As parents and caregivers, one of our primary goals is to empower our children with essential life skills that foster independence and self-confidence. Dressing skills are a fundamental aspect of daily life, and helping your child master this skill not only contributes to their self-efficacy but also boosts their self-esteem.
In this article, SPD occupational therapist Bryant Ting highlights some strategies that parents can use to improve their child’s dressing skills, ensuring they are prepared to tackle this everyday task with confidence.
Dressing skills: What it involves
Infants rely on their caregivers to help them get dressed. In toddlerhood, they gain autonomy by removing simple clothing items on their own. By pre-school age, children can put on and take off basic clothing, while school-aged kids could handle more complex fasteners. Late childhood sees mastery, as children can manage various clothing independently.
Before children could learn to dress themselves independently, certain foundational skills need to be developed. For instance, fine motor skills which is crucial for buttoning and zipping. This also involves hand-eye co-ordination and finger agility. Body awareness helps them to understand the positioning of body parts and the clothing orientation so that they know how to put them on. Hand strength is necessary for tasks like pulling garments over the head. Sequential thinking, and understanding step-by-step sequences, aid in dressing in the right order. Lastly, hand co-ordination from both sides of body also plays a crucial role in wearing a shirt as the child will need to use both hands simultaneously to put on one.
These are some simple strategies that parents can adopt to help young children be adept at dressing themselves.
Encourage and promote independence
Allow your child to take the lead and complete tasks to the best of their ability. While it is essential to offer support, promoting independence fosters a sense of accomplishment and self-reliance.
Establish a consistent routine
A structured routine is a cornerstone of effective skill development. Set a fixed schedule for dressing, such as in the morning and before bedtime. Consistency helps your child become familiar with the process, thus making it easier to remember each step.
Choose appropriate clothing
Start with clothing that is easy to manage. Pants with elastic waistbands and shirts with loose-fitting garments are great choices for beginners. Gradually introduce more complex clothing items as your child’s skills progress. For example, when picking out clothes for the day, opt for clothing with an elastic waistband and a t-shirt with no buttons. This allows your child to practice pulling up their pants independently and easily sliding the t-shirt over their head. When your child has mastered these skills, you could increase the difficulty by allowing them to wear appropriate size shirt and shirt with buttons.
Break down the process and steps
Breakdown the dressing process into manageable steps. Begin with underwear/diapers, then move on to pants, shirts, socks, and shoes. Encourage your child to complete each step before proceeding to the next, offering support and guidance when needed.
One effective method to practice dressing is called the backward chaining method. It is a teaching method that is often used to help children learn complex tasks by breaking the task down into multiple sub-steps and allowing your child to participate from the last step, then working their way backward. For instance, putting on a shirt requires the child to pull the shirt over the head, put their arms through the sleeves, and finally pull the shirt down. What parents could do is provide support for the first two steps and allow the child to practice the last step, which is to pull down the shirt. As the child gets more confident, parents could introduce more steps for the child to practice.
Visual cues can be invaluable. Create a visual schedule or a simple picture chart that illustrates the dressing sequence. For children struggling with buttoning and locating the armholes of the shirt, having a mirror would provide them with immediate visual feedback when they could see their actions and movements.
These visual aids help your child to understand the order of tasks and promote independence.
Practice Fine Motor skills
Fine motor skills are essential in developing the dressing skills for children such as buttoning and zipping. Incorporating activities into your child’s daily routine that target these skills can greatly assist in their dressing abilities.
Here are some examples of household activities that help improve fine motor skills for dressing:
Mealtime: While your child assists with food preparation, they can practice skills like manipulating sandwich bags by opening and closing them or using a butter knife to spread condiments. When eating finger food, he/she can use fingers to pick it up. These tasks foster fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination.
Parent-Child bonding time: String beads onto a shoelace to create a decorative item, pick up Pom Pom balls with tweezers or fingers, complete interlocking puzzles together, play with putty and squeezes sponges during water play to develop his/her hand strength.
Some children may have sensory sensitivities that make certain clothing textures uncomfortable to wear, leading to limited practice and independence. Pay attention to their preferences and choose clothing that suits their sensory needs. If your child is sensitive to clothing tags, there are clothing with tags on the outside of the shirt that does not touch your child’s back. Alternatively, you may try to remove the clothing tag or sew a piece of cloth over it to minimise irritation.
Praise your child’s efforts and achievements. Positive reinforcement can boost their confidence and motivation to continue practicing dressing skills.
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Case-Smith, J. (1996). Fine motor outcomes in preschool children who receive occupational therapy services. The American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 50(1), 52-61.
Hayton, J., Wall, K., & Dimitriou, D. (2020). Get your coat: examining the development of independent dressing skills in young children with visual impairment, Down syndrome and typically developing children. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 24(3), 235-250.