teaching your child to become independent with daily routines

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An article from Vanderbilt University describing steps to take to teach your child how to manage daily routines independently.


  • Teaching Your Child to:

    BecomeIndependent with

    Daily RoutinesThe Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning Vanderbilt University vanderbilt.edu/csefel

    Does this Sound Familiar?

    Nadine is a single mom with two young children ages3 and 5. Her children attend preschool while she isworking. When they all get home at the end of theday, Nadine is exhausted but still has household choresto complete (i.e., making dinner, doing laundry,straightening the house, etc.). In addition, she has to helpthe children with bathing, getting ready for bed, andbrushing their teeth. She wishes that her children wouldstart doing some of their daily self-help routinesindependently. The preschool teacher has said that the 5-year-old is very helpful and independent. But at home,neither of the children will get dressed and undressedindependently, and they complain and whine when askedto wash their hands, brush their teeth, or help with the

  • bathtime routine. When Nadineasks the children to do one ofthese self-help tasks, they runaround the house or whine anddrop to the ground. It takesevery ounce of energy Nadinehas to get through the evening.Often she finds herself yelling atthe children and physically helpingthem through the entire routine, justto get it done.

    The FocusYoung children can learn how to dosimple daily self-help activitiestheyjust need to be taught what to do.When teaching a child to do self-careskills, you first need to know what youcan typically expect of a young child,your childs skill level, and how toprovide clear and simple instructionsabout how to do a task. In addition,providing children with ampleencouragement that is both positive andspecific will help promote theirsuccess. Children can learn, at a veryyoung age, how to independently washtheir hands, brush their teeth, and getundressed and dressed. The information

    below will help you understandwhat you can expect from

    your preschooler and tipsfor helping your childlearn how to becomemore independent withdaily routines.

    Pouring, washing, dressing Enjoy playing dress-up Become fascinated with water and

    sand play Begin learning simple clear rules

    Children who are 3 often can: Help with brushing teeth Understand now, soon, and

    later Put dirty clothes in the hamper

    independently Get shoes from the closet Put on shoes without ties Enjoy singing easy songs Listen more attentively At times, prefer one parent over the

    other Enjoy playing house Imitate Match like objects Put non-breakable dishes in the sink Put trash in the trash can Wash body with help Wash and dry hands, though they

    may need some help reaching

    Children who are 4 often can: Use a spoon, fork, and dinner knife Dress without help, except with

    fasteners/buttons Learn new words quickly Recognize stop signs and their own

    name in print Follow two-step directions that are


    What to Expect Children who are 8 to 18 months oldoften can: Drink from a cup, pick up finger

    food, and begin to use a spoon Help undress and dress, put foot in

    shoe and arm in sleeve Point to body parts Have strong feelings and begin

    saying no Reach for/point to choices Feel a sense of security with

    routines and expectations (e.g., atbedtime)

    Imitate sounds and movement Understand more than they can say

    Children who are 18 to 36 months oldoften can do all of the above and: Wash hands with help Drink from a straw Put clothes in the hamper when

    asked Feed self with spoon Push and pull toys; fill and dump

    containers Learn to use the toilet Bend over without falling Imitate simple actions Become easily frustrated Enjoy trying to do tasks on their

    own (note that this is why tasksmay now take more time tocomplete)

    The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning Vanderbilt University vanderbilt.edu/csefel

  • The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning Vanderbilt University vanderbilt.edu/csefel

    2. Break down theroutine into simple steps

    and state each step one at atime with positive and clearly

    stated directions. Sometimes wemake the mistake of tellingchildren what not to do or whatthey did wrong, such as, Stopsplashing in the water.However, its more effective andclear to say, All done washing,now its time to turn off thewater.

    3. To clarify steps even further, youcould take a photo of each stepin the routine and post it wherethe routine takes place. Forinstance, with hand washing, youcould post photos above the sink.As you state one step at a time,show your child the photographto illustrate what needs to bedone.

    4. When teaching your child to doeach step, model (i.e.,demonstrate) how to do eachstep. After your child begins tolearn the steps, you can taketurns showing each other howto do the routine. Be prepared toprovide your child withreminders about what to do. As achild first learns a skill, itscommon to forget a step andneed assistance. You can simplymodel and say, Look, do this,and show how to do the step thatis causing difficulty. If needed,you can gently physically guideyour child in how to do the stepso that he/she can feelsuccessful.

    Teaching Your Child toIndependently CompleteDaily RoutinesYoung children like to feelindependent, but sometimes they needa parents encouragement to feel thatthey are capable and that adultsbelieve that they can do it. Teachingindependence with self-help skills likehand washing, brushing teeth, anddressing/undressing is an importantstep in development that can beachieved when children are taughthow to do each step in each routine.Initially, it takes an adults focusedattention to teach children how to dothese skills. Once the child learns howto do a skill independently, the adultcan fade out of the routine completely.

    When teaching your childindependence in self help routines(brushing teeth, hand washing, gettingdressed/undressed), try these simple,yet effective, tips:

    1. Begin by getting down on yourchilds eye level and gaining hisattention. (i.e., touch your childgently, make eye contact,physically guide, or jointly look atthe same object).

    Understand simple clearrules

    Share and begin taking turns Wash self in the bathtub Brush teeth independently Wash and dry hands

    Children who are 5 often can: Follow established rules and

    routines (e.g., wash hands beforeeating, put dirty clothes in thehamper, brush teeth before going tobed)

    Independently initiate a simpleroutine (e.g., dress and undress,brush teeth, wash hands, eat dinnersitting at the table, take bath withadult watching)

    Understand beginning, middle, andend

    Begin to understand othersfeelings

    Be independent with most self-careskills

    Sometimes, children with disabilitiesmay need special assistance to becomemore independent in doing dailyroutines. You might want to do thefollowing: Expect your child to do only part of

    the routine, while you assist withthe part that is difficult

    Provide help to your child so thathe/she can complete the task

    Provide instructions in a differentformat, by modeling and/or using apicture or gesture so that your childunderstands what to do

    Allow extra time to complete thetask

  • 5. For activities that might bedifficult or not preferred, state thedirection in a first/then phrase.For instance, First wash hands,and then we can eat snack; orFirst brush your teeth, and then Ican give you a minty fresh kiss;or First get dressed, and thenyou can choose milk or juice withbreakfast.

    6. Offering children a choiceduring routines increases thelikelihood that they will do theactivity. With brushing teeth, youcould say, Do you want to usethe mint toothpaste or the bubblegum toothpaste?

    7. It is very important that youencourage all attempts when yourchild is first learning how to do aroutine. If you discourage orreprimand your child because itwas not done quite right, his/herattempts at trying might stop. Itsimportant to let your child knowyou understand his/her feelingsand then assist your child so thathe/she feels successful. Forexample, I know its hard tobrush your teeth. Let me help.(Singing while you help brush)Brush, brush, brush your teeth;brush the front and back . . .

    communicate that the task is toodifficult. Other children might havechallenging behavior because theydont want to leave a preferredactivity (e.g., playing with toys) to dosomething that is less interesting (e.g.,taking a bath). If you think you knowthe message of your childschallenging behavior, a good strategyis to validate what the behavior seemsto be saying. For example, you mightsay, You are telling me that youdont want to stop playing for yourbath. But its time to be all done andget in the tub.

    What Can You Do WhenChildren Refuse toIndependently Do DailyRoutines?Remember, preschoolers are movingfrom the toddler stage, where muchwas done for them, to a new stagewhere they are becoming independentlittle people. Your child might need abit of help or extra cueing whenlearning new skills that will buildhis/her ability to be more independentaround everyday routines. Thinkabout what your child needs and helphim/her be successfulsuccess buildsindependence! For instance, yourchild: Might want your attention because

    inappropriate behavior gotattention in the past. Your childmight refuse to listen or cooperateto gain your attention because thishas worked before. Remember to ignore the

    challenging behavior and teachcalmly and clearly whileguiding him/her through thetask.

    brush, brush, brush your teeth,attack the germs right back.Remember that young childrenneed a lot of practiceand yoursupportbefore they are able todo new skills independently.

    8. Encourage your child as eachroutine is