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Becoming Independent in Self Care

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It is amazing to see how children progress from being completely dependent to self-sufficient little people. Becoming independent in self-care is a very important occupation of a child. Oftentimes I see parents and caregivers rushing to put on their little one’s shoes and socks, putting on their jackets, washing their hands for them, and feeding them lunch quickly. In the rush to get to camp, school, a class, an appointment or a play date, it is easy to just do all self-care tasks for our children.

Developmentally our children show signs of independence at a young age. By the time your child is about 6-9 months (sitting upright independently); they are beginning to finger feed and can hold a bottle with two hands. You begin to see them try to assist when you are getting them dressed by extending their arm or leg while putting on their clothing. By the time your little one is 15-18 months, he is beginning to attempt to feed himself using a spoon or a fork (lots of spillage is expected) and beginning to remove socks and shoes.

By the time your child is 24 months, he is beginning to do more things independently. He can unbutton large buttons, begin to put on shoes and socks with assistance, undress with assistance (pull down pants, remove arms from the shirt sleeve), and is more precise with the use of utensils. He is beginning to understand how to rub his hands together to wash his hands, how to hold the toothbrush to assist with brushing his teeth, can assist with washing himself in the bathtub with a sponge, and is learning to put his dirty clothes in the laundry hamper. He will need a lot of reminders as to the order of things, but most children yearn to demonstrate a new-found sense of independence. By the time your child is three, he should be an active participant in all self-care tasks, not just a passive observer.

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It is important to encourage your child to feel a sense of accomplishment with these everyday responsibilities. It is the beginning of his understanding of a routine, that there is sequence and order to tasks, and that it is essential to master these lifelong skills. Encourage your child to use both hands to assist with tasks like putting on socks and shoes and buttoning. Use your hands over his hands to show him how to use them in a coordinated manner. Perhaps you do one sock and he does or attempts to do the other one with the ultimate goal for him to eventually do this all by himself.

A good way to encourage this independence is through the use of a sticker chart. Reward him with a sticker every time he tries or completes a task independently. As your child gets older, pick one or two tasks that you really want him to work on such as getting dressed or eating lunch all by himself and focus on the mastery of these skills before moving on to another one. Remember that you are building the foundation for a confident, responsible, and independent child.

Karinna Dancourt MS OTR/L received her Masters Degree in Occupational Therapy from Tufts University in Boston, Ma in 2001. She is the principal Occupational Therapist at Jumping Jax located in Manhattan on the UWS. Karinna has worked in a variety of settings including hospital based, school-based and Sensory Integration clinics performing evaluations, direct treatments, consultations, and school observations. She has extensive training in Sensory Integration, Handwriting Without Tears/handwriting interventions, and neurodevelopment treatment for children ages 3-18 years old. Karinna is bilingual in Spanish and English and is a proud mother of a four and one year old.

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