Passing the Bumps in the Road: The Dignity of Risk

It’s always a careful balance as the parent of a child with a disability when assessing how to build skills for independence and keep our children safe. Sometimes it can be scary to encourage independence because there can be risk involved. If my child sits with all the other kids at lunch without a paraprofessional, will the other kids include him or not? Will he behave appropriately? Will he unexpectedly gain five pounds after convincing the little girls to give him their extra corn dog bites? The answer to the last question is–yes, until I found out and instructed the little girls to resist his puppy dog eyes. But, he also made friends with those little girls, and I received a call from my friend one day at the school letting me know that Andy was leading a flash mob of kids dancing on Spirit Day in the cafeteria and that I needed to come see it. Sure enough, the next month it happened again, and about 25 fifth grade boys were dancing alongside him and copying his moves. There were bumps in the road when he gained weight and when he started grabbing lunch boxes (and we realized he was communicating that he wanted a sack lunch with that behavior), but the benefits of the socialization, independence, and friendships outweighed the risks.

Now, this assessment is unique for each kid and each situation. I have a friend whose son always needed support in the lunchroom because of choking hazards, and that was completely appropriate for him because the risk was too great for him to be unaccompanied. The key is to honestly assess each individual student to know the next step to facilitate independence with minimal risk.¬†That’s where we get the phrase “the dignity of risk.” When we have given a student the needed instruction and supports, we need to trust them to take the next appropriate step toward independence. And the best place to do that is often in school where the risk is relatively minimal and supports abound.

For example, if a high school student has performed successfully with paraprofessional support in 3 electives in a general education setting during freshman year, we might want to let him try one of those electives without support sophomore year. And if a student has been able to wait with a teacher slowly moving into a more observational role in car rider line for several months, then it might be time to try giving that opportunity for the student to wait with a trusted friend. Another example is giving a student a monthly stipend to learn how to spend money responsibly. Ultimately, the main guidelines are to:

  1. Assess the student’s current performance, and if they are managing well, look for opportunities to facilitate independence. Make sure they have the appropriate supports to be successful. Students usually need to take small steps toward independence, and those steps might involve gradually using less restrictive supports.
  2. Allow for minimal risk mistakes. For example, if a student with disabilities starts overeating or cursing when sitting at lunch with peers or buys $100 speakers on Amazon after opening a checking account, remember that these are things all kids do. Talk to the student, peers, or use behavior supports before removing the step toward independence.
  3. Remember that students need to be as independent as possible in the world where they will not have the protection of teachers, friends, and support staff, so the steps you take toward building independent skills in school may be lifesavers in the future.

As students reach transition age, these steps toward independence will shift more toward developing financial independence, living independently, attending post-secondary programs, navigating transportation, etc., and we need to make sure we’re scaffolding independent skills all along so that students can be successful when these big transitions approach.

What steps have you taken toward independence in school and during transition?


Learn more about “The Dignity of Risk” from our friend at TennesseeWorks, Janet Shouse.

Dignity of Risk video from the Minnesota Developmental Disabilities Council.