What is social autonomy?
The word autonomy comes from the Greek word αὐτός (self) and νέμω (to govern): thus, its literal meaning is “to govern oneself.” This term can be used in a variety of contexts, from politics to psychology and pedagogy.
With regard to individuals, autonomy is often confused with the concept of independence, but its meaning is actually much broader and concerns the very essence of a person's life.
Personal and social autonomy
Autonomy means “knowing how to do something on your own” and “not having to depend on others,” but being truly autonomous is something that goes beyond the ability to carry out simple actions on your own. It means, above all, having complete control of your life, being able to make decisions, assume responsibility, and fully benefit from this achieved autonomy.
Personal autonomy also concerns the ability to maintain interpersonal relationships and behave appropriately in the social context in which one lives: this is known as social autonomy.
Being socially autonomous is often much more complicated than being personally autonomous, due to specific personal difficulties in socialization and to the presence of social contexts that hinder the full development of social autonomy, especially for people in more vulnerable groups.
Teaching social autonomy
Developing the necessary skills and competencies that can foster personal and social autonomy is one of the key objectives of every educational strategy.
One of the key functions of the famous Montessori method, which is still applied in tens of thousands of schools throughout the world, is to teach autonomy (as well as self-discipline). To highlight the importance of teaching autonomy as effectively as possible, Maria Montessori explained that, in their first years of life, children build and refine fundamental skills by properly exercising their senses and movement, in order to lead an independent life as an adult.
Naturally, achieving these competences is a gradual process and a crucial role is played by the environment in which a child grows up; it must offer opportunities for activities and stimuli that can foster the development of the more strictly social aspect of autonomy.
In particular, Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child has pinpointed three skills (or executive functions) that must be developed during the first years of life:
- Working memory, which governs our ability to retain and manipulate distinct pieces of various types of information over short periods of time.
- Mental flexibility, which allows us to apply different rules in different settings.
- Inhibitory self-control, which enables us to set priorities and resist impulsive actions.
Children aren't born with these skills – but they are born with the potential to develop them. Some do so quickly and almost completely on their own, while other children need more outside support. In these cases especially, their relationships with adults, the conditions in their home environment, and their social context are crucially important.