Teaching Skills for Independence (Part 2) Start with Self-Care Skills

Teaching self-care skills to people with Down syndrome helps them gain confidence and independence.  The actual teaching of some of these skills has been harder for me than I might have imagined.  Not so much because the teaching of them is actually difficult ( I mean, hello, I have two other kids that I taught these same skills!) but I have had to approach them sometimes very differently than I did with my other kids.

Last week’s post was Teaching Skills for Independence Part 1 (the WHY).  If you haven’t read that one, you might want to start there.  It might seem silly or unnecessary to explore why, but I find that keeping WHY in my mind really helps me keep at it when the going gets tough.

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If you’re just beginning to teach self-care skills try not to get stuck/overwhelmed in the decision-making process.

Sometimes I would get stuck in the decision-making process.  What to teach first? What is MOST important? With her current abilities what can she learn right now and what is best left for later when she has built up some skills?   I hope this blog series will help you more easily be able to think through those questions and not get stuck in the decision-making process.

Instead of trying to do all the things, start with teaching your child just a couple of self-care skills that will make the biggest impact in your daily life.

To be completely honest, when your child is young it can feel overwhelming to think about all the things your child needs to learn that you need to teach them.  That can lead to spinning your wheels.  Sometimes, worrying about too many things at once can actually keep you from progressing in the areas that matter the most to you.

What can you teach your child to do that will make your home run more smoothly for you and enable them to be more independent?  Assess what is causing stress in your home on a regular basis. This might help you know where to start.

Pick just just two or at the most 3 things to be priority.  It’s okay if you’re working on other skills but on busy or stressful days make sure you’re consistent on just these 2 things you’ve determined will make the biggest difference.  Don’t allow yourself to stress over all the other things.  You’ve decided what gets top priority for now.  When you master the 2 things you’ve determined will make the biggest impact on your everyday life, then you can choose two new things to be the main focus of your energies.   

If the skill you want to teach requires multiple steps, teach just one at a time if necessary.

If it feels overly stressful your child won’t be as motivated to want to learn new things.  Break it down into steps.

Example: making a sandwich.  Maybe on the first day you get out everything that’s needed and they mostly watch.  They do just one or two parts of making the sandwich.  Jessie has a hard time with bread ties.  I would open the bread; she would spread the mayo.  At first it took a long time to spread the mayo.  If she was frustrated after that point I didn’t try to teach her how to cut the sandwich in half (the way she likes her sandwiches) but once she mastered spreading the mayo she was ready to learn to cut the sandwich in half.

Watch for when your child is feeling frustrated.  You want them to leave the teaching session feeling successful; then they will be more open to learning the next steps.

A friend of mine once suggested to begin teaching them the last step first.  Example: making tea or koolaid.  She suggested just let them stir the pitcher at the end.  They had a part and end the session feeling successful.  The next time you include them one step before, like pouring in the already brewed tea or the koolaid packet and water.  Sometimes I approach teaching this way and sometimes I just let her observe the parts she isn’t ready to participate in yet.

When I think back to skills Jessie now has that have made the biggest difference for her independence and life being less stressful for me, here are some at the top of the list.

Your list might look different from mine according to your child’s strengths and weaknesses.

Showering Independently

We had different difficulties whether she was showering or bathing but this was an area where I was desperate for her to be able to manage independently. When she showered herself she needed help with hair and I always got soaked.  In the tub, I was up and down helping her with her hair and she has a hard time going from sitting to standing in the tub.  Although I still help daily with some personal hygiene, Jessie showering from start to finish independently (getting her own clothes, towel, showering etc) has literally made my life better 🙂

Jessie has always complained about her feet (one more than the other) hurting if she stands or walks for very long.  In the beginning, it was hard for Jessie to stand in the shower for the length of time it took for her to bathe herself and wash her own hair.  She would also complain that her arms were tired as she held her arms over her head long enough to wash and condition her own hair. To add another level of difficulty, I only wanted her to use conditioner on the bottom half of her hair so her scalp wouldn’t be too oily.

Among my friends, it seems that the guys with short hair master the showering process more easily and longer hair complicates it for the girls.  This was most certainly true for Jessie. The tip someone gave me that was a LIFESAVER….hold up a mirror for your child to see where she has and hasn’t gotten shampoo bubbles yet.  We were both getting so frustrated with me telling Jessie, “on the top”, “on the front”, “scrub the side”, she would start to cry that her arms hurt before it was all done.  Holding up a mirror for her so she could SEE as I described what she needed to do was a LIFESAVER.  For real, y’all.

She doesn’t yet remember to clean the hair from the drain before showering, so sometimes she’s standing in water.  She can’t reach where we hang the towels so she lays them on the sink when she’s done.  I should get a different towel rack, ours are hung on the back on the door right now.  BUT: she gathers her clean clothes for the shower, she puts a long towel that covers the whole floor (she doesn’t have good balance) down, she showers, she dresses, she brings me the leave-in conditioner (she conditions in the shower but still has tangles) and hairbrush to get the tangles out, leaves the towels on the counter for me to hang up, puts away the brush and conditioner and her dirty clothes.  Hallelujah! We will work on those other things in time.

Waking Up With Her Own Alarm Clock

I didn’t enjoy going back to wake up any of my kids multiple times.  I’ve had two kids that didn’t want to get up on the first try.  We could have used an alarm clock before she had a phone of her own, but she never wanted to and I didn’t make her.  Suddenly, when she got an iphone she thought it was fun to set an alarm to wake up.  We homeschool so she is able to wake up leisurely.  She sets an alarm for wake up time and then a second one for 15-30 minutes later (depending on the day’s activities) and watches a video till the 2nd alarm goes off.  Not everyone can or would want to allow the video time, but this removes the battle in it for us.

Bed Time Related Tasks

Each skill came separately, but Jessie gets dressed for bed, brushes her teeth, every other night she brings me the part of her cpap machine I need to wash, and she sets her box fan (everybody in my house sleeps with a box fan) on top of a tv tray.  Jessie can’t manage her cpap independently but I believe she will be able to in the future.  The machine is expensive (if she breaks something) and that hasn’t been a skill that has been top priority for me.

At bed time we have a routine of some things that I do for and with her and enjoy a brief before bed chat about the day we had or the day to come and a kiss goodnight.  But, I do appreciate all the steps she can do before bedtime that take away some of the stress of the end of the day when I’m tired.

Basic Around the House Skills

I’m not including here cleaning type chores, but just what most folks are expected to do for themselves. We’re home a good portion of the day together, so it makes a big difference for Jessie to be able to do basic things around the house for herself.

Aside from what we’ve talked about above (showering, waking herself and bedtime), the list below are things Jessie currently does that she learned over time. These are some of the things you can consider as you decide what you want to be your top priorities to work on.

  • She makes her bed and brushes her teeth (Umm, something on YouTube and a friend motivated her to make her bed.) Can’t take credit for that one, but I’m happy about it.
  • Most days she makes herself a biscuit in the microwave for breakfast.  I know that’s not the very healthiest choice.  That’s a whole ‘nother category.  But, she can open package, safely warm her biscuit, add jelly, fix her own drink,  throw away the trash and put the jelly back in the fridge.  She eats her breakfast in her bedroom watching a video and then brings her dishes to the kitchen.  I know, we’re super chill around here.  That’s what works for us in this season of life.
  • If  I’m warming something for our lunch she turns the oven onto the correct temperature to pre-heat.  She can open the pizza box or chicken tenders etc and put them on the pan for when the oven is ready.
  • She fixes her own drinks from the pitcher in the refrigerator.   If the pitcher is very full sometimes there’s still a little bit of a mess.  Sometimes she needs help reaching a cup in the cabinet or help getting the pitcher if there are a lot of things in front of it.  I try to keep the cups and pitcher where she can get to it, but that doesn’t always work out perfectly.  Although she can drink from a cup without a lid, she likes to take drinks to her room so she uses Yeti type cup or other similar cup with lid and straw.
  • If I have prepared meals that we partially fix on our own, she does the part she can.  Ex: today for lunch we had soft chicken tacos.  I had cooked the whole chicken tenders.  I cut into bite size pieces to go in our tacos (when she eats tenders for her meal she can cut them and does) and she added the shredded cheese and microwaved her tacos to melt the cheese the way she likes.
  • She makes her own sandwiches most of the time.  She can make peanut butter and jelly or meat sandwiches.  She likes mayonnaise and bbq sauce on her turkey sandwiches.  Sometimes she gets a little too much bbq and its a little messy.  I used to help guide her as to how much bbq sauce to use and now she does it on her own pretty well.
  • You can let your child help you when you cook.  I said YOU can.  This is stressful for me so I don’t do it as often as I should.  She doesn’t love helping to cook, so when I do, it’s for the purpose of teaching her something specific.  We do a lot of other good things, so I’m giving myself a pass on this for now. It’s something we will do more of later, it just isn’t at the top of my list for now.  If your child enjoys it, you might put this higher on your priority list.

Starting anywhere is helpful. Start with what you feel is most important or would be the most helpful to you.  If you see right away it’s a skill too hard for your child, even if broken into steps, scrap it and start with a different skill. Consider that a diagnostic session.

Keep it as positive as you can for the both of you.  Parenting any child, but especially a child with special needs, is a marathon not a sprint.  Try not to wig out be overwhelmed in the early stages. Be happy when your child is making progress, even if there is a ways to go before mastery.  I always find that when I’m teaching my child something new, God is usually working on his child (me) too.  Sometimes that training is more pleasant than others.  Hang in there, mama.

Till next week,






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