3 to 4  "I Can Do It - Almost!" by Susan A. Miller, Ed.D.

Three-year-old Mercedes looks at the collage materials and the containers of white glue on the art table. She says enthusiastically, "I know how to do this!" She proceeds to squeeze the glue bottle. When nothing comes out, Mercedes then tries to shake the glue out. Frustrated, she cries out to her teacher, "Mrs. Epting, help me!" Meanwhile, 4-- year-old Charlie picks at a layer of dried glue with his finger and finally pushes it off the top of his bottle. He turns the bottle upside down and squeezes it, and the unblocked glue flows out. Mrs. Epting returns Charlie's smile. Then, she acknowledges his success and independent thinking by saying, "Charlie, you figured that out all by yourself. What a wonderful problem solver you are!"

Having just passed through the toddler stage where they often went head-to-head with the adults in their lives as they struggled for autonomy, 3-year-olds seem to enter into a more low-key relationship with their parents and teachers in their bid for independence. While 3-year-olds such as Mercedes strive for independence and delight in doing things for themselves, they still seem to need occasional reassurances that teachers are available to lend a helping hand if necessary.

"I still need you!"

Threes are far more dependent upon adults than 4year-olds. For example, Mercedes relies on her teacher for help and assistance with mastering skills or techniques such as how to use the glue bottle effectively. Many threes still need some simple guidance from an adult as they try to perform routine tasks independently.

Still showing some emotional dependency, 3-yearold Ethan sits close to his teacher while he buttons a big button on a page in a "dress yourself" cloth book. At first, he looks to her when the button seems stuck. She offers a clue and provides encouragement. After practicing this hand-eye coordination skill over and over again with great success, he runs to show a friend. "Look what I can do," he shouts elatedly. Experiencing success repeatedly, Ethan feels good about himself and gains confidence as he learns to function independently of his teacher.

Even though it may take longer to teach preschoolers how to accomplish certain tasks, 3-year-olds, with their rapidly expanding motor and cognitive abilities, are capable of managing many self-help activities independently. To motivate them to take the initiative, they should be encouraged to participate in such things as serving food from a bowl with a spoon during lunch, sorting blocks by size or color during clean-up time, and snapping large snaps on clothing while getting dressed to go out to play.

Growing Confidence

Four-year-olds like Charlie enjoy being in control of their environment. Confident and in charge, Charlie likes to master things and make decisions. For example, using his keen thinking skills, he realizes that he needs to get rid of the dried glue layer to allow the glue in the bottle to come out. Incorporating his increasingly well-developed small-motor skills, he is able to solve this problem independently. Positive actions like this give him the self-confidence to try new things.

As preschoolers exhibit their independence in different ways, there are times when they feel compelled to complete a project in their own way. During this process, they may exclude others or have difficulty sharing materials. For example, because Megan's grandmother taught her how to make tissue paper flowers (and she was the one who brought the green pipe cleaner stems to school), Megan feels that she is the only one who should make the beautiful flowers for her classmates.

In addition to being influenced by children's stages of development, teachers need to be aware that in some cultures children's gender plays a role in how independence develops. For instance, in some cultures girls are not encouraged to become independent, whereas young boys are prodded or provided with on-going opportunities to take the initiative to do things for themselves.

What You Can Do:

Arrange the environment to promote independence. Place materials on low, open shelves and in see-through containers to build self-help skills. Use outlines of items on storage units so children can clearly see where to return materials during cleanup.

Purchase durable, well-made equipment. Wooden puzzles are great-pieces don't bend or tear and children can fit parts together successfully. Sturdy metal tricycles help children learn to steer and pedal on their own after initial assistance.

Share success stories about others developing their independence. In Cleversticks by Bernard Ashley (Crown, 1995; $6.99) Ling Sung, who feels inadequate in many ways, discovers he is able to use paintbrushes like chopsticks to pick up broken cookies. His preschool friends clap at his wonderful feat. Discuss successes that the children in your group have had.

Use a helper chart to encourage responsible and independent behaviors. Highlight classroom tasks that preschoolers can accomplish by themselves. Some jobs can be performed daily (setting out rest mats and feeding the fish), while others can be undertaken weekly (watering the plants). To help build self-esteem, use an individual chart to track a child's progress hanging up clothes or toileting.

Empower children to be active learners. Give children directions when necessary to encourage their mastery of a task. Then encourage them to be self-managers of the project. Help children understand that the "process" is often more important than the "product" as they strive towards independence.

5 to 6 "Are You There Behind Me?" by Ellen Booth Church  

"I know how to do that!" shouts Laura as Ms. Rye introduces a new game at group time. "Oh, that is a stupid, easy game. I don't want to do it, " says Bruce. Several more children start talking at once, giving their opinions. Diplomatically, Ms. Rye invites the children to first listen to her description and then they can "vote" on whether they want to play it or not!

What is independence to a 5- and 6-year-old? As is true with so many developmental issues for young children, the answer varies with each child and the situation he finds himself in. In most situations, children want to establish their independence while making sure you are still there for them and in control.

Opportunities for Self-Expression

You may have noticed your kindergarten children are showing more and more of their "independent nature" as their facility with language and communication skills increases. Often, 5- and 6-year-olds not only verbalize their opinions and abilities--they are downright outspoken! They make it clear that they know how to do things perhaps before even trying. Children have a strong emotional need to express their independent nature through their actions and verbal expressions. Sometimes this is so strong that, at this point in the year, you might wonder how it is that not long ago they were able to work so well together. Children have moved past the more "compliant" stage of development, where they want to be accepted as part of the group, to a stage where they want to stand out-even if it is with a negative behavior! Your role is to support their declarations of independence while considering the needs and interests of the group. Use "voting" as a means for getting children's input on class choices. Offer activities that encourage independent thinking and expression within the group setting. You will be providing children with positive ways to express their independence instead of using negative "acting-out" behaviors.

Fear of Moving On

Independence is a time-sensitive issue. As you approach the end of the school year and as the mysteries of the BIG SCHOOL (and first grade) lie ahead, an interesting shift in behavior may occur. Sometimes children will show some regression because they are not sure they want to grow up and leave the comfort of their familiar and comfortable group. They may show behaviors that they had long ago conquered. They may not want to come to school, cry and talk about missing their families, or even have some health problems or toileting accidents. No need to panic-this is to be expected. Five- and 6-year-olds are walking a tightrope between wanting to be "BIG" but also wanting to still be the "baby." Children want to be old and young at the same time. While they want to be independent, they also want to know that they can still get support and a cuddle when they need it! It is important for you to let them know that no matter how mature they are, an adult will always be there for them. Happily, this regression period usually doesn't last longer than a few weeks if you respect their needs and show them the extra attention and support they desire. Once they come through this period, you will see even stronger and more independent kindergartners who are ready and eager to greet the adventures that lie ahead!


While children are walking the tightrope of wanting to be big and little at the same time, you need to assess where they are and support them throughout!

Encourage children to "vote" for activity choices so that they feel a sense of independence and control.

Play cooperative brainstorming games that invite children to express their opinions and ideas without fear of being wrong.

Revisit games, activities, books, and songs from the early part of the year. This will help children see how much they have grown and provide them with the comfort and reassurance of familiar and successful activities.

Talk about the BIG SCHOOL. Invite visitors from the upper grade to come and talk about their class and to answer children's questions. Encourage children to express their feelings about leaving kindergarten.