Why your child needs to learn how to dress
It’s the usual morning rush – you were supposed to be out the door five minutes ago, and your child is still putting on his socks. It’s no surprise that dressing your child yourself seems like the easiest and quickest option.
But your child needs to learn how to do it. The ability to dress yourself builds confidence, independence and a sense of achievement – and once your child has it mastered, it’s one less thing for you to do in the morning!
Getting dressed is about more than just putting on or taking off clothes. It helps your child develop many more skills, including:
fine motor skills as she learns to fasten buttons and zips
gross motor skills as she stands on one leg to pull on a pair of pants
cognitive skills as she remembers what bits of clothing go on first, and builds the patience and attention to finish the task
- language as she names types of clothes, colours and sizes
- awareness of time and space as she learns to dress for certain occasions and weather conditions.
Teaching your child to dress
Learning to dress requires patience, persistence and practice from both you and your child.
It also involves getting to know the things you have to do to get dressed:
- picking out clothes that are right for the time of day, the weather and what you’re doing that day – the tutu might not be the best thing for a bushwalk!
- deciding what to wear – the dinosaur t-shirt or the truck t-shirt today?
- putting on and taking off clothes and shoes
- doing up buttons or zips, getting collars and waistbands comfy, and getting socks on the right way around.
Often very young children will start to be aware of their clothing by pulling off easy-to-remove items such as socks, shoes or hats. Sometimes they’ll then try to put them on again. You can build on this early awareness by naming the items of clothing your child’s taken off and the body part those clothes go on.
You can begin to include your older baby or toddler in the dressing process by giving him a limited choice of clothes, and naming them as you put them on him.
When you decide it’s time for your child to really start learning this skill, it can help to have some easy clothes on hand. These might include:
- loose, elastic-waisted pants – these are good if your child is also toilet training or can’t manage zips and buttons
- clothes with velcro or large buttons and button holes
- jumpers, t-shirts and underwear with logo or pictures on the front to help your child work out front from back
- clothes that are easy and comfortable for your child to move in.
Step by step
Getting dressed can have a lot of steps. It helps to break it down into smaller steps – for example, putting on underwear, then t-shirt, shorts, socks and shoes.
Each of the steps in a dressing task can also be broken down, depending on your child’s skill and age. So putting on shorts might be:
- face shorts the right way (try this at 3½ years)
- hold onto the front of the waistband (3 years)
- push one leg at a time through the leg holes while also holding pants (4½ years)
- pull the shorts up (3½ years).
Talking your child through each step lets her know what to do and includes her in the process. In the early stages, simple words or phrases (for example, ‘shirt on’) are OK. You can say more as your child’s language develops (for example, ‘push your arm through the sleeve’).
A good way to teach your child to dress is to break each task down into small steps and teach him the last step first. Once he can do the last step of the task, teach him the second last step, then the third last step and so on. For example, when putting on shorts, you might help your child face the shorts the right way, hold the waistband and put his legs through the leg holes. Then teach him the last step – pulling up the shorts to his waist by himself. Once your child can do this, teach him to put his legs through the leg holes and pull his shorts up. You can keep working your way backwards through the steps until your child has mastered them all and can put his shorts on for himself.
A big advantage of this approach is that often the most rewarding thing about a task is getting it finished – and your child gets to this reward sooner when she masters the last step first.
When your child can almost dress himself (usually from three years and up), you can check whether he understands the steps by asking, ‘What’s the first thing you need to put on?’ If he can’t remember, you can help get him started by reminding him.
If your child’s having trouble, it can be tempting to jump in to help. But give her a chance to work it out for herself, and cheer her on as she tries – she’ll get a real confidence boost when she does it on her own. Try to step in only when she really needs your help.
Tips for helping your child dress successfully
- If you’re positive and supportive, your child is more likely to cooperate. So a lot of praise will go a long way, even if your child has put his pants on backwards.
- Talk about the weather when you and your child are choosing clothes. Ask her whether it’s hot or cold, raining or sunny.
- Teach your child the difference between dirty and clean clothes – for example, ‘Dirty clothes go in the laundry basket, and we don’t wear them again until they’re back in the drawer’. You can use some simple guidelines, such as wearing clean underwear and socks every day.
- Young children like to make decisions about what to wear, but you can guide them – for example, you might like to let your child choose between two t-shirts. Older or more mature children might be able to choose their own clothing.
- Try to allow a realistic amount of time for getting dressed. If your child needs 20 minutes to dress, don’t try and do it in 10 minutes. If you’re often rushed getting dressed in the morning, it can be a good idea to choose clothing with your child the night before.
- Have your child sit down for dressing tasks. Sitting on the floor might be easier than sitting on a chair or bed for some children.
- Store clothing in drawers and cupboards your child can get to easily. Label clothing drawers with a picture or word to describe the clothing that’s in the drawer.
Teach undressing first – it’s easier than dressing, which needs more coordination, planning and body awareness.
- Wear clothes that have clear front and back clues – for example, a picture on the front and a tag on the back.
- Practise getting dressed when you and your child aren’t in a hurry or tired. When you’re in a hurry, let your child do the easy tasks and help him with the difficult tasks.
Tying up shoelaces is a skill that most five-year-olds are still learning. Many children starting school can’t do up their shoelaces. It might be helpful to start teaching your child how to do up her shoelaces as part of getting her ready for school. If you need help teaching your child how to do up shoelaces, you could try visiting an occupational therapist.
Our handy illustrated guide to tying shoelaces outlines some easy steps for teaching your child this skill.
Children with developmental issues
Some children with developmental issues or other disabilities can have trouble getting dressed or might not be able to tolerate the texture of different materials on their skin. If your child continues to have difficulty with dressing, a qualified occupational therapist who works specifically with children might be able to help. These professionals can assist with strategies to teach your child to dress, or provide equipment to make the process easier.
Development of dressing skills
Here’s a rough guide to dressing skills at different ages. Keep in mind, though, that every child is different and will develop skills at different rates.
- Holds arms out for sleeves and puts foot up for shoes
- Pushes arms through sleeves and legs through pants
- Likes to pull socks and shoes off
- Removes unfastened coat
- Removes shoes when laces are untied
- Helps push down pants
- Finds armholes in t-shirts
|Two and a half years
- Pulls down pants with elastic waist
- Tries to put on socks
- Puts on front-buttoned shirt (without doing up buttons)
- Unbuttons one large button
- Puts on t-shirt with little help
- Puts on shoes without fastening (might be wrong foot)
- Puts on socks (might have trouble getting heel in the right place)
- Pulls down pants on his own
- Zips and unzips without joining or separating zipper
- Removes t-shirt without assistance
- Buttons large front buttons
|Three and a half years
- Finds front of clothing
- Snaps or hooks clothing in front (press studs and zips)
- Unzips/zips front zipper on jacket (separating zipper)
- Puts on gloves
- Buttons series of 3-4 buttons
- Unbuckles shoes or belt
- Removes t-shirts on her own
- Buckles shoes or belt
- Connects jacket zipper and zips up zipper
- Puts on socks the right way
- Puts on shoes with little help
- Knows front and back of clothing
|Four and a half years
- Steps into pants and pulls them up
- Puts belt in loop
- Dresses without your help or supervision
- Puts on t-shirt or jumper correctly each time
Table adapted from Dunn Klein, M. (1983). Pre-dressing skills (rev. edn). Tucson: Communication Skill Builders.