Teaching skills to children – different approaches

Sometimes children’s challenging behaviour happens because they can’t do what you expect of them. Children need to learn the routine and other social skills, so teaching skills to children can be an essential part of managing their behaviour.

– Parents teaching skills to children
– Instructions: teaching skills by telling
– Modelling: teaching skills by showing
– Step by step: teaching skills by breaking down tasks
– Teaching skills: making the methods work for you

Parents teaching skills to children
You are your child’s first and most important teacher. Every day you’re helping your child learn new information, skills and ways of behaving.
Teaching skills to children can be an essential first step in managing their behaviour. For example, if your child doesn’t know how to set the table, he might refuse to do it because he can’t do it.  What is the solution?
There are three final ways you can help children learn everything from basic self-care to more complicated social skills:
– instructions
– modelling
– step by step.

Remember that skills take time to develop, and practice is important. But if you have any concerns about your child’s behaviour, development or ability to learn new skills, see your GP or your child and family health nurse.

When you’re teaching your child a skill, you’ll probably use more than one method at a time. For example, your child might find it easier to understand instructions if you also break down the skill or task into steps. Likewise, modelling might work better if you give instructions at the same time.

Instructions: teaching skills by telling
This is just teaching your child how to do something by explaining what to do or how to do it. You probably give instructions and explanations to your child all the time.

How to give good instructions
Give instructions only when you have your child’s attention. Use your child’s name and encourage your child to look at you while you speak.
– Get down to your child’s physical level to talk.
– Remove any background distractions like the TV.
– Use language that your child understands. Keep your sentences short and simple.
– Use a clear, calm voice.
– Use gestures to emphasise things that you want your child to notice.
– Gradually phase out your instructions and reminders as your child gets better at remembering how to do the task.
A poster or illustration can help your child picture the instructions you’re giving. Your child can check the poster by himself when he’s ready to work through the instructions independently. A poster on the wall can also help children who have trouble understanding words.

Sometimes your child won’t follow instructions. It can happen for lots of reasons. Your child might not understand. Your child might not have the skills to do what you ask every time, or maybe he does not want to do what you’re asking. You can help your child learn to cooperate by balancing instructions and requests.

Modelling: teaching skills by showing
Through watching you, your child learns what to do and how to do it.
 When this happens, you’re ‘modelling’.
Modelling is usually the most efficient way to teach children a new skill. For example, you’re more likely to show rather than tell your child how to make a bed, sweep a floor or throw a ball.
You can also use modelling to show your child skills and behaviour that involve non-verbal communication, like body language and tone of voice. For example, you can explain how you turn to face people when you talk to them, or look them in the eyes and smile when you thank them.
Modelling can work for social skills too. Prompting your child with phrases like ‘Thank you, Mum’, or ‘More please, Dad’ is an example of this.

How to make modelling work well
Use the following steps:
– Get your child’s attention and make sure he’s looking at you.
– Get your child to watch first, then move slowly through the steps of the skill so that your child can see what you’re doing.
– Point out the essential parts of what you are doing. For example, ‘See how I am …’. You might want to do this later if you’re modelling social skills like greeting a guest.
– Give your child lots of opportunities to practice, once he has seen you do it – for example, ‘OK, now you have a go’.

Step by step: teaching skills by breaking down tasks
Some tasks or activities are complicated or involve a sequence of actions. For these, you can break down the task into smaller steps.
The idea of step-by-step teaching is to teach the steps that make up a skill one at a time. When your child has learned the first step, then you show the next step, then the future, and so on. Move to the next showing only when your child can do the previous step reliably and without your help. You keep going until your child can do the whole task for himself.
If the task is complicated, show the first part of the task and give your child a chance to practise. Then move onto the next bit.
Step-by-step teaching example
Here is how you might break down the task of dressing:
– Get clothes out
– Put on underpants
– Put on socks
– Put on a shirt
– Put on pants
– Put on a jumper

You could break down each of these steps into parts as well. It can help if a task is involved or if your child has learning difficulties. For example, ‘Put on a jumper’ could be broken down like this:
– Face the jumper the right way.
– Pull the jumper over the head.
– Put one arm through.
– Put the other arm through.
– Pull the jumper down.

Forwards or backwards steps? 
You can teach the steps by moving:
– forwards – teaching the first step, then the next and so on
– backwards – teaching the last step, then the second last step and so on.

Teaching backwards
has some advantages. Your child is less likely to misbehave because it’s easier and quicker to learn the last step. The task is finished as soon as your child completes the level. Often the most rewarding thing about a job or work is getting it finished!
In the earlier example, you might teach a child to get dressed by starting with a jumper. In this instance, you would help the child get dressed until it came to the final step – the jumper.
You might help the child put the jumper over her head and put her arms in – then you might let her pull the jumper down by herself. Once the child can do this, you might encourage her to put her arms through by herself and then pull the jumper down. This would go on until the child had mastered each step of the task and could do the whole thing for herself.

When your child is learning a new physical skill like getting dressed, it can help to put your hands over your child’s hands and guide him through the movements. Phase out your help as your child begins to get the idea, but keep saying what to do. Then simply point or gesture. When your child is confident with the skill, you can phase out gestures too.

Teaching skills: making the methods work for you
No matter which of the three ways you use, these tips will help your child learn new skills:
Before you start, make sure that your child has the coordination, physical ability, and developmental maturity to handle the new skill. You might need to teach your child some basic skills before working on more complicated skills.
Consider timing and environment. Children learn better when they’re more alert and focused. So avoid teaching new skills just before nap or meal times, for example. It’s also good to avoid distractions in your child’s environment, like the TV or younger siblings who need attention.
– Give your child the chance to practise the skill. Skills take time to learn, and the more your child practices, the better. Show or explain the step or task again if you need to.
Give praise and encouragement, especially in the early stages of learning. Praise your child when she follows your instruction or practises the skill, and say exactly what she did well.
Avoid giving lots of negative feedback when your child doesn’t get it right. Maybe point out one or two things your child could do differently next time. Instead of saying that your child has done it ‘wrong’, use words and gestures to explain what he could do differently next time.
Remember that behaviour might get worse before it improves, especially if you’re asking more from your child. A positive and constructive approach can help – for example, ‘Well done for getting the knots on your laces right! Would you like to make the loops together today?’