How to Teach Children Self-Help Skills

By Kathryn Hatter
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Children are completely dependent on you in the beginning, but as the months and years pass, independence slowly emerges. Developing self-help skills, such as self-feeding, personal hygiene and dressing, is a major milestone in children’s lives. With your steady guidance and ongoing example, your kids will eventually grow into adults who can take care of themselves.

Realistic Expectations

Before teaching self-help skills, ensure that your child is old enough to tackle the tasks. As children grow, they mature physically and emotionally to enable them to learn these skills. For example, between 24 and 36 months, a child should be able to self-feed neatly, undress, attempt teeth-brushing and wash and dry hands, according to Technical Assistance & Training System, a company that supports programs for prekindergarten children with disabilities. By 3 to 4 years of age, children should button and unbutton buttons, buckle belts, open and close zippers, wash hands independently and use the toilet. By 4 to 5 years of age, children should be able to put on their shoes and tie them and brush teeth independently.

Hands-on Lessons

Teaching self-help skills to a child will require time and effort in the beginning, advises the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning. Many of these skills involve numerous steps, so expect to go through the entire process repeatedly until your youngster understands. For example, when teaching your child to wash her hands, talk about each step as you show your child what to do. For example, you might say and demonstrate: “First, put the stool at the sink. Next, turn on the water, get your hands wet and turn off the water. Then, squirt a little soap in your hands and rub them all over while you sing your favorite song. Finally, turn the water on, rinse your hands, turn the water off and dry your hands.”

Modeling and Demonstrating

Reinforce the skills you are trying to teach by modeling and demonstrating repeatedly. For example, when you want your child to learn how to use a fork and spoon at meals, show off your own utensil skills as you eat together. You might play a game of showing each other how you perform self-help skills to create extra opportunities for demonstrating skills. If you brush your teeth together, you can take turns showing off your teeth-brushing abilities.

Encouragement and Assistance

Learning skills can take time, and little ones sometimes become frustrated. It’s OK if your child’s skills aren’t perfect at first, and he’s messy as he tries to feed himself with a spoon and fork. It’s normal for a child to take longer than average to complete tasks while he’s still learning the skills. Provide effusive encouragement as your youngster works to learn skills. For example, if the frustration mounts as your child struggles with buttons or zippers, step in with some assistance before your child becomes too upset, advises the University of Wisconsin Extension. Avoid reprimanding or scolding your child in these situations. Your child needs positive encouragement only.

Supervision for Reinforcement

Stay involved with your child as she performs these chores to ensure that the routines become a habit. Watch to ensure that your youngster finishes each step correctly; offer positive guidance, if necessary. Sometimes children feel a little needy and like to fall back on parents for extra cues and guidance with self-help tasks. Eventually, your youngster will complete these activities independently.

About the Author

Kathryn Hatter is a veteran home-school educator, as well as an accomplished gardener, quilter, crocheter, cook, decorator and digital graphics creator. As a regular contributor to Natural News, many of Hatter's Internet publications focus on natural health and parenting. Hatter has also had publication on home improvement websites such as Redbeacon.