I would imagine most would say “very”, I know I would, its fairly obvious isn’t it, making our own decisions is an important part of our independence. However, let me give you a scenario; you have just made a bowl of soup for a young person, and they go and grab themselves a fork to eat it with, what do you do?
Let them use a fork (your soup isn’t that stodgy) no, of course not, you tell them to get a spoon, and if they are particularly young you use the opportunity to do the whole “spoons are for soup” learning.
But what have you just done?
Has that young person learnt anything?
Yes, they now know you eat soup with a spoon, but the next time they go to grab their own cutlery they might not make their own decision, they will just wait for you to tell them what to use.
This is known as Learnt Helplessness.
How important is it to make your own decisions?
A few years ago I was very fortunate to complete some specialist training, in fact it is so specialist there are only 2 people in the country who deliver it.
The course: Training in Systematic Instruction.
The aim: Teaching a practical skill to a young person with a medium to severe learning difficulty and/or disability. The idea is to use this as a “job coach” for such young people in a real work place.
The content: Throughout the 2 week course we learnt the theory behind the course, as well learning how to assemble a BMX bike brake, it sounds unusual however there is a reason behind it.
The bike brake: The BMX bike hub brake is constructed from approximately 16 individual components, we spent 9 of the 10 days learning how to put the brake together from the components, but in a very specific way, following a Task Analysis which describes and clearly explains the process of putting each component together, even down to very specific hand position, how you hold the component, and how it goes together, we did this over the 9 days until it became second nature, we could assemble it blindfolded. On the 10th day we were each joined by a young person, in front of us were 4 disassembled brakes, all components lined up ready, first, we sat beside our young person and slowly assembled brake number 1, when it was finished we swapped seats and it was the turn of the young person to assemble the remainder of the brakes, our job was to support them to assemble each brake, but with one rule; support them without talking!
The theory: The idea behind this training was originally developed by Dr Marc Gold in the 1970s who wanted to give people with learning difficulties and disabilities the opportunity to lead as full a life as possible and with support be able to find employment ultimately allowing them to be independent. Although that was the primary aim it was also developed to help overcome Learnt Helplessness, going back to my scenario from earlier it is only natural to want to prevent a young person, or anyone, from feeling disappointed or to avoid any anxiety that can arise from decision making, unfortunately this avoidance actually does a disservice to young people, as they grow and learn how to avoid making decisions. So does this have a big impact? Surely being told to use a spoon instead of a fork to eat soup won’t have a long term effect? Well no probably not, however when this translates to adult independent life it does, decisions have to be made all day every day, whether they be what to wear, what to eat, who to speak to, when to go for a break at work, what time to go to bed etc etc.
The outcome: So armed with the theory knowledge and the practical skills, you sit beside a young person with 3 brakes to assemble and they stare at you, and stare, and stare (trust me we watched a video of one of the trainers doing the task with a younger person and it took 3 hours for the young person to make a decision and pick up the components) but with confidence you allow the young person to make a decision and assemble the brakes, and I can not begin to tell you how amazing the look of accomplishment they have on their faces when they do it, it makes it all worthwhile!
So how does this translate to us at Running Deer? Well it is important for us all to strike a delicate balance between keeping everyone safe and in control while allowing the students to make their own decisions, contributing to their ability to live full lives and make their own decisions.