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Getting Ready for the Day: Teaching Functional Life Skills

Getting Ready for the Day: Teaching Functional Life Skills

Published: Apr. 15, 2021Updated: Mar. 21, 2024

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In this second installment of our Functional Life Skills series, we’re focusing on helping our kids gain independence with their morning rituals: all the little tasks we need to do to be healthy and prepared to face our day. (If you missed them, here are parts one and three).

As we know, learning the nitty-gritty functional life skills that guide us toward true independence is no small feat, so we’ve reached out to a special education teacher and an occupational therapist to talk through the best strategies to support our kids. Because let’s face it — these skills are hard for a reason.

Sarah Cacciato, a special education teacher and educational therapist at L&S Special Education Consulting and Services, puts it this way: “Teaching hygiene can be difficult because it’s not very motivating and doesn’t seem particularly fun (for anyone).” So on that note, let’s dive in!

"My advice to families first and foremost is don't give up." — Sarah Cacciato

How to Help Kids Learn Routines

If, like some of us, you’ve been working on mastering the same task in different ways for several years, that’s okay! There’s always another way in!

1. Read Social Stories

Cacciato says that Social Stories can help kids understand why hygiene is important in a relatable way. (There are also plenty of online resources on hygiene for tweens and teens, such as this one that uses humor to talk about body odor.) Autism Little Learners has several social stories for younger kids, such as this packet on washing hands. And even if social stories aren’t your kid’s thing, the “why” is a great place to start.

2. Break tasks down into small steps

Teach only one skill at a time, and tackle it as you would an academic skill: focus on one step at a time and practice it piece by piece. When your child masters one part of the skill, celebrate; then gradually add more parts. Steps to Independence (Teaching Everyday Skills to Children with Special Needs), a book by Bruce L. Baker and Alan J. Brightman, does an excellent job of breaking down household chores and explaining how to teach them.

3. Use visual reminders

Task strips can be very helpful in illustrating how to break each life skill down into explicit parts, Cacciato explains. It’s also great if you can make it engaging!

  • Make your own task strip showing images of the child’s actual items and/or photos of them completing each step.

  • Use engaging items when practicing: buy a fun hair brush or toothbrush and their own special shampoo or toothpaste.

  • Incorporate small rewards or reinforcers when your child is successful at each step, and larger rewards after all steps are completed.

    • Be inventive: Fellow parent Karen tells us one thing that worked for her son was taking a video of him doing a task so he could watch and rewatch himself doing it.
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Tips for Helping Kids Get Dressed Independently

Kelli Smith (MS, OTR/L), occupational therapist and founder of Abundance Therapies, reminds us that life skills like brushing teeth and hair and taking showers or baths are all sensory-based, so they can easily be challenging from a sensory perspective. First, consider why your kid doesn’t like a specific task. “Is it that they don’t like the bath because they don’t like the water, or they’re scared because they don’t have the postural control to sit in a tub?” Smith says.
“Putting on our shoes is all about body prep, and it’s challenging from a gross motor perspective. Do they have the balance or the right chair to help them sit upright and feel safe? Can they bring their leg up to put the shoe on? Their resistance is telling us about their neurological development.” — Kelli Smith, OT & founder of Abundance Therapies

1. Desensitize

Before you work on something challenging, start by doing a little prep to wake up their body: have your child squeeze their arms from their shoulders to their hands and rub their fingers together, or facilitate proprioceptive input by wrapping them in a blanket, rolling around on the floor, or cuddling — whatever they need to get some tactile input.

2. Make it fun and do things together

Strengthening the fine motor skills we need for daily hygiene happens throughout the day, Smith says. “Holding a spoon to stir a thick cake batter works on literally every fine motor skill an OT would teach, including finger grasp and pronation and supination of the wrist. Not to mention working on math!”

3. Drink water

Seriously! Smith tells us that she begins many of her sessions by having kids do just that. “They have to hold a cup with one hand, and bring a water bottle to the cup with the other hand. Can they open the bottle and bring their hands together again to tip the bottle and pour the water in? Can they put their lips to the cup and sip and have a lip seal? Or can they start by clapping the bottle against their other hand? Sometimes just holding the bottle is enough — merely bringing both hands to midline creates neuroconnections.”

4. Practice

You can work on the functional aspect of brushing in a few different ways, Smith says:

  • Let your kid practice on a stuffed animal, a doll, or maybe even you.
  • Use a brush on a different part of their bodies: they can try brushing their arm or leg with a small Wilbarger brush to desensitize their proprioceptive system and get used to the physical act of brushing while experiencing the sensation.

5. Play dress-up

Smith tells us that when she’s working on toileting skills with clients, she doesn’t do the work in the bathroom. Start by using something your child might have fun playing with: a grass skirt or a silly pair of pants. Put it on over their clothes and work on pulling up and down the outer garment.

6. Scale it down

“Remember that things are stressful now,” Smith says. “They’re stressed and they’re seeing us stressed — so take ten minutes and have them work on only one thing. Put the shoe in their lap and have them pick it up and hold it. That’s one step. If they’re able to hold it with one hand and put it on their foot, that’s a whole other skill.”

7. Keep trying

“Many of us have been in therapy with our kids since basically birth,” Smith says, “so chances are we’ve tried something before. Remember that you can revisit something that didn’t work before and trial it again. The sensory system changes; when you go through growth spurts, it changes — so it might be different this time.”

Think Outside the Box

As we all know by now, the best wisdom usually comes from other parents. Check out the Just a Different Life YouTube channel, which was created by a very large adoptive family whose parents homeschool and share videos showing how they teach everything from seizure modeling to — you guessed it — teaching functional life skills.

This vlog on using adaptive equipment to get ready for the day is a great example of why sometimes all you need is a better tool.

  • A bidet attachment can help an older kid with independent wiping.
  • A button pull is an under-celebrated tool for getting shirts and pants buttoned.
  • The PourThing can allow independence in pouring milk into a glass or bowl of cereal independently.
  • This watch sends a vibration signal when it’s time to go to the bathroom.
  • This cool hair tie is a longer version of the Pulleez, which allows a kid to slip it over their head and pull to create an easy ponytail.

So go ahead: share your wisdom and tell us what’s working for you and your kid! We’d love to know.

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How to Help Kids Learn Routines

Tips for Helping Kids Get Dressed Independently

Think Outside the Box

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Undivided Editorial TeamStaff

Reviewed by Undivided Editorial Team


  • Kelli Smith, MS, OTR/L, occupational therapist and founder of Abundance Therapies
  • Sarah Cacciato, Special education teacher and educational therapist at L&S Special Education Consulting and Services

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