Teaching Your Young Child Specific Self-Help Skills

Children with disabilities of every kind need to learn hygiene and self-help skills as soon as they are able. These skills should be taught from the time the child is very young, because the sooner and in more ways the child can become independent, the happier he will be. The child who has developed sufficient self-help skills is more likely to be integrated into a regular classroom setting and have better experiences with peers.

There are various methods you can use to teach your child everything from grooming, getting dressed, brushing teeth, bathing, etc. Choose a method based upon your child’s learning style.

Picture Icons

Often, picture icons can help children remember the routine. Break the task into small parts. Then create a schedule of visual reminders, and post it close to the location where the action will be performed. Here’s an example of a picture icon chart:

Prior to each step, ask the child, “What do we do next?” See if the child can remember, and if not, point to the visual clue on the schedule. State each task simply and use the same phrasing each time. As the child becomes proficient, play games where you cover one of the steps with your finger, asking the child to recall it. Soon you can “hide” the entire schedule, seeing if the child can remember the whole routine. Give positive reinforcement (Give a big hug, cheer, or simply say “good job.” Provide time with a favorite object, etc.).

Songs and Rhythm

You can use rhythm or songs as a mnemonic. Rhythm and rhyme can aid memory. For example you could sing, “This is the way we brush our teeth, brush our teeth, so early in the morning….”

Backward Chaining

Backward chaining is another teaching method which helps some children learn to do multi-step tasks. Start with the last task on the list, and when the child has mastered it, move to the task just prior to it. This method only works with particular skills.

Create Motor Memories

Often children with autism or other neurological disorders have a difficult time getting their muscles to move in the way they are supposed to. The child may need to develop a “motor memory” of what the experience “feels” like. This may require you to physically manipulate the child’s arms or legs into the appropriate position, for example, grasping the child’s hand and positioning it to brush his teeth. It may take several (or even many) experiences where you place the child’s body in the appropriate position before the motor memory is developed.

Although special education teachers may provide your child with some instruction in self-help skills, the primary responsibility certainly falls on you as the parent. With a special needs child, your role as “teacher” in the home is even more important. Be creative and do what works best for your child.

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