Creating Independence

It is the goal of most parents to raise independent children and the goal of teachers to promote independence in students. No matter how a child is impacted by a disability, the goal is that the student will grow into an adult who can live as independently as possible, guided by his or her preferences. The National Longitudinal Study (2010) conducted by the National Center for Special Education Research found that only 19% of young adults with autism will live independently. Providing choice and creating opportunities for independence should begin at a very early age.

Prompt Dependency

Students with the most profound needs are surrounded by adults each day who work hard to keep the student safe and to help the student learn. Many times students become dependent on adults to guide them through routines and activities that they could otherwise do independently. The following is a scenario of a student who is learning to be dependent on adults.

A student gets off the bus and an adult takes his hand and holds it walking into the building. As the pair walk into the classroom, the adult tells the student, “hang up your backpack” and guides the student’s hand to the hook. The adult then tells the student, “get out your folder and put it in your cubby.” Next, the adult says “let’s go make your lunch choice” and helps the student decide what he wants for lunch and moves his choice visual for him. The adult then holds the student’s hand to walk to the visual schedule and manipulates it hand-over-hand. Then, still holding the student’s hand, they walk to circle time together and sit down beside each other.

Throughout every step of this scenario, the adult is using the most invasive prompts to guide the student. Students, especially those with autism, are creatures of habit. Once the habit of hearing a directive before acting is in place, it is incredibly difficult to fade those prompts away. Visual and gestural prompts are much less invasive and should be utilized instead of verbally and physically guiding a student through a routine. The chart below, created by Jean Brodie, demonstrates the various levels of prompting and the spectrum of invasiveness that occurs with each prompt. The less invasive a prompt, the easier it is to fade; leading to greater independence for the student.

As teachers and parents, it is difficult not to prompt students. It is in our nature to be helpful. Prompting occurs during routines, when opening doors, putting on clothing, washing hands, completing academic tasks, walking down the hallway or tying shoes. If an educator or parent is sure a student is capable of completing a task independently but the student refuses to move through the activity without prompting, the student has become prompt dependent.

How to Create Independence

It is important that all educators understand a student’s proficiency level with tasks. Most kids (with or without an exceptionality) are masters at getting people to complete tasks for them! Educators should rarely hover near students (exceptions are made for safety reasons). Hovering increases a student’s dependence on adults, decreases peer interactions, increases stigma, creates a loss of control and may increase behavior problems (Feldman & Matos, 2013). Educators should also ask the following questions:

  • Can the student do this on his/her own?
  • How can I teach this student to do the task more independently?
  • Can the student be supported with: a peer, a visual, a less-intrusive prompt?
  • Would the student complete the task independently with a higher level of reinforcement?
  • Does the student understand and have the ability to complete the task?

Behavior Skills Training

Students can become more independent learners by implementing behavior skills training. This consists of: instruction, modeling, rehearsal and feedback. When working with a student, the educator should first give the directive. Next the educator models the task for the student. Guided practice is next; moving the student through the task with the least prompts possible. Last, the student practices independently. When the student is practicing, redirection should occur (with a gesture or visual) before a mistake is made. Students with autism learn best with perfect practice. Repeat guided practice and feedback until the student is independently proficient.

Peer Support

Peer support is another technique to promote independence. I love, love, love using peers to support students! Shifting prompts from adults to peers is invaluable. We want our students to react and orient to their friends rather than adults. To implement this strategy, collaborate with general education teachers to determine students who are a good fit to model behavior. Send home a permission slip for parents to sign, explaining that their child will not be in their classroom for short periods throughout the week. Choose peers who have good social skills, who are positive and willing to participate in activities, who follow adult directions and who have good attendance. Utilizing peers works great for game groups, teaching sharing, providing assistance and giving encouragement. Peers can also be utilized to teach conversational skills and basic social interactions.


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