Tips for Teaching Your Preschooler Important Self Help Skills

As your preschooler grows and matures, there are certain self-care skills—washing hands, getting dressed, using utensils, among others—that she'll need to learn to do on her own. These everyday tasks are things we adults often take for granted, but they are things that need to be taught and practiced.

Every child develops at their own speed. As with any developmental milestones, these are simply guidelines. By age 5, your child should be able to do all of these things, but there could be a good reason why he isn't.

If you feel your preschooler has a significant delay, contact your pediatrician.

How to Encourage Your Child to Reach Self-Care Milestones

preschool self help skills

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Whenever your child tries something new, it's important to focus on the journey (the method) and not the destination (the result). In the beginning, your child is bound to make mistakes. It's your job as a parent to encourage and teach, not necessarily step in and do the task for them.

Even if a button winds up in the wrong hole or snacks spill onto the carpet instead of in the bowl, learning to become independent is an important part of personal and social development.

Getting Dressed and Undressed

Mother with toddler dressing happy son at home
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Although the act of getting dressed and undressed may seem tricky at first, it really doesn't require too much coordination, rather a lot of patience on both of your parts. While your child is likely to master taking his clothes off before he can put them on, the latter skill isn't too far behind.

The key here is to let your preschooler practice often and to dress him in clothing conducive to someone learning. That means things like buttons, zippers, and belts may be best avoided in the beginning and introduced as he begins to master it.

Knowing how to get himself dressed and undressed (or at the very least, being able to pull pants up and down) is a sign of potty training readiness.

Learning to Use Utensils

preschooler eating a bowl of cereal.

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Even if your child isn't a picky eater, the mealtimes can be an "interesting" experience.

A 4-year-old should have enough dexterity to use a fork and spoon (and a butter knife with assistance), but it doesn't mean she will. Partially because it is easier to use her hands, but also because she may not know when it is appropriate. Some foods are eaten with utensils, but others (corn on the cob, chicken nuggets) aren't.

If your child is still eating with her hands, give her a fork or a spoon and explain you'd like her to use these instead. If she has trouble, help her out. As she masters using utensils, start to work on basic table manners like not playing with her food (something that often occurs when a child eats with her hands).

Brushing Teeth

preschool age girls brushing teeth at sinks

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While it may appear that your preschooler is doing a good job of brushing his teeth, this is something you'll want to be a part of for a while, at least until he is 6 years old (or whenever your dentist says it is appropriate).

It may look like your preschooler is getting his teeth clean, but maneuvering through that tiny mouth can be tricky, and since you can't see that's he's actually getting between every crevice, this is something you'll need to do. Still, you can encourage his independence having him brush before or after you do it.

Set the timer for two minutes and try to focus on one minute for the top and one for the bottom. If your child can spit out well, use a pea-size drop of fluoride toothpaste.

Lending a Hand Around the House

boy playing with blocks

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There are many simple chores your preschooler can do around the house that will not only lend you a hand but add to her growing independence and give her a feeling of accomplishment. Younger preschoolers can clean up their toys and help sweep up the floor, while older children can help feed a pet or make their bed.

The important thing to remember about chores is that in the beginning, your little one's work will not be perfect. The result is not what you are looking for here, rather the effort that they are giving.

While you might be tempted to refold the towels your little one took care of, resist the urge and praise what they have done.

Using the Toilet

Child on toilet with parent encouraging them

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Potty training (or toilet learning) is the self-care skill that the majority of parents look forward to the most. Between 2 and 3 is the most popular age for starting potty training, but some children simply aren't ready until they are at least 4.

Most boys will show a preference for standing up but start them training by having them sit down. Boy or girl, the key is to look for readiness signs like following directions and a longer attention span. Once your child is using the toilet regularly (if she's been using a potty chair, you'll want to transition her to the regular toilet), don't surprised if she has accidents.

It takes about six months for a child to fully master potty training (even more so for staying dry at night).​

Washing Hands

Close-up of mother assisting daughter in washing hands at home
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While your child is learning to use the toilet, you should also teach him how to wash his hands. A child may not have a problem washing his hands when they are clearly dirty but may balk at the task when they look clean.

Explain that hand washing isn't only for keeping his hands clean, but it helps get rid of the germs that make them sick. It's important that your child learns this skill on his own—you won't always be around to make sure he does it the right way.

Teach him to sing a song while he washes (the alphabet song sung twice works well) and the right amount of soap to use. You will also have to teach him the difference between the hot and cold water taps and how to dry his hands when he is finished.

Preparing Food for Themselves

Young girl making pizza with parents in kitchen
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You aren't going to let your preschooler fry up some eggs, but there are certain foods that lend themselves to little person-preparation.

Young preschoolers can make sandwiches under the eye of an adult, adding meats and cheese to bread and spreading on a condiment or peanut butter. Older children can get their own breakfast in the morning—leave out cereal boxes and milk on a reachable shelf in the refrigerator.

Spills might not be welcome, but they are part of the learning process. Invite your child to come and cook with you in the kitchen. Taking time to help your child become familiar in the kitchen through simple tasks like stirring and pouring will increase their comfort level and give them a head start when they get older.

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