Helping children learn new skills as part of behaviour management
When children can do the things they want or need to do, they’re more likely to cooperate. They’re also less likely to get frustrated and behave in challenging ways. This means that helping children learn new skills can be an important part of managing behaviour.
When children learn new skills, they also build independence, confidence and self-esteem. So helping children learn new skills can be an important part of supporting overall development too.
Here’s an example: if your child doesn’t know how to set the table, they might refuse to do it – because they can’t do it. But if you show your child how to set the table, they’re more likely to do it. They’ll also get a sense of achievement and feel good about helping to get your family meal ready.
There are 3 key ways you can help children learn everything from basic self-care to more complicated social skills:
- step by step.
Remember that skills take time to develop, and practice is important. But if you have any concerns about your child’s behaviour, development or ability to learn new skills, see your GP or your child and family health nurse.
When you’re helping your child learn a skill, you can use more than one teaching method at a time. For example, your child might find it easier to understand instructions if you also break down the skill or task into steps. Likewise, modelling might work better if you give instructions at the same time.
Through watching you, your child learns what to do and how to do it. When this happens, you’re ‘modelling’.
Modelling is usually the most efficient way to help children learn a new skill. For example, you’re more likely to show rather than tell your child how to make a bed, sweep a floor or throw a ball.
Modelling can work for social skills. Prompting your child with phrases like ‘Thank you, Mum’, or ‘More please, Dad’ is an example of this.
You can also use modelling to show your child skills and behaviour that involve non-verbal communication, like body language and tone of voice. For example, you can show how you turn to face people when you talk to them, or look them in the eyes and smile when you thank them.
Children also learn by watching other children. For example, your child might try new foods with other children at preschool even though they might not do this at home with you.
How to make modelling work well
- Get your child’s attention, and make sure your child is looking at you.
- Move slowly through the steps of the skill so that your child can clearly see what you’re doing.
- Point out the important parts of what you’re doing – for example, ‘See how I am …’. You might want to do this later if you’re modelling social skills like greeting a guest.
- Give your child plenty of opportunities to practise the skill once they’ve seen you do it – for example, ‘OK, now you have a go’.
You can help your child learn how to do something by explaining what to do or how to do it.
How to give good instructions
- Give instructions only when you have your child’s attention.
- Use your child’s name and encourage your child to look at you while you speak.
- Get down to your child’s physical level to speak.
- Remove any background distractions like the TV.
- Use language that your child understands. Keep your sentences short and simple.
- Use a clear, calm voice.
- Use gestures to emphasise things that you want your child to notice.
- Gradually phase out your instructions and reminders as your child gets better at remembering how to do the skill or task.
A picture that shows your child what to do can help them understand the instructions. Your child can check the picture when they’re ready to work through the instructions independently. This can also help children who have trouble understanding words.
Sometimes your child won’t follow instructions. This can happen for many reasons. Your child might not understand. Your child might not have the skills to do what you ask every time. Or your child just might not want to do what you’re asking. You can help your child learn to cooperate by balancing instructions and requests.
Step-by-step guidance: breaking down tasks
Some skills or tasks are complicated or involve a sequence of actions. You can break these skills or tasks into smaller steps. The idea is to help children learn the steps that make up a skill or task, one at a time.
How to do step-by-step guidance
- Start with the easiest step if you can.
- Show your child the step, then let them try it.
- Give your child more help with the rest of the task or do it for them.
- Give your child opportunities to practise the step.
- When your child can do the step reliably and without your help, teach them the next step, and so on.
- Keep going until your child can do the whole skill or task for themselves.
An example of step-by-step guidance
Here’s how you could break down the task of getting dressed:
- Get clothes out.
- Put on underpants.
- Put on socks.
- Put on shirt.
- Put on pants.
- Put on a jumper.
You could break down each of these steps into parts as well. This can help if a task is complex or if your child has learning difficulties. For example, ‘Put on a jumper’ could be broken down like this:
- Face the jumper the right way.
- Pull the jumper over your head.
- Put one arm through.
- Put your other arm through.
- Pull the jumper down.
Forwards or backwards steps?
You can help your child learn steps by moving:
- forwards – teaching your child the first step, then the next step and so on
- backwards – helping your child with all the steps until the last step, then teaching the last step, then the second last step and so on.
Learning backwards has some advantages. Your child is less likely to get frustrated because it’s easier and quicker to learn the last step. Also the task is finished as soon as your child completes the step. Often the most rewarding thing about a job or task is getting it finished!
In the earlier example, you might teach your child to get dressed by starting with a jumper. You’d help your child get dressed until it came to the final step – the jumper.
You might help your child put the jumper over their head and put their arms in – then you might let your child pull the jumper down by themselves. Once your child can do this, you might encourage your child to put their arms through by themselves and then pull the jumper down. This would go on until your child can do each step, so they can do the whole task for themselves.
When your child is learning a new physical skill like getting dressed, it can help to put your hands over your child’s hands and guide your child through the movements. Phase out your help as your child begins to get the idea, but keep saying what to do. Then simply point or gesture. When your child is confident with the skill, you can phase out gestures too.
Tips to help children learn new skills
No matter which of the methods you use, these tips will help your child learn new skills:
- Make sure that your child has the physical ability and developmental maturity to handle the new skill. You might need to teach your child some basic skills before working on more complicated skills.
- Consider timing and environment. Children learn better when they’re alert and focused, so it can be good to work on new skills in the morning or after rest time. It’s also good to avoid distractions, like the TV or younger siblings.
- Give your child the chance to practise the skill. Skills take time to learn, and the more your child practises, the better.
- Give lots of praise and encouragement, especially in the early stages of learning. Praise your child when they follow your instruction, practise the skill or try hard, and say exactly what your child did well.
- Avoid giving negative feedback. Rather than saying your child has done it ‘wrong’, use words and gestures to explain 1-2 things your child could do differently next time.
Remember that behaviour might get worse before it improves, especially if you’re asking more from your child. A positive and constructive approach can help – for example, ‘Well done for getting the knots on your laces right! Would you like to do the loops together today?’