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How To Teach A Young Child Self Care Skills


In the first year of children’s lives, they rely on their parents and caregivers for everything. As children approach 2 years of age, however, the journey towards independence should start with teaching them how to do simple self care tasks, such as using the potty and taking off their hats. We encourage starting to work on independent and self-help skills as early as possible.  In addition to the practical benefit, it also helps empower our kiddos to feel like they can do it (and it shows the parents what they’re capable of)! Keep reading for general guidelines about what children should be learning to do independently and when, along with tips on how to help them successfully gain important self care skills.


Self Care Skills To Teach: 18 – 48 months

VB-MAPP, which was developed by Mark Sundberg, PhD, BCBA,  is an excellent resource that breaks down what simple tasks Andre should be doing at what age. Here a synopsis of its key points:

By 18 months

-Pulls pants up and down
-Takes off socks, hats, mittens, shoes, jackets
-Wipes nose, washes and dries hands with help
-Eats finger foods, uses a spoon to scoop up food, drinks from a cup by himself

By 24 months

-Has started toilet training 
-Responds to reinforcement during toilet training, follows simple directions, remains dry for 2 hours
-Pulls pants up and down

By 30 months

-Unzips zippers, matches his socks and shoes, unties shoelaces, puts on shoes and pants
-Brushes hair and teeth and washes his face with help, tries to wash hands by himself
-Uses a fork and napkin, opens his lunchbox and Ziplock bags, peels bananas and carries his lunchbox to the table

By 36 months

-Goes pee and poo on the potty fairly independently
-Asks to use the washroom, wipes himself with some help, zips and pulls his pants up and down, flushes the toilet
-Washes and dries hands with some help

By 48 months

-Uses a knife for spreading, pours liquids into a cup/bowl, opens beverage containers, opens most food packaging
-Helps make simple food with you, helps set the table, takes dishes to the sink
-Brush his own teeth and hair, independently wipes nose and puts tissue in the trash, washes himself with a cloth and soap
-Uses the toilet independently and is night-time trained

Teaching Tips

Some kiddos pick up self care skills quickly with just a bit of your guidance, while others – especially those with special needs – need more of your time, help and attention. Whatever your child’s learning style, these tips will help you teach her how to take care of herself.

  1. Use visuals: Children will learn faster when all the steps of a particular task, such as brushing teeth, are illustrated sequentially with small pictures. Click here for some pre-created visual schedules for self care routines. Cut out the pictures and attach them to board with Velcro. At first, point to each image just before helping the child do the action, then assist her in taking it off the board. As she gets the knack of this, fade back your assistance incrementally until she’s following the visual schedule without your help.

2. Fade your involvement (prompts): As you point to the pictures, it may be tempting to tell Alice how to do something, but avoid verbal instructions. Some kiddos become dependent on an adult’s words and have a hard time doing tasks without hearing the therapist’s or parent’s voice. Instead, start off by putting your hands over hers and helping her wipe her nose or pull down her pants. This gives her the feeling of what to do. When she seems to have the motion down pat, stand back and let her try to do it herself, stepping in to quietly hand-over-hand help her only when she is having a hard time. Then scale back your involvement to merely a point or gentle tug up on her pants to remind her to pull up after the potty. Become hands-off as soon as Alice has got it, letting the visual schedule guide her instead, so she understands that she has the ability do it like a big girl! Once she’s completely independent with her routine, you can put the visual schedule away or fade it into a smaller schedule or a simple text schedule.

3. Practice positive reinforcement: Andre will pick up self care skills more quickly when he’s showered with praise. As such, make him feel great each time he does or attempts to do something correctly and/or independently. Tickles, high-5s and tokens for a reward board go a long way, as does verbal praise specific to his achievement. In the case of washing hands, you could cheer out: “You’re a superstar, you put your hands under the water!” or “I love how you rinsed off all the soap!”

It can be tempting for us therapists to step in a take over when our kiddos are going too slowly or aren’t doing something properly. But, as often as possible, give Andre the time and space to try and do himself. The more practice and encouragement he gets, the the faster he’ll learn to brush his teeth and dress himself.

Check out our next post in the series for the advanced learner: How to Foster Independence Skills

Image courtesy by AKARAKINGDOMS at