he/she has never done before.

Autonomy at La Petite Ecole Ho Chi Minh

At La Petite Ecole Ho Chi Minh, autonomy is fostered in children aged 1-5 years by the support of nursery and kindergarten teachers in carrying out progressively more complex tasks. The children practise autonomy in school from their arrival until school ends for the day.

Upon arrival in the morning, our preschoolers would leave their backpack, water bottles, snack box, and soft toy into the designated baskets that are labelled with photos of the said items – the labels help them identify the right baskets for their belongings. The assistants would help the younger ones through this process, which eventually becomes a habit for them. With this routined morning procedure, the children would eventually be able to perform this task by themselves as they grow.

Autonomy is also practised in the classroom and during workshops. 

At nursery level, the children are encouraged to shadow the teachers while they tidy up and describe to the children what they are doing. Naturally, children would follow the teachers’ actions. However, for those who do not, the teachers would inject in some fun and games to stimulate their participation. 

In the Petite Section, there is a roster planned out to give monitoring responsibilities to 2 children each time to keep the free play areas neat and tidy. 

Before and after meal time and during toilet breaks, all children are accompanied to the sinks to wash their hands. Posters at the sink guide and remind them the effective steps to wash their hands, to drill them into this habit as they grow. The facilities are levelled to their height to allow easy access for the children. 

As they prepare to go home for the day, autonomy is again displayed when the children put on their shoes by themselves. 

To Remember:

  • Allow the child to make mistakes. Do not put your expectations on the child and do not expect him/her to succeed in the first few attempts. Also, make sure to offer realistic choices. 
  • During failure, encourage the child to keep trying.
  • Ensure that the decision-making or tasks are suitable for the child’s age group. 
  • Do not hinder the child, but rather, support them by acknowledging and respecting their efforts.
  • Remember to explain the purpose of each task so that the child understands what is expected of him/her and why.


  4. ‘A Word from Our Pedagogical Director… How to Guide the Child in the Development of His Autonomy?’ by Maria Raphel Lamrani Alaoui, Pedagogical Director of the La Petite Ecole Group.

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