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 they will need to learn to do on their 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 they aren'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, but rather a lot of patience on both of your parts. While your child is likely to master taking clothes off before they 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 them in clothing conducive to someone learning. That means things like buttons, zippers, and belts may be best avoided in the beginning and introduced as they begin to master independent dressing.

Being able to independently pull their pants up and down is a skill your child will need before you can start potty training.

Learning to Use Utensils

preschooler eating a bowl of cereal.

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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 they will. This is partially because it is easier to use their hands, but also because they may not know when it is appropriate to use utensils. Some foods are eaten with utensils, but others aren't.

If your child is still eating with their hands, give them a fork or a spoon and explain you'd like them to use these instead. If they have trouble, help them out. As they master using utensils, start to work on basic table manners like not playing with their food (something that often occurs when a child eats with their 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 their teeth, this is something you'll want to be a part of for a while, at least until they are 7 or 8 years old (or whenever your dentist says it is appropriate).

It may look like your preschooler is getting their teeth clean, but maneuvering through that tiny mouth can be tricky. Since you can't see that your child is actually getting between every crevice, this is something you'll need to do. Still, you can encourage their independence having them 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. Use just a smear of fluoride toothpaste until your child is 3. Once your child has turned 3, you can use a pea-sized amount.

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 their growing independence and give them a feeling of accomplishment. Younger preschoolers can clean up their toys and help sweep 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 they have been using a potty chair, you'll want to transition them to the regular toilet), don't surprised if they have 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 them how to wash their hands. A child may not have a problem washing their hands when they are clearly dirty, but may balk at the task when hands 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 their own—you won't always be around to make sure they do it the right way.

Teach them to sing a song while they wash (the alphabet song sung twice works well) and the right amount of soap to use. You will also have to teach them the difference between the hot and cold water taps and how to dry their hands when they are 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 kid preparation. Young preschoolers can make sandwiches, 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 cereal boxes out and milk on a reachable shelf in the refrigerator.

Spills are part of the learning process. Instead of scolding your child, remind them that accidents happen and clean them up together.

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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  1. American Academy of Pediatrics. Brushing up on oral health: Never too early to start. Updated February 1, 2019.

  2. American Academy of Pediatrics. FAQ: Fluoride and children. Updated May 4, 2020.