Dear Mama Drama:
I am trying to get my five-year-old son to be more independent in bathing and dressing himself. I have been working with him for the past two weeks on this and he still cannot do anything on his own. I am frustrated and he starts crying every time I tell him to do it on his own. I don’t understand why this is so hard or how to help him.
Building independent self-care skills for bathing, dressing, etc., is very important for five-year-olds. While as adults we view these skills as fairly basic, we have also been doing them for many, many years. Tasks that seem like one step for us, i.e. washing our hair, are really multiple steps. For your son to try to master all of these things in a short amount of time is probably quite overwhelming.
Rather than working on all independent self-help skills at once, I suggested stepping back and deciding what will be the easiest skill for him to master. Start with that skill so he can experience success quickly and build from there.
Break down the skill step by step and teach him in manageable chunks. For example, if you are teaching him to wash his hair the steps are 1) wet your hair, 2) get the shampoo bottle, 3) pour shampoo on your hand, 4) put the bottle down, 5) rub your hands together, 6) rub the shampoo all over your head/hair (this in and of itself requires lots of practice), 7) rinse the shampoo out of your hair.
Talk through the steps as you do them for him for a few days. Then talk through the steps as he does them himself. Use simple, concise language to describe each step. When he gets stuck or distracted, ask him, “What’s next?”
Making up a song or rhyme to describe the routine can make things more fun and easier to remember. Be sure to give your lots of positive recognition for his efforts throughout the process of learning. Focus on what he has done well and gently re-teach when he struggles.
Once he has master washing his hair move on to the next skill while continuing to encourage and reinforce the skill he has mastered. If he uses a hair conditioner that is a perfect second skill because he already knows the steps with the shampoo!
Clear and simple directions will make a big difference for your son as he works master these self-help tasks. Using visual schedules to show the steps can be very helpful and allows you to support him without always telling him what to do. As you fade your verbal cues, you can have him use the visual schedule to see what comes next. Visual schedules can be used to describe a broad daily routine as well as to break down the steps of tasks within that routine.