How to Make Your Child Independent: 4 Steps You Can Start Following Today

Sara was excited to work on her son John’s new objective. She had to teach him to answer ‘wh’ questions. She brought out a sealed packet of tea and asked John. “What do you need to cut with?”


He looked at her blankly.


She looked at the scissors pointedly and cued him with ‘sss’. He reached out for the scissors and cut where she showed him, while saying ‘scissors’.


Mission accomplished. Objective worked on.


But do you think John got it?


Here’s a question asked by a mother of a 9 year old.


My son needs prompts in almost every activity he does. In academics also he will tell the answer and keep on asking whether it is correct. If I nod then only he will write the answer. Surprisingly maximum time he tells the correct answer. I feel very helpless and cannot understand how to stop this and develop confidence in him. Can you please suggest how can I stop the prompts and make him independent?


I’m sure many of you have the same question. I sailed in exactly the same boat too, until 2007.


Here’s what my early teaching strategies looked like with a 6 year old Mohit.


Let’s assume that we had 2 items on the table- a pen and a phone.


Me: “Touch Pen.


Mohit touched the phone.


Me: Pointing to the pen “touch pen.


He touched the pen.


Me : “Give me 5.


Me adding a couple of distractors like “what’s your name” and “give me 10.”


Me : “Touch Pen.


This time he got it.


It was ticked and put away. If this happened 3 times in a row, ‘pen’ was mastered.


Yes, it was mastered on a data sheet. But life is not as rosy as a data sheet. Nor is it represented by doing activities on a table top.


The harsh truth was that Mohit could not find a pen when needed.


Generalization was always just an arm’s length away. We programmed him to be ‘right.’ He became uncertain and agitated when he was ‘wrong’. He checked repeatedly with me to ensure that he gave the right answer. He became overly dependent on my prompts.


Then came the new approach: Scaffolding. It changed our lives forever.


Scaffolding is defined as ‘transfer of the mental process from the guide’s mind to the apprentice’s mind.’


Today, I ask Mohit to get whatever he needs to paint with. He chooses the medium that he needs – oil pastels, acrylic paints, water colors, the size of the paper he wants. He’s also picky about the quality of paper used!


I have to confess that this transition was overwhelming and difficult!


In the beginning, it was almost impossible to control myself from prompting him. I had to resist the urge to reach and point to things that I wanted him to pick up.


It was very difficult for him too, as he would wait for me to help or cue him in some way. I had to encourage him and reassure him- without helping him.


The 45 seconds stretched like eternity.


communication for children with autism


Over time though, things got better for him and me. I started feeling like his mother rather than an instructor.


This type of thinking and problem solving has now become a common occurrence in our lives.


Recently, Mohit surprised me pleasantly.


He wanted to listen to a song on the computer. So I decided to take the normal route of helping him type the name of the song to search for it. But by the time I got to the computer, he had opened YouTube, scanned the recently played songs, found the one he wanted and listened to it with a grin on his face.


I was impressed. He found a solution on his own. My son had become a thinker and a problem solver.


Dear friend, isn’t that what you want for your child too?


Instead of prompting the correct answer, try scaffolding your child’s thought process.


Here’s how you can start working on working on the process and getting your child to think, and become less dependent on prompts.


1. Choose a framework that has more than one right answer


Your child may want something from the highest shelf of a cupboard. Encourage him to find a solution himself.


Do not prompt by pointing to a chair or stool, or giving an instruction. Just wait. It’s alright to wait even up to 45 seconds.


You might be surprised with the ‘solution’ that a child comes up with.


One of my students brought a basket ball, stood on it and got the item he wanted from a higher shelf.


2. It’s okay for them to make mistakes


We, as parents, are obsessed with our children being correct. We cannot bear to see them make a mistake and hence our tendency to over prompt.


But ask yourself this: “What’s the worst that will happen if he makes a mistake?”


One of my teenage students got a spoon instead of a knife when I asked him to cut a potato.


His mother was horrified and embarrassed. When he looked at me, I just shrugged.


He promptly got a knife.


You, the parent, have to let go first. Let your child make mistakes. That’s how he will learn.


Remind yourself by saying this to yourself, “it’s alright for him to make a mistake.”


[Download a free Framing and Scaffolding Sheet]


3. Give him time


I can’t help mentioning the 45 second rule again! It’s my favorite. It’s the most effective. And it’s also one of the most difficult.


If you’ve asked your child how he’s going to problem solve to get an item from a high shelf – wait for 45 seconds before you ‘help’ him.


The one thing that you must not do is point to a chair or a stool.


What you can do instead is to get a chair and model how you reach out and get something from up high. Then put the chair away and put him on the spot yet again.


Give him the responsibility to problem solve without giving him the exact answer. Stay with the question. Do not focus on the answer.



4. Use experience sharing language


Move away from demanding a specific response from your child. Share your thoughts and feelings with him.


Instead of asking, “what color is the flower?”, say “Oh, I love this beautiful pink flower!


Be natural and invitational, your child will join in when he’s ready. The ratio of declarative to instructive language should ideally be 70:30.


Here is something that you can use to practice declarative language.


how to communicate with children with autism


You the guide can support your child’s thinking process – just as the scaffolding supports the building, by using the 4 points mentioned above.

Practice these steps 15 minutes a day for twenty one days. In less than three weeks, this step by step process will move your child to independent thinking and give him the confidence to make his own decisions. You will see a change in body language and self esteem. And you will see independence in every aspect of life.


Mind you, there are certain situations where you should ‘prompt’ your child. Activities of daily living like brushing and dressing can be prompted. These are skills that don’t require ‘thinking’. Over a period of time they become automatic.


But there are many other situations in life which don’t have a black or white answer. Such situations need to be thought about. That’s where you should use ‘scaffolding.’ Think about how many things you go through on a daily basis which require some deeper level thinking.



At the back of my mind, there is a lurking question: What will happen to my child, when I’m no longer around?


It does bother me. But then I redirect my mind by working on a ‘thinking’ framework.


Mohit is 27, but I haven’t lost hope. Nor should you for your child.


You can start today and equip your child to lead a meaningful, thoughtful life.


If you need more help in this process, and think your child can benefit from scaffolding and being less dependent on prompts, click here.


  • 1


  • Ashok shah says:

    Good, but there is nothing about being independent strategy for asd children. It needs to clarification about adolescent.

    • Hello Dr Shah,

      Thank you for dropping by.

      When children learn to think independently and make their own decisions- they will eventually live independently, have meaningful relationships and hold down jobs. This is why their thought process needs to be scaffolded.

      Have a nice day.

  • Shishir Kant Misra says:

    Why parents are obsessed that child should NOT make any mistake and always are eager to prompt? Simply because when starting with a small child, ABA talks about errorless teaching, child should be successful always and since it takes some time in years, “child should be always successfypul, errorless teaching” like Mantra become so ingrained in the psyche of the parents that though child has grown up, no trainer/guide tells parents to now start to wait to get child’s response. While parents are advised to fade out prompt there is no training to them “how”?
    That ABA is a dynamic technique no one emphasises that and as a result child mostly remains prompt dependent and ABA gets a bad name.
    You may consider to deal with this aspect more elaborately in your next blog.

  • Shishir ji, you bring up an important point about the relationship between errorless teaching and prompting.

    Yes, parent training should be an important part of every program. Parents need to be empowered and trained.

    Each program is different. It’s not about comparison between different interventions. Effectiveness is determined by the impact the program has on the child and the family.

    Have a lovely day.

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The Importance of a Parent Training Program
For Individuals on the Autism Spectrum

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