Tools for Teaching Life Skills to Children With Disabilities

Father washing dishes with his daughter

Zing Images / Getty Images 

Children with disabilities often need additional assistance developing life skills. Consequently, many kids are taught what is referred to as ADLs, or activities for daily living, while in the school setting.

These learning opportunities are designed to provide kids with the skills they need to function in their everyday life. Depending on their age, kids may be taught everything from how to make a sandwich and how to follow a daily schedule to how to take public transportation.

These skills, which can also include doing laundry or shopping for groceries, are sometimes called "life skills" or "skills of daily living." While these skills aren't critical, they are important for anyone who plans to participate in a modern community.

Why Teaching Life Skills Is Needed

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

Because children with disabilities like Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy, and intellectual disabilities learn differently from typical children, they often benefit from learning ADLs both in a school setting and at home. This extra attention is necessary—and beneficial—for these kids because they:

  • 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 multiple 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 have a temperament where they are 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

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 disabilities. 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.

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. Then it involves putting toothpaste on the brush, brushing the bottom teeth, brushing the top teeth, rinsing, cleaning the brush, and putting all the equipment away properly.

Creating a Visual Guide

Many parents create visual guides to help their children with disabilities 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.

Prompting and Fading

At first, a child with disabilities 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 like "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. Here's an overview of some widely used teaching tools.

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 about Johnny as often as needed until the child knows it by heart and can complete all the steps without prompting.

Video Modeling

Many children with disabilities 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 going through the process. It can also be helpful to make a video of your child so that they can watch and identify any mistakes they made.

Apps

Older children, or children with milder disabilities, may benefit from mobile apps designed to guide them through specific activities or experiences. They also may 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 easy to replicate at home. While supplementation by teachers and therapists is extremely beneficial, as a parent you're uniquely qualified to help your child develop the skills they need for independence. So don't shy away from implementing these teaching tools into your daily activities. You will be helping your child learn valuable life skills.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Bal VH, Kim SH, Cheong D, Lord C. Daily living skills in individuals with autism spectrum disorder from 2 to 21 years of ageAutism. 2015;19(7):774-784. doi:10.1177/1362361315575840

  2. Shenoy MD, Indla V, Reddy H. Comprehensive management of autism: Current evidenceIndian J Psychol Med. 2017;39(6):727-731. doi:10.4103/IJPSYM.IJPSYM_272_17

  3. Knight V, Sartini E, Spriggs AD. Evaluating visual activity schedules as evidence-based practice for individuals with autism spectrum disorders. J Autism Dev Disord. 2015;45(1):157-178. doi:10.1007/s10803-014-2201-z

  4. Cengher M, Shamoun K, Moss P, Roll D, Feliciano G, Fienup DM. A comparison of the effects of two prompt-fading strategies on skill acquisition in children with autism spectrum disordersBehav Anal Pract. 2015;9(2):115-125. doi:10.1007/s40617-015-0096-6

  5. Piccin S, Crippa A, Nobile M, Hardan AY, Brambilla P. Video modeling for the development of personal hygiene skills in youth with autism spectrum disorder. Epidemiol Psychiatr Sci. 2018;27(2):127-132. doi:10.1017/S2045796017000610

Additional Reading