The development of self-care skills is a crucial part of growing up, they are needed to be able to function independently in society. A lot of the time self-help skills are developed when they are age appropriate, from observing others, simple reminders, or through demonstrations. But, for many neurodiverse children, self-help skills don’t just magically occur as a part of growing up.
In these instances, patience is key, and steps may need to be adjusted, simplified, and broken down into smaller steps.
Why are self-care skills important for children?
Often children naturally have a desire to be independent and self-help skills should be encouraged early. It’s funny as all my girls are completely different in this area.
I have a 9-year-old that would still let me dress her, make all her food, pack her school bag…. all the things if I was willing. 5 years at school and this year has been the magic year in which she doesn’t have to be asked every afternoon to get her lunch box out of her school bag in the afternoon! I feel as though I may be to blame (don’t tell my husband!) as I naturally like to do things for people and being my first child, I may have accidently fallen into the trap of doing so.
Then there is Miss 7 who has a diagnosis of cerebral palsy and autism. Who requires my help for most things but is fiercely independent, it causes her a lot of stress that she even needs my help?
My 4-year-old well she could run the house! She dresses herself, never needs to be reminded to brush her teeth, gets her own food, room is always clean. It’s so evident the confidence and pride she feels being so independent. Partly due to her strong-willed personality but also due to the fact that with 3 children, one of which has disabilities, she has had to fend for herself for many self-care tasks.
Self-help and self-care skills are critical in maintaining physical health and wellbeing. They increase independence and can give children a sense of pride and accomplishment. When children are confident in self-help skills it makes it easier for them to participate in predicted routines in a variety of environments.
Examples of activities to build self-care skills in 4-year-olds
Busy boards (dressing skills). Simply google ‘busy boards’ or ‘fine motor busy boards’ and a variety of products and DIY versions will come up. Seeing as I love being creative, I enjoy making my own. Essentially the aim is to provide activities on a board to practice the fine motor skills and coordination that are necessary for dressing. Here is an example of what I have created. I simply used a hot glue gun, some off cuts of wood, items from my craft cupboard and some items from a dollar store.
Sometimes it can be better to work on the fine motor skills required for dressing in a fun and playful way. The last thing you want is your child to get frustrated when you are practicing dressing so it can be handy to really work on these skills first.
Doll play (feeding skills). If your child is having a difficult time feeding themselves or not showing an interest, a fun way to still practice these skills in a playful way is through dramatic play. Use cutlery and pretend play food (or craft items eg pom poms) to feed a doll or teddy. The fine motor coordination, control and bimanual skills are being practiced preparing for the real thing. It can also be a good idea to put the ‘pretend food in containers and lunch bags sometimes too. This will ensure your child is developing the skills to open containers to get their own food.
My daughter loves rolling playdough up (which is a fantastic fine motor activity) and using a fork to stab into it, she then transfers it from the fork into an ice cube container. Just getting the feel of using a fork and practicing those skills is a motivating start for the real thing.
Handwashing song (hygiene skills). What is it about kiddos trying to get out of washing their hands? In my preschool teaching days, it was a constant thing I was reminding them of “Make sure you wash your hands after the toilet”, “Make sure you wash your hands before eating” always followed with a big sigh…its hard being 4 sometimes.
A great way to make it fun and acts as a reminder are handwashing songs. There are so many out there but here are the words to my favourite. It has actions too, which are just the actions to the words of the song.
“Germs are lurking, creeping around,
In the air and on the ground.
You’re the one they like to meet,
So, wash your hands before you eat.
Get some soap and make them bubble,
Give those naughty germs some trouble.
For lunch time they won’t want to stay,
Cause clean hands scare them right away!
Pack away game (practical skills). Asking a child to pack away can literally be the worst possible thing you could ask of them! I mean how dare you. A fun way to motivate this dreaded chore is to set a timer and make a game of it, this always works with my girls. After they have finished, I tell them how helpful it is that they packed away. Positive reinforcement and praise are super important when trying to teach children self-help skills.
Finding other chores that are developmentally appropriate are equally as fabulous when teaching these skills. Using a chart with a photo of a chores is a great way to remind children of ways they can help. If they have helped with something they can add a sticker or stamp next to it.
Morning routine (executive functioning skills). By establishing a morning routine children can practice self-help skills in a repetitive way. A visual guide of what needs to be done each morning is a great way to emphasis and take away any overwhelming feelings. My daughter with autism thrives off routine and visuals. If I said to her “Have your breakfast, then get dressed, help make your bed, brush your teeth and pack your bag”, she would immediately get stressed. Too many instructions are not helpful, either are just using words. Having a visual guide of what is expected in the morning gives her a clear idea of things she can mentally tick off as the morning goes.
Bedtime routine (Social story). A bedtime routine is a great way to introduce the development of some self-care skills, giving your child opportunities to be active participants in their own bedtime routine can give them a strong sense of wellbeing. My daughter thrives off social stories and we use them often. Providing a social story can be a great way to introduce a bedtime routine and can be looked at time and time again. An example of some sentences that could go in a bedtime social story could be.
“When it starts to get darker, I know it’s time for bed”
“Going to bed is good for my body and mind”
“It makes sure that I am feeling happy and strong for the next morning”
“The first thing I can do to get ready is brush my teeth”
“After that I can choose a story to read”
“Then I put my night light on and give mummy and daddy a cuddle”
“Mummy and daddy will sit with me for a little bit”
“I am very responsible at going to bed”
Tips to assist with teaching children self-care skills.
As mentioned, some children naturally want to be independent, some don’t, and some children may have a delay or disability that makes the development of mastering these types of skills a little more challenging. Here are some useful tips to keep in mind to hopefully make the process a little easier on everyone.
-Prioritise what is most achievable and start with that first
-Give extended time for them to process each step, be super patient
-Break each skill down into steps
-Help them with all steps and then get them to perform the final step, keep building on this
-Introduce self-care into their daily routine
-Give explicit instructions using simple language
-Use visuals to guide them through the steps
-Make a social story to explain the self-care task
-Use prompts that are gradually removed