Important Life Skills to Teach Your Child with Special Needs
A parent is the first teacher a child will have. We may start out by trying to teach them how to say “mama” or “dada”, or to identify when they want something. Later, we encourage them to crawl, walk, run, use the bathroom, use a fork and knife, bathe, ride a bicycle, brush their hair, get dressed, and other basic life skills. As they progress through the years, other essential life skills come into play. For a parent of a child with special needs, some of these skills may never be a reality. However, with patience, preparation, and perseverance, you may find that your child can learn life skills that you didn’t think possible.
It is often hard to imagine every task that a child must learn in order to achieve independence – whether living on one’s own or just being able to function in some way by his or herself. Skills such as grocery shopping, preparing meals, washing dishes, paying bills, coping with stress, and so many more can seem mind-boggling if we attempt them all at once.
Today, many parents often feel as though they are fighting an uphill battle just trying to teach their children everything they need to know before they leave home for college. So many times, actions are left untaught because the subject has never arisen. Learning how to pay a bill, book a flight or hotel, completing a W4 tax form, or applying for a credit card may seem monumental when the child has never undertaken that responsibility. For a child with special needs, many of the smaller tasks we take for granted reach that monumental status. No parent can ever anticipate everything his or her child will need to learn before heading out into the world (or even to nursery school for that matter). That is why a parent’s job as teacher never ends–no matter what our children might think.
Adaptive Living Skills vs. Life Skills: What Is the Difference?
You may hear the terms adaptive living skills (ADL’s) and life skills and not know the difference. ADL’s are the first skills most people teach their children and include activities such as:
- Using the bathroom
- Taking a bath or shower
- Washing hands before eating
- Making a bed
- Putting on clothes
- Tying shoelaces
- Brushing or combing hair
- Using a fork, spoon, and knife
- Brushing teeth
Children often learn these skills through a combination of imitating their parents, basic instruction, encouragement, and, yes, mistakes. A child with special needs may have a harder time learning some of these skills. Developmental delays can render the “typical” timeline useless. Your child may not be able to develop imitation skills in the same way, or at all. Instead, you will have to learn to take your cues from your child as to what he or she is ready to learn.
Life skills are more in line with following a routine, maintaining a clean home, doing laundry, balancing a bank account, paying bills, catching a bus, or performing a job. Learning how to communicate and maintain social relationships also falls into this category.
Why Teaching Life Skills to a Child with Special Needs May be Challenging
Some children with special needs learn differently or at a slower pace than their peers. Others may be physically unable to perform certain skills. Every child is unique, and the approach to teaching life skills will require personalization to the child’s capabilities.
Challenges a parent may face include:
- Slow or impaired physical development
- Difficulty in understanding or following directions
- Lack of awareness
- Easily frustrated or acting out when it does not work
- No desire to learn or accomplish tasks
- Cognitive or sensory challenges
- Lack of focus for extended times
How to Teach Life Skills to Your Child
Before you get started, please note that nothing happens overnight. Learning anything and committing it to memory takes time, and practice – for everyone.
Memory is a complex process requiring the work of multiple actions at one time. Sensory input from the environment, whether through sight, sound, touch, taste, or smell stimulates memory receptors in the brain. The brain receives the sensory input, filters out what it deems unnecessary before transferring the rest into short-term memory. Then, another filtration occurs before committing to long-term memory.
Three practical strategies you can use to teach your child include:
- Teach by verbal instructions – explain in detail one step at a time and have your child perform the task
- Teach by demonstrating – show your child how to complete a task while explaining what you are doing then have the child do the same
- Teach step by step – perform each step with your child one at a time until the entire task is complete
You can find a more detailed outline of how to complete these three strategies at https://raisingchildren.net.au/disability/play-learning/learning-behaviour/teaching-skills-to-children-with-disability.
Repetition is the key to bypassing the filtration and retaining the memory, or in this case, skill. The set of techniques below can help you teach life skills to your child:
Step 1: Analyzing the Task – Every task has different components. If you want to teach your child how to wash his or her hands, you begin by demonstrating how to turn on the faucet, explaining the difference between the hot and cold sides. Next, you show how to place hands under the running water, how to get and use soap, how to replace the bar of soap in the dish, how to rinse the soap from the hands, turning off the faucet, and, finally, drying the hands with a towel.
Step 2: Create a Visual Guide – Putting together a visual display of the steps of the task may help your child remember how to accomplish the skill you have instructed. Images or photos of the various steps enforce what they have learned. A useful tool for this is at https://www.boardmakeronline.com.
Step 3: Prompt and Fade – Prompting is hand to hand help in completing the task. Depending on your child, you may need to do this many times. It is beneficial to usual both physical and verbal prompts when teaching a skill. Then, as you fade the physical assistance, you can use verbal reminders for the steps until no more prompts are required.
Life Skills to Teach Your Child
The skills any child needs to learn can be easily categorized into different areas that are age-related. For example, self-care and early childhood tasks are quite the opposite of what you might want to teach a school-age child or teenager. A comprehensive list of 60 skills to teach your special needs child can be found at https://suchatimeasthis.com/2015/10/30/life-skills-to-teach-your-special-needs-child/.
Self-care skills are best started as early as possible, and include:
• Hand washing, teeth brushing, using the toilet, bathing, hair brushing or combing, using deodorant (when older), getting dressed, self-feeding
Social skills are sometimes difficult to teach a special needs child who may not have the necessary filters in place to know or understand if a behavior is inappropriate. Some examples of social skills include:
• Jokes, physical affection (what is and is not acceptable), getting along, what is not appropriate to say to someone (skin color, weight, appearance, disability, etc), internet skills, also include school-based skills such as sitting, listening, paying attention
Activity skills can help a special needs child engage with his or her peers. These skills may require much practice, and may include:
• Running, climbing, throwing or kicking a ball, riding a bicycle, swimming, doing a puzzle, coloring, singing, dancing, driving (when older and all the skills and sign recognition that goes with it)
Pre-vocational skills will help your child get ready for his or her first job, and may include:
• Filling out a job application, interviewing, understanding what the job entails, completing W4 forms and other employment documentation, proper workplace behavior, teamwork, understanding authority, being on time
Functional daily living skills will help your child navigate life as an adult, and include:
• Paying bills, balancing bank accounts, making a budget, grocery shopping, cooking, writing checks, housekeeping, laundry, safety, navigation/map reading, travel-related skills such as how to book flights and hotels
The Bottom Line
Only you can determine what works for your child. It will take patience and practice to teach your child new skills. Look for teaching opportunities that sometimes appear at the most unexpected times. Pick up on subtle clues from your child that they are open to learning at that time. Do not try to teach a new skill when your child is not receptive. It will only increase anxiety and frustration for both of you. Most of all, remember to add humor and fun to situations whenever possible to help facilitate the learning experience.
Additional websites used in research:
- Puberty and Hygiene: How to Support Our Children
- Puberty Help! Great Books to Help You with Questions and Challenges
- Embracing Your Child’s Best Ways of Learning 12 Different Ways to Learn
- A Complete Guide on Dental Care for Children with Special Needs
- Spa Day
- Starting Your Day off Right: Making the Most of Morning Routines
- The Importance of Teaching Children Body Safety
- Learning Life Skills: Tech Can Play a Role
- 4 Features of Total Fitness: The Foundations of Better Living
- Simple Finds: Encouraging Good Hygiene & Independence
- Safe and Easy Bathing with Lathermitts, Because Bath Time is Supposed to Be Fun
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This post originally appeared on our September/October 2018 Magazine