By: Tova Lerner, Social Worker, Director of the Jerusalem Branch
Whenever I think of the word “independence”, I think of all the children who attend Eliya. Each and every one of these brave children makes an enormous effort daily, each in his or her special way, to achieve yet another step towards independence. As an example, I have chosen to speak here about the simple act of washing our hands. Yes, the act most of us perform a few times a day without even thinking about it.
Shmueli, a delightful child who has been at Eliya for three years was not capable of performing this “ordinary” action. Shmueli is a handsome little boy with a wide and endearing smile. He has been diagnosed as blind and with impaired development. He also has difficulty walking. Any baby born blind travels a totally different developmental path than a child born with normal eyesight. The challenge when working with a blind child is to reach his or her internal world and then to begin very slowly to teach as much as possible about the external world. It is important to identify the internal motivation that moves each child, to connect to it and to move together with the child in the unique journey of life.
It was quite clear that what motivated Shmueli was his desire to become independent, and the way to begin was by developing a warm and loving relationship. Zohar, his kindergarten teacher, identified this motivation within him, as well as his capabilities and, together with our professional team, laid out a plan. It sometimes felt as if it was a struggle to achieve Shmueli’s independence. At the beginning of the school year Zohar announced, “I want Shmueli to wash his hands all by himself. He understands and is capable of doing this, and we need to find the way to allow him to do it.” The entire professional team — the physiotherapists, the occupational therapy clinic, and the speech therapists — built a treatment program and the kindergarten team was given expert guidance.
Thus Shmueli started his journey. Using a walker that had been designed for his special needs, he began to take one slow step at a time in the direction of the tap. His first steps were made with Eliraz, a volunteer in the kindergarten, on one side and Zohar the kindergarten teacher on the other. All along the way he was encouraged and cheered on by the entire team. This was not a simple endeavour for him, and we sometimes wondered if this had been the right decision. Perhaps the strain and the effort were too much for him. But the wide smile that spread over his face when he finally reached the tap, heard the running water, and felt it streaming over his hands convinced us that this was, in fact, the correct way to go.
Slowly but surely, Shmueli’s use of the walker improved, and we then reached the next stage: teaching him how to turn on the tap by himself. One morning, after months of practice and hard work….it finally happened!! Shmueli extended his hand, turned on the tap, and felt the running water. The words of the well-known song “Water and Joy” (Mayim VeSasson) filled the entire day-care centre while Shmueli stood in front of the tap with water pouring over his hands, laughing incessantly. This was his very own Declaration of Independence.
As simple as this seems, it is in fact extremely complex. We naturally want to make the world pleasant and easy for our children. We want them to feel secure. We need to understand and internalize that when a child feels capable, even if only in one small area, this is the greatest feeling of independence we can provide. Only a child who experiences the feeling of self-sufficiency will gain the confidence to influence the surrounding world and reduce any accompanying fears and doubts.
We, the professional team at Eliya, understand only too well that when we set out on a journey with any young child to develop independent actions, it is essential that we first prepare our program of action.
FIRST STAGE – A deep and intimate understanding of each individual child. We need to first identify the internal engine that motivates the child, what does each child love, and where, deep inside, will we find that child’s strengths. Only if we succeed in connecting with the child’s capabilities and strengths can we begin to move forward with each individual, personalized plan.
SECOND STAGE – A deep understanding of the developmental and physical challenges faced by each child. We need to fully understand the extent or severity of the child’s sight disabilities and other challenges and how these influence development.
THIRD STAGE – Construction of a realistic target suitable to the child’s stage of development at any given time. It is extremely important not to set a target that cannot be achieved. Failure and disappointment can lead to feelings of insecurity and inability.
FOURTH STAGE – The targets we set for each child must be divided into small and measurable parts. Only after the first step has been successfully achieved can we progress to the next stage.
Each and every move also requires expressions of love and encouragement to the child, as well as awareness of the challenges faced by the parents and the team caring for the child. The aim is to reduce, if only slightly, the natural defense systems that exist deep within each of these children. If either a parent or a care provider doubts the capability of a child to achieve independence, the child will pick up on these unspoken feelings and might conclude that he or she is not ready or not capable of reaching the necessary stage of self-confidence and independence.
It is important to stress that educating to achieve independence is a journey that never ends. First and foremost we all must be mindful of our own needs in order to determine the most suitable time for the professional team, for the family, and for the specific child to embark on such a path to independence. We must be realistic and ask ourselves how much energy we have at any given time to start such a program, which calls upon us to invest many hours and to exhibit a great deal of patience. Sometimes the best decision might be that now is not the ideal time to start and that it would be better to wait for a quieter, more relaxed stage in our life and the life of the child.