Teaching Your Child Self-Care Skills

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Elizabeth in the school cafeteria opening her plastic ware

By the time your child starts grade school, she's probably learned the basics of how to dress herself, wash her hands, brush her teeth, and use the toilet independently. But now that she's older, some of the self-care skills she needs to master are a little more complicated, such as:

  • Taking a bath or shower by herself
  • Washing, combing, and brushing her hair
  • Choosing a hair style and maintaining it

It's important to focus on these grooming and hygiene activities during the early years of grade school, when other children her age are learning the same skills, as poor self-care has social implications. Because your daughter may have to do these things primarily by touch, she'll probably need some extra practice before she feels confident. You can help her by giving her specific feedback about her appearance and plenty of opportunities for practice.

Concepts of Modesty and Privacy

At this point in your child's life, it's important for her to understand the concept of modesty and the difference between public and private behavior. She may not realize, or care, that others can see her if she's using the toilet with the bathroom door open or the window shade up. Explain why taking a bath, undressing, scratching an itch, and various other behaviors are supposed to be done in private. That may seem silly to her or hard to understand at first, but with your help she'll begin to recognize what behavior isn't acceptable in front of others.

It might be helpful to make a checklist of what she needs to do to ensure privacy; for example:

  • Close the bathroom door and pull down the window shade before you use the toilet or undress to take a bath or shower.
  • Close your bedroom door before you take off your clothes to put on your pajamas.
  • Be sure your zippers are zipped and buttons are buttoned when you get dressed in the morning.
  • Do the same thing before you leave the bathroom.

Tips for Organizing the Bathroom

  • Assign specific places for all the things your child uses.
  • If several bottles are the same size and shape, add a visual or tactile label to identify each one. For example, put a rubber band around the shampoo bottle and leave the conditioner unmarked.
  • Keep her bath towel where it will stay dry while she's bathing but be within easy reach.

If your child has low vision, keep in mind the importance of using color contrast to make objects stand out. It can be hard to find a bar of white soap in a white soap dish on a white counter. Putting the soap in a dark-colored soap dish will make it much easier for your child to find.

Bathing

When you teach your child a new skill or routine, it's a good idea to break down the activity into its different parts. List the steps, and then take them one at a time to see if they need to be adapted in any way for your daughter. For example, here's a list of the basic steps she has to be able to do to take a bath or shower by herself:

  • Locate a clean towel and place it in a particular location near the shower or tub
  • Regulate the water temperature before stepping into the shower or tub
  • Know how to adjust the temperature quickly if the water suddenly gets too cool or too hot
  • Wet and soap the washcloth to clean one part of her body
  • Rinse and soap the washcloth to clean each part of her body
  • Rinse her body thoroughly
  • When she's finished, rinse the washcloth and wring out the excess water
  • Turn off the shower (or let the tub drain)
  • Dry her body thoroughly
  • Hang up the wet washcloth and damp towel

If your child isn't sure how to get the right amount of shampoo or conditioner on her hair, show her how to put a small amount in her hand and then rub the liquid into her hair. Also explain that if one small amount doesn't create enough lather, she can add a little more shampoo to her hand and repeat the hand-to-head routine.

Hair Care

Many children, boys as well as girls, have strong opinions about the style and length of their hair. Whatever style your child chooses—and you can live with—let her know that you expect her to take responsibility for brushing, combing, and keeping her hair looking neat. If she's not adept at it yet, show her how by using either hand-under-hand or hand-over-hand techniques. If your daughter uses barrettes or scrunchies, have her put them in a specific place, perhaps in a little basket or box on her dresser, so she always knows where to find them.

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