Tools for Teaching Life Skills to Children With Special Needs

Father washing dishes with his daughter

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In the special needs world, the most basic skills are called adaptive living skills, or ADLs. More advanced skills, such as doing laundry, catching a bus, or following a daily schedule, are sometimes called "life skills" or "skills of daily living." While these skills aren't critical for survival, they are extremely important for anyone who plans to work and recreate in a modern community.

Everyone needs certain skills to simply get through the day. Skills related to eating, dressing, and personal hygiene are absolute requirements for anyone wishing to live even a semi-independent life. In addition to these very basic skills are the many skills we use each day to navigate life at home and in the community.

Most people learn ADLs and many of the skills of daily living at a young age. They learn through a combination of instruction, imitation, and trial and error. For example, a child may learn to bathe himself by remembering the experience of being bathed, by imitating a parent's actions, and by discovering for herself that if you run very hot water for too long the water will be too hot for comfort.

Why Life Skills Are Taught Differently to Children With Special Needs

Children with special needs such as autism, learning disabilities, or ADHD, learn differently from typical children. That's because children with special needs:

  • May not develop imitation skills until much later than average—or not at all
  • May not develop the ability to understand and express themselves with spoken language until much later than average—or not at all
  • May not develop the desire to "be just like" or impress someone else with their skills and abilities
  • May find it difficult to follow spoken instruction—particularly when the instruction includes multiples steps
  • May be unaware of what is "expected" or "normal" behavior
  • May lack the ability to focus on a task for extended periods of time
  • May be easily frustrated
  • May have sensory or cognitive challenges that stand in the way of success

If your child has some or all of these challenges, they may not just "get" daily living skills as their typically developing peers do. But that doesn't mean they can't learn most or even all of those skills with the right teaching approach.

3 Steps for Teaching Life Skills to Children With Special Needs

Teachers, therapists, and parents have developed a set of techniques that, together or separately, can be very effective in teaching life skills to children with special needs. And the good news is that these techniques can be equally effective for teaching just about any skill to just about anyone—no matter what their abilities or challenges.

  1. Task Analysis: Task analysis is a process for breaking down any given task into its component parts. For example, brushing teeth includes finding a toothbrush, toothpaste, and cup, putting toothpaste on the brush, brushing the bottom teeth, rinsing, brushing the top teeth, rinsing again, cleaning the brush, and putting all the equipment away properly.
  2. Creating a Visual Guide: Many parents create visual guides to help their children with special needs to make sense of, remember, and get comfortable with the steps involved in a task. The visual guide can include photos or clip-art style images of each step in the process.
  3. Prompting and Fading: At first, a child with special needs may need a lot of help in remembering and properly completing each step in a task. Prompting may involve physical, hand-over-hand help. As they learn, parents will start to "fade" the prompts. First, they'll stop using hand-over-hand help, and instead provide only verbal prompts ("don't forget to rinse the toothbrush"). Then they'll start to fade even the verbal prompts. When no prompts are required, the child has learned the task.

Additional Teaching Tools

Depending on how your particular child learns, there are a few additional tools that may be helpful. These tools are especially useful for more advanced skills that require the child to interact with people and expectations in the wider community. These include:

  • Chaining: Every task involves a series of steps that work like links in a chain. For example, you can't brush your teeth until you put toothpaste on the brush. Some people prompt their child for each step in the chain, and then start removing links as the child learns. Finally, the child may be able to complete the task with just a simple reminder.
  • Social Stories: Social stories are a step up from the visual guide described above. Rather than simply listing steps, parents use pictures and words to describe "expected behavior." Most social stories are customized to the individual. For example: "Every morning after breakfast, Johnny brushes his teeth. First, Johnny knocks on the bathroom door. If no one is inside, Johnny can go in" and so forth. Parents can read the social story with Johnny as often as needed until Johnny knows it by heart and can complete all the steps without prompting.
  • Video Modeling: Many children with special needs are visual learners, and most learn well through videos. Video models can be purchased off the shelf, downloaded from the Internet, or created for an individual child. They can feature actors doing a task, or they can actually show the child himself as he goes through the process. It can also be helpful to make a video of your child so that he can watch and identify any mistakes he's made.
  • Apps: Older children, or children with milder issues, may benefit from mobile apps designed to guide them through specific activities or experiences. They may also benefit from basic calendar and scheduling apps that help them to organize their time.

A Word From Verywell

All of the tools described above are used by therapists and teachers, but they are all easy to find or create, and intuitive to use. As a parent, you're more than qualified to help your special needs child develop the skills she needs for independence.

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