Nurturing independence in the home environment
All children can practice self-help skills in their own home, gaining a sense of self-esteem and accomplishment.
Many American parents value independence very highly, and we teach our children from an early age to take care of themselves and their environment. This generally works out well for many families because many children enjoy doing things for themselves. They gain a sense of self-esteem and feel accomplished when they are able to meet some of their own basic needs. These activities are generally called “self-help skills” and, most often, children learn these skills in their homes.
All children, even children with special needs or developmental delays, can practice self-help skills. The Technical Assistance and Training System at the University of Central Florida, which provides assistance for families with young children with disabilities, reminds families that, “Children need to develop confidence in their own ability to be self-reliant. Acquiring these skills can alleviate ‘learned helplessness.’”
Many of us have seen the effects of learned helplessness: whining, collapsing or foot-dragging when we ask them to do a routine task like brush their teeth or get dressed. Doing it for the child who is capable of doing it themselves sends the message they are incapable and we rob them of the opportunity to feel proud of themselves.
If you want to start teaching your child about how to take care of some of their own needs, it is good to start with a general list of what you can expect based on a child’s age and developmental level. For a chart of typical expectations by age, see “Developmentally Appropriate Practice – Adaptive/Self-Help Skills” by the Technical Assistance and Training System. Of course, parents and child development experts alike recognize each child develops at their own pace. You know your own child best.
Experts often list four skills that fall into the self-help skills category: feeding, dressing, hygiene and simple household tasks. When teaching a child a new skill, it is best to begin with a simple task that has few steps. If we have more complicated tasks, breaking the process down into steps is a good idea, too. We want to avoid overwhelming a child with too many things to remember at once. It also helps to slow down your speaking when giving verbal instructions.
We can begin by modeling the task, which most parents have already done by allowing their children to watch them as they perform self-help skills like washing their hands, brushing their teeth or using a spoon. When we begin the teaching phase though, we want to slow down the process and add words to bring the child’s attention to the individual steps we take to accomplish these tasks.
Another way to help a child is to use a hand-over-hand technique to show them how to hold a utensil or manipulate the faucet, for example. This is an initial helping step that we remove gradually as the child gains competence. It is done gently and with the child’s compliance, otherwise we are setting up a situation that quickly becomes a power struggle.
We also want to encourage the child’s efforts to try out these self-help skills. The first attempts may be messy and take a long time. However, as long as the child has the physical skills to do the task, they will become better and faster as they practice. No need to set aside blocks of time for practice—these skills are part of your daily routine so they naturally fit into your schedule. It’s a good idea to plan a little more time into the routine when children are learning new skills though.
Even though many children enjoy doing things for themselves, sometimes a child can be recalcitrant, especially if a favorite activity is interrupted. One way to handle this is to give your child a choice, such as “you can brush your teeth first or you can dress yourself first”. Consistency also helps children recognize they are expected to do these activities every day. When parents only require the child to do it occasionally or step in and take over the process for the child, we send a confusing message that it isn’t really the child’s responsibility. Our purpose is to make the task one that the child can do using their own skills and initiative.
You can find many more strategies to encourage children to learn self-help skills at “Teaching Your Child to: Become Independent with Daily Routines” by Vanderbilt University.
For more information about helping your child be more independent, Michigan State University Extension suggests the following resources:
- Ways to Encourage Self-Help Skills in Children by eXtension
- Developing independence in children by MSU Extension
- Helping Young Children Learn Motor and Self-Help Skills by Vanderbilt University
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