by Rafael E. Salazar II, MHS, OTR/L
I don’t know about you, but sometimes things hit me at most surprising times. This article was actually prompted by an experience I recently had while watching my three year old son riding his bike in the street in front of our home (keep reading for the proud dad story below).
Anyways, after listening to the last few episodes of The Brighter Futures Podcast, especially the first two episodes, where Dan & Derrick discussed the idea of protecting our children; and how organizations, staff, and family members often try to protect individuals with intellectual & developmental disabilities from danger, injury, or accidents —limiting risk. Now, while this is entirely understandable and normal, sometimes it leads to an overprotection; where the individual isn’t given the opportunity to learn, grow, or develop important skills for life in the community.
Learning to Ride a Bike
Now, back to watching my son ride his bike on the street. Well, my wife, I have 4 children (at the time of this writing); 3 boys and a girl. Our oldest, turned 5 in the middle last year and my wife and I decided to give him a bike for his birthday. He had been riding around on a tiny bike and could use a larger one for his ever-growing legs. Anyways, on his birthday, our now 5-year-old immediately jumped on his new bike and proceeded, over the next couple of weeks, to learn to ride without training wheels. Not to brag on him, but he picked it up pretty quickly and soon found himself zipping all around the backyard and eventually up and down the street with some of his cousins and the neighborhood kids.
That in itself, is a cool enough story: A 5 year-old learns to ride a bike. He experiences the usual falls, bumps and bruises that come with that seeming right of passage that many children cross. However, this story gets more interesting a few months later.
“Hey Dad, watch me fall!”
Well, after watching his older brother learn to ride his bike, our three year old began asking “can you take the training wheels off of my bike?”…or, as he became more determined “can I ride my bike without training wheels on the road?”. Now, my wife and I hesitated a bit. I mean, he’s three years old. What were the odds that taking his training wheels off would end anyway but badly? Anyone who’s heard a toddler cry after hurting themselves knows what I’m talking about.
So after a few weeks of prodding (he can be very persistent), I took my son out into the backyard and removed the training wheels from his bike (a small bike, because he’s only three!). With a gigantic smile on his face, he jumped right up onto the seat and said, “OK, push me.” So I gave him a little push and told him “pedal! pedal! pedal!”
Running beside his bike, keeping a hand on it to make sure he didn’t wipe out, I was able to see his smile up close and personal….and it was awesome. But it gets better. After trying for a while to ride his bike without training wheels, my son decided that he didn’t want any help with his bike. He wanted to ride with the big kids out on the road.
So I decided to take this approach with him: I told him to wear his helmet (safety first!) and explained to him that he would need to learn how to start, stop, and turn his bike without crashing into everything before he could ride on the road. And that was all it took for him. He spent heaps of time out in the yard, trying to start his bike, trying to turn, and -in the beginning- crashing into chairs, yard toys, and even the house on a couple of occasions. Each time he fell or crashed, my wife and I thought we’d end up having to put his training wheels back on and wait until he was a little bit older to pull them back off.
But that boy was determined. He tried and crashed, tried and fell. Every time I came home from work, Joseph would run up to me and say “watch me ride my bike”. And each time, I’d watch him start, ride a bit, and then crash or fall. But each time, he was proud and you could tell he felt accomplished.
Taking it to the Street
So after a few weeks of trial and error (which really means crashes and falls), I come home from work one day to my 3-year old with a big smile on his face. He tells me, “Dad, come watch me ride my bike.” So I walk into the house and right out the back door to watch him. On the way, my wife tells me “Oh, go watch! He was doing it all by himself!”.
In the back yard, my oldest son runs up to me and says “He is doing it all by himself!”. Trying to contain his excitement and smiles, my son hopped onto his bike and —sure enough— got his bike going and proceeded to ride around the yard. He was so excited. He jumped off the bike and ran up to me with a big smile on his face…and then asked “can we ride our bikes on the road?” I told you, he’s persistent.
So I said “sure”. We went out to the front and he got setup. Within a few minutes I watched him zip back and forth, riding with his older brother and his cousins. I’ll admit, I had a big proud dad moment, for sure.
Letting People Fall
Now, back to the point of this article —hopefully you didn’t mind the detour into my family’s bike-riding stories. This whole experience made me start thinking about the idea of learning, skill-building, and how we grow to become competent and independent members of society. In reality, we all get to that point because somewhere along the line —usually multiple times during our growing up— someone gave us the opportunity to fall, to test our limits, to grow; even if it meant that we may scrape our knees.
Sometimes, this learning takes the form of a seemingly insignificant activity —like riding a bike. I mean, how does learning to ride a bike help someone develop into an independent member of our greater society? I’d say it helps in a couple of different ways: 1) it provides a foundation of self-esteem and self-confidence that can translate into other areas of life and 2) it provides a historical context or experience that can be used when trying to learn another skills. It stands as a past example of how challenges can be overcome. For example, now, when my 3-year old is trying to learn something else, like reading or tying his shows, my wife and I can remind him of how difficult it was to try and learn to ride his bike at the beginning and now he’s able to do it without thinking. It’s a great example that we’ll be able to use throughout his childhood, as he comes across more challenges.
Risk & Reasonable Risk
Now, none of this learning takes place without the associated risk. What do I mean by that? Well, in the case of riding a bike, the risk of falling & crashing is ever-present. Nothing I can do as a father eliminates that risk, for any of my children. It’s simply part of riding a bike. Now, the stakes a pretty low when kids are that young. I mean, they might fall, scrape a knee, or maybe break a bone (worst case scenario!)…And, as parent’s we take steps to mitigate any serious injuries that may occur. Like with my three year old riding his bike: we made him wear a helmet & we kept his biking excursions confined to the backyard until he was able to maneuver a bit more skillfully.
The same must be done when supporting individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Whether it be in their younger, childhood years, adolescence, and even into adulthood, we need to provide these people with the opportunities to test their skills, push their limits, and grow. This goes for both large and small skills alike. Maybe it is something that you may consider inconsequential, but it may end up being the platform that the individual you are supporting uses as a springboard to other skills & abilities that they’ll develop later in life.
I guess what I’m saying is that, especially with individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, we need to find a way to give them the opportunity to fall off their bikes. Start small. Start with protections and limitations in place. And then, over time, begin removing the guardrails and let them test their abilities. You may be surprised by how much they meet or exceed your expectations.
What do you think? How can we support individuals, while safely allowing them to push their limits and take reasonable risks? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
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A co-founding member of CRA Learning, Rafael (Rafi) is a licensed Occupational Therapist based in Georgia. Rafi has worked in a variety of settings, from orthopedic and musculoskeletal rehabilitation, to academia, and even healthcare consulting. He spent the majority of his clinical experience working at Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center, where he was the lead clinician and clinical education coordinator for the outpatient specialty rehab program. In this role, he treated many veterans with chronic pain and helped to establish an interdisciplinary pain management program. He has worked on projects ranging from patient engagement initiatives to marketing communication campaigns to a multi million dollar project assisting the State of Georgia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities transition individuals out of state institutions to community residences. He also has experience as a faculty member at Augusta University’s Occupational Therapy Program, as a Licensed Board Member on the GA State OT Board, and has served on several committees for the national OT Board (NBCOT). He also serves on the Board of Directors for NBCOT. Rafi is the Principal Owner of Rehab U Practice Solutions, a marketing and strategy firm serving healthcare organizations. He also owns ProActive Rehabilitation & Wellness, a Physical & Occupational Therapy Clinic based in Augusta, Georgia. Education: Rafael earned a Masters in Health Sciences and was graduated from Augusta University (formerly MCG) Department of Occupational Therapy in 2012.
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