5 Tips On Teaching Self-Skills To Children With Special Needs
By: Suzie Dalien, M.Ed.
It’s exciting watching children hit developmental milestones, no matter if they’re on time or a little bit delayed. Your child’s doctor has specific goals that a child should be reaching based on their age, but a child with special needs might be meeting this at their own pace. This is a cause for concern for a lot of parents, and with good reason – the diagnosis of special needs often comes in very young children, sometimes before they reach school age – and can present parents and educators with a unique set of challenges.
A child with special needs might be able to do most things other kids do, but for some even the most basic of skills comes at a high price. Developmental delays due to physical, mental, emotional or behavioral limitations can prevent a child with special needs from performing critical self-care actions like bathing, eating and dressing without assistance. When this occurs, services from an occupational therapist are often sought, but you can help your child outside of therapy by encouraging change through positive and repetitive actions.
What are Self-Skills?
These are the actions we take for granted every day, like:
• Brushing our teeth
• Tying our shoes
• Putting on or taking off clothes and/or shoes
• Brushing our hair
• Sitting up unassisted
For those of us without special needs, these actions came as usual milestones without issue, but a special needs child requires a little bit of extra attention and encouragement to ensure they will be capable of performing these actions on their own.
Tips On Teaching Self-Skills
All children need specific direction while learning self-skills, but these instructions are harder for a child with special needs to grasp. Here are some basic strategies on how to engage your child in fruitful learning:
1. Give them the courage to help themselves.
As a parent, it can be difficult to see your child struggling to complete a task. Your first instinct will probably be to swoop in and take care of the issue for them, lest they experience anxiety or frustration when attempting it themselves, but it’s important to take a step back in these situations and provide your child with the assistance needed for them to complete the task on their own. If they are trying to tie their shoes but can’t remember the way you’ve taught them, try a different approach in a manner that they can understand and learn from; being supportive while your child attempts a task on their own can go a long way towards self-confidence, self-esteem and self-skill mastery.
2. Break it into bite-sized bits.
When you see your child struggling to understand the basic concepts of certain self-skills, take a moment to break the task down into smaller steps. What is second nature for us can puzzle a child with special needs, so give them clear methods in their own language that can help them recognize the bigger picture. Getting dressed without assistance can prove to be frustrating if a child doesn’t remember the correct order in which to put things, or can’t master buttons. Modify the steps into cohesive concepts your child can easily complete with moderate assistance until the behavior becomes learned.
3. Identify self-skill problem areas.
Does your child do okay at the beginning of bath time but becomes frustrated the longer the process continues? If a similar situation occurs in which your child with special needs encounters a part of the task that cannot be completed on their own, go ahead and assist them with that particular step alone. This still allows for your child to retain some of their own independence while they work to master the skill in question. Watching your child closely while they perform a number of self-skill tasks can help you determine which areas need the most attention.
4. Make learning fun.
If your child is having difficulties picking up silverware for dinner, for instance, give them related tasks to perform throughout the day that mimic the behavior but are considered play for the child. Because grasping a fork or spoon requires fine motor skills, try having your child play with clothespins or training chopsticks during times when they are engaged in other play. Have your child squeeze and eyedropper or pop the bubbles in bubble wrap; these are interesting, fun activities that can help your child refine their motor skills until they are ready to try picking up silverware and eating on their own. Positive Reinforcement and continual praise will help boost the rate in which your child will learn and retain these critical self-skills.
5. Simplify the every day.
While it’s not encouraged for you to do every hard task for your child, it is okay to make things easier for them while they practice mastering problematic self-skills. If a child with special needs cannot tie their shoes properly, give them shoes with Velcro closures, which are often much easier for children to manage. Is buttoning an issue? Provide your child with elastic waist pants until they feel confident enough to try buttons on their own. Consider pullover clothing for a child who cannot properly operate zippers. In these cases, making things temporarily easy can allay your child’s frustrations while you continue to work with them on these basic self-skills.
Your child learns at their own unique pace, which can be frustrating to you as a parent. Keep in mind that this is just their way of learning about the world around them. Make a list of goals to be met and keep it where both you and your child can reference the information at any time. Check off each step or skill that has been conquered, celebrate each victory, and reassure your child during any setbacks. There is no right or wrong way to learn, and your child will eventually master these important life skills.
Special Education Resource intimately knows the struggles you might be facing, and wants to provide you with factual information to help you on your journey. Your child with special needs is unique and talented. Too often society’s misconceptions and misunderstanding still leads to mistreatment of children with special needs especially outside of the home. The fact is, these children learn differently and require teaching methods to be molded to their individual needs NOT continue forcing them to learn the “one-size-fits-all” approach. Many parents are turning to alternative methods of ensuring their children receive the education they deserve. This approach includes special education tutoring, the consulting of different types of professionals and joining local communities with people who are in similar situation.
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