By Raising Children Network
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Upset boy with cystic fibrosis learning a new skill with his carer

Children with disability can find it hard to learn skills for daily living – for example, personal care and social skills. Here are practical strategies you can use for teaching skills like these to your child with disability.

Helping children with disability develop skills

Children with disability often take longer to learn how to do everyday things like dressing themselves and cleaning their teeth. They can also find it hard to learn social skills like sharing and taking turns.

This article takes you through three practical strategies for teaching skills to your child with disability:

  • instructions: teaching by telling
  • modelling: teaching by showing
  • teaching step by step.

Teaching skills can be pretty exhausting and might take a lot of time and patience. So before you start to teach your child, it’s a good idea to think about what you’re asking your child to do. For example, is your child physically capable of learning the skill? Does she have good enough coordination? Is she able to understand what you want her to do?

The answers to these questions will help you work out whether you can teach your child skills, which skills you can teach, and which of the strategies below best suits your situation.

It can be confusing for your child if you try to work on too many skills at once. Aim to teach one main skill at a time using the strategy that best suits your situation. You might be surprised to see some other skills developing at the same time.

Instructions: teaching by telling

This is just teaching a child how to do something by explaining what to do or how to do it.

Instructions aren’t always the best way to teach children how to do things, and children with disability can find it challenging to learn from instructions.This means it’s a good idea to do some planning when you’re teaching by instruction.

Before you start

  • Make a simple plan of the task you want your child to learn. If the task involves several parts, break down your instructions into a series of simple steps.
  • Explain exactly what you want your child to do. What behaviour are you asking for? For example, don’t say, ‘Get ready for school’. Instead say, ‘Clean your teeth, and then get dressed for school’. Try starting with 1-2 specific instructions, and then add more steps.
  • If your child has trouble understanding words, consider using a poster or pictures to explain what you want him to do.

As you go

  • Give instructions only when you have your child’s attention.
  • If your child can make eye contact, encourage her to look at you while you speak.
  • Use language that your child understands. Keep your sentences short and simple.
  • Allow plenty of time (up to one minute) for your child to respond, and then give lots of positive feedback when he follows your instruction. Say exactly what he did right.
  • Be careful about the tone of your voice. Your child can be distracted by emotional messages in your voice – for example, if you’re frustrated or upset. She might focus on these signs rather than on what you’re saying.

When the task is finished

  • Avoid giving lots of negative feedback if your child doesn’t get it right. Instead, just point out 1-2 things he can do differently next time.
  • As your child learns try giving fewer instructions or even phase out instructions completely.
  • If a planned task doesn’t work out, wait a few days and try again.
There are many reasons why a child might not follow an instruction. She might not understand. She might behave inconsistently while she’s learning, and get better with practice. Or she just might not want to do what you ask.

Modelling: teaching by showing

Children learn what to do and how to do it by watching us.

We teach our children many things by showing them what to do. For example, you’re more likely to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’ your child how to pack toys away, wash his cup or feed his pet.

You can also use modelling to teach your child how to interact with others – for example, asking a teacher for help, or introducing yourself to another person. And modelling is a great way to teach skills that are hard to explain in words, like body language and tone of voice.

Modelling might help children who have problems making eye contact with you – for example, children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and some children with severe disabilities like cerebral palsy and Fragile X syndrome. Modelling means these children can watch your actions and behaviour as you show them what to do, rather than your face as you tell them.

Before you start

  • Don’t start until your child is looking and you have her attention.
  • Get your child to watch first, and then move slowly so that he can clearly see what you’re doing.
  • If your child struggles to copy your actions while facing you, let her sit alongside you, or copy you while watching from behind.

As you go

  • Break the task down if it’s complicated. Start with the easiest part and give your child time to try on his own before you move onto the next bit.
  • Point out the important parts of what you’re doing. For example, ‘See how I am …’.
  • Use ‘thinking aloud’ comments. For example, ‘That wasn’t quite right – I think I’ll try that again’.

When the task is finished

  • Give your child the chance to practise after she has watched you. Repeat the modelling if she needs to see it again.
  • Give praise and encouragement.
It can be really hard work teaching new skills to your child with disability, and it’s normal to feel frustrated sometimes. But it’s important not to model behaviour that you don’t want to teach – for example, giving up when it’s hard, or raising your voice when you’re angry.

Teaching step by step

Some tasks or activities are complicated or need to happen in a sequence. For these, you can break down the task into smaller steps, and teach your child one step at a time.

For example, here’s how you might break down the task of dressing:

  • Get clothes out.
  • Put on underpants.
  • Put on socks.
  • Put on shirt.
  • Put on pants.
  • Put on a jumper.

Each of these steps can be broken down into parts as well. For example, you could explain ‘Put on a jumper’ like this:

  • Face the jumper the right way.
  • Pull the jumper over your head.
  • Put one arm through.
  • Put the other arm through.
  • Pull the jumper down.

The idea of step-by-step teaching is to teach one step at a time. When your child has learned the first step, you then teach the next step, then the next, and so on. You keep going until your child can do the whole task for himself. You can use instructions and modelling to help your child learn each step.

Guiding with gestures and verbal prompts
You might need to use gestures and verbal prompts – for example, putting your hands over your child’s hands and guiding her through the movements. You can phase out your help as your child starts to get the idea, but keep telling your child what to do. Then simply point or gesture.

Once your child has learned the new skill, you can gradually phase out both gestures and verbal prompts.

Teaching with backwards steps
It’s often a good idea to teach a complicated task like dressing by starting with the last step, rather than the first. This is called backwards teaching.

For example, if you want to use backwards teaching for putting on a jumper, you might help your child put the jumper over his head and put his arms in. Then get him to do the last step himself – that is, pulling the jumper down.

Once the child can pull the jumper down, get her to put her arms through by herself and then pull the jumper down. Go on like this until your child has mastered each step of the task and can do the whole thing for herself.