Building autonomy in Early Childhood Education

Learning to dress yourself, to put on and take off your own shoes, to get your own food at snack time, and even helping out a friend in a specific situation where you can do that. When we talk about autonomy in early childhood, we are mainly talking about the child gaining independence to perform day-to-day actions.

It is important to emphasize that the concept of autonomy is broader, because in addition to this achievement of performing day-to-day actions without needing the support of an adult, autonomy is also the construction of a morality. It means realizing what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is bad, what is or is not expected of them in various social situations and in collective contexts. And from that realization, having the opportunity to make conscious choices. However, this moral aspect of autonomy actually develops in the child’s life when they are about 10 years old, at the end of Elementary School I.

Nevertheless, in the case of young children, the values are in the process of being built, both in the family and school environments, which are the child’s social space. “When we talk about young children, we are talking much more about the autonomy of those day-to-day actions. At first, the teachers invite the children to have greater independence when looking after personal items, storing their belongings in their backpacks, putting on and taking off their shoes, or even progressively organizing and cleaning the collective space, so that they understand that if it was clean and organized when they got there, it is important that they clean and organize it for the next children who will come. Each autonomy milestone related to these actions also signals that the child is developing this perception of what is expected of them at different times,” explains Camila Maia, Early Childhood Education coordinator at be.Living.

Camila exemplifies how this daily and natural process of developing the little ones’ autonomy takes place in the school. “The teachers show the children what is right and what is wrong, inviting them to reflect, for instance, on a situation where one child hits the other. The educator will mediate by signaling—not appealing to the child’s emotions, but showing that it is a wrong attitude, that people should not hit each other in relationships. This is a way of building a value, of constructing autonomy in this moral aspect, but still not expecting that the children act by themselves at this moment in their lives, because they are still developing this trait.”

The coordinator says that, essentially, this work takes place within the scope of collectivity, so the school space is very important for the development of an autonomous child. “The conquest of autonomy is an individual process, because each child has their own time and perceptions. But being included in the collective gives the child this awareness. The others—whether they are children or adults—are regulators and mirrors that signal to the child whether or not they are taking ownership of what is expected of them socially, and whether or not they need help, in what scenario and context, and how they need to be helped. All of this happens in a collective scenario, while respecting each child’s own time and way of being.”

Every day at school, Early Childhood Education teachers invite the children to take steps towards their own autonomy, according to what they perceive that the children already have the ability to do. Always remembering that it is natural to have children with different skills within the same group. “All of this is considered and looked at with affection and care, so that each of them, in their own time, can be within a social space of collective coexistence, gaining their independence in day-to-day actions, understanding the rules and agreements and managing to respect most of them, or questioning these rules and agreements to take ownership of them in a way that makes sense for them within the repertoire of what they already understand as right or wrong.”

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