Teaching children self-care routines

How to help children learn and remember to wash their hands, brush their teeth and other important self-care routines.

Child brushing her teeth.

A lot of learning happens in the first few years of a child’s life. From rolling over, walking and running to counting and writing their name, your child is learning a lot! Along with academic skills, it’s also important young children learn important self-care behaviors like brushing their teeth and washing their hands.

Michigan State University Extension has some suggestions for helping your child practice and learn self-care.

Establish a routine. Young children are not only working on self-help skills, but part of the process is simply working on memory skills. Making these acts a routine will help kids remember to complete these task each day. Try making a visual reminder, like posting a sign by the sink with an illustration of someone washing their hands or taking a picture of your child washing their hands to help them remember.

Explain the “why.” It’s easier for us to follow rules or do things we don’t necessarily want to do when we understand why it’s important. Explain to children why these self-care practices are necessary. Talk about how we wash our hands to avoid spreading germs, which can make us sick, or how brushing our teeth regularly helps us avoid painful cavities and keeps our teeth clean and healthy (like these teeth brushing resources from Sesame Street).

Be there. Young children need guidance and support from the important adults in their lives. By simply being present and engaged with them throughout the day, you can help them learn and remember these self-care routines. Young children will needs lots of reminders, and it may be a while before they can complete the tasks independently, but your presence is important.

Model it. Children learn by watching us. Show them these acts are important by doing them in front of your child. You can do this in two different ways: by letting them observe you naturally doing these things (i.e., washing your hands or brushing your teeth while they are in the same room) and also by providing some purposeful instruction (i.e., “When I wash my hands, I make sure to get the soapy bubbles between my fingers and around my fingernails too”). Children are little copycats; your actions can give them something good to imitate.

Encourage their efforts. Children need encouragement, so notice when they try and when they are successful. Tell them you noticed how they washed their hands after using the bathroom without being told, or how hard they tried to brush their own teeth. Learn more about how to encourage children's behavior.

You can help your young child learn important daily routines they will use for a lifetime!

For more articles on child development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

To learn about the positive impact children and families are experience due to MSU Extension programs, read our 2016 Impact Reports: “Preparing young children to success” and “Preparing the future generation for success.” Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan 4-H and MSU Extension positively impacted individuals and communities in 2016, can be downloaded from the Michigan 4-H website.

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