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Mama Drama: Teaching Independence

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.

~Confused Mama

(photo credit)

Dear Confused:

Building independent self-care skills for bathing, dressing, etc., is very important for five year olds. While we, as parents, view these skills as fairly basic, we have to remember that we have 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. Then talk through the steps as he does them himself. Use simple, concise language to describe each step. After a few days of this have him tell you the steps to wash his hair. Then have him talk through the steps as he washes his hair. 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 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 (pictures of the task) 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.

Motherhood is an amazing journey that can have its share of Mama Drama. The Mama Drama column runs on Fridays with everyday mothering questions from readers and answers providing strategies to tackle these daily challenges. Send your questions and challenges to [email protected], and your Mama Drama could be in next week’s column! All emails and identifying information will remain confidential.

Mama Drama: Morning Routines and Evening Hysteria

Dear Mama Drama:
Every morning we struggle with my five-year-old son to get him ready for school and out of the house on time. He needs lots of one on one support to complete even the most basic tasks such as getting dressed. He can’t remember what to do next and often stops to play with toys or sing the song on the radio.
~Tired of running late

Dear Tired:
Many children need extra support getting through their morning routine. When we stop to think about all the small steps involved, it can be quite daunting. As adults we have practiced these routines thousands of times throughout our lives. Our children are often still figuring out what each step is and how to keep track of it all.

Creating a visual schedule for your child is a great place to start. You can use pictures of your son doing each activity, clip art, pictures from the web or cut out of magazines. Add captions or directions with the picture even if your child does not read well yet. Start with the basics such as getting dressed, bathroom routine, and heading out the door. Then break these down into the steps they require. Having separate charts for each of these tasks helps to keep it simple.

An example is