Learning to get dressed or undressed is a big step towards independence for every child. Often times, when young children struggle while putting on their shoes, hat, or jacket, we are quick to jump up and help them.
Most preschool and kindergarten age children need some help with getting dressed. As a parent, teacher or early childhood professional you will need to make sure you have plenty of time and patience when teaching your child dressing skills.
Is he struggling with the task or trying to figure things out?
While some children will ask for help when they need it, others may struggle in silence. Let’s use the example of a child who is trying to put on his boots and determine whether he is truly struggling with the task, or simply trying to “figure things out”.
He is probably trying to “figure things out” if he:
- Appears to be talking himself through the process (e.g., “Foot in boot.”).
- Is testing different solutions to the problem such as taking his foot out of a boot if it doesn’t fit properly and trying the other boot.
He is probably struggling if he:
- Appears angry or frustrated.
- Looks from shoe to boot without taking any action.
- Repeatedly does something incorrectly such as putting the right foot into the boot shaped for the left foot.
- Looks at, or gestures to those around him for help.
Deciding what to teach
Here are some questions to help you decide which dressing skills to focus on with your child:
- Does he know which clothing fits which body part?
- Can he tell when clothing has been put on backwards or inside out?
- Does he know how to put on or take off clothing in the right order?
- Can he take off clothing?
- Can he put on clothing?
- Can he attach clothing using Velcro, zippers, or buttons?
In general, children learn how to take off clothing before they learn to put it on. Also, most children learn dressing skills that require movement of the large muscles (e.g., arms and legs) before ones that require precise movements of the hands and the fingers. Pulling pants up or down is easier than zipping them up!
How to promote independent dressing and undressing
Most children show an interest in dressing/undressing themselves and will feel proud of their abilities and accomplishments in this area.
When helping your child get dressed, provide him with opportunities to participate, follow his lead, and describe your actions.
Here are some suggestions to build independence:
- Begin with the easiest clothing to put on and take off, such as hat, socks, shoes, or pants.
- Talk about each step of the process. Be sure to emphasize body and clothing words. For example, you can hold out a shirt and say, “Joey, put your arms out. Now, you can put your shirt on. That’s right, one arm at a time!”
- Verbally praise your child for each step he accomplishes – “Good work taking your shoes off!”
- Encourage your child to sit down to complete the steps. This may provide more stability while dressing or undressing.
- Break the skill into smaller steps and teach one step at a time. This process is known as Task Analysis – you’ll find more details in the For More Information box at the end of this tip sheet.
- Use visuals, such as pictures to show the sequence of steps that your child can follow.
- If possible, place a mirror in the dressing area so that your child can watch themselves as they put on the clothing.
You can also encourage your child to dress independently by practising dressing skills with fun activities.
- Young children love to dress up in adult clothing and pretend to be ‘grown-up’. This is a fun and creative way for your child to practise putting on and taking off clothing. The larger clothing will be easier for him to put on. Just make sure that it is not too long for him to trip over.
- Use a doll to show your child where clothing goes on the body and how to put it on. Let him practise dressing and undressing the doll without help.
- Button Train – Cut a few train shapes out of coloured pieces of felt. Take half of the train shapes and sew a large button onto the back end of each one. Take the rest of the train shapes and make a vertical cut on the front end of each one. The cut should be just wide enough for the button to pass through. Show your child how to ‘button’ together the train.
Tips for Parents
For many young children clothing is a way to express themselves. While this is wonderful, it can be a challenge when you are trying to get your child ready for school in the morning. Some children may insist on wearing the same t-shirt day after day. Others may insist on wearing ‘dressy clothing’ to school.
You can involve your child in his dressing routine by grouping together outfits and allowing him to choose one to wear each day. This provides him with a choice and ensures that he is wearing clothing that is suitable for school and the weather. Some parents prefer to lay out an outfit the night before.
If your home has the room, you can set up an area for your child’s outerwear (e.g., jacket, scarf, hat) and backpack near the doorway. Put a small mat on the floor for shoes and attach hooks to the wall for a backpack and coat. Place a picture of a coat and backpack underneath the hooks to remind your child to hang them up. During the winter, you can add a bin for a hat or scarf. Your child may find it easier to identify his belongings and practise dressing if he has his own space. If possible, place a mirror at your child’s level so he can watch as he puts the clothes on.
Children who are learning to dress themselves need more time to get ready in the morning. When choosing your child’s outfits for school/child care, think of what he can easily do on his own and with what items he needs help. It is also helpful to keep in mind what clothing he might have to remove at school/child care. A shirt with buttons is OK but pants with buttons may be difficult for your child to undo in a hurry when he needs to use the washroom.
Take a look at the following ideas for “child-friendly” clothing:
- Snap buttons are easier to use than regular buttons.
- If buttons are difficult for your child to manipulate, stick to shirts and sweaters that he can pull on and off.
- Sweaters or light shirts with a ‘half-zip’ at the neck are easier for your child to pull over his head because they have a large neck opening.
- Choose pants or skirts with elastic waistbands.
- Choose pants that fasten with Velcro.
- ‘Cargo’ pants that have several pockets make it easy for your child to carry a communication book or ‘fidget’ toy with him.
- Tie a colourful ribbon or zipper pull to the zipper on your child’s coat. This will make it easier for him to pull the zipper up and down.
- Attach mittens to a string and feed it through the arms of your child’s coat. This way he will not lose the mittens.
- A coat with a hood is useful if your child tends to pull off or forget his hat.
- A coat that zips all the way up to the chin is good if your child does not like the feeling of a scarf against his neck.
- Shoes that can easily be slipped on or fastened with Velcro instead of laces are practical in the winter when children need to take off their boots when they get to school or child care. You can also buy curly shoelaces that don’t need to be tied.
- If your child is sensitive to temperature changes, dress him in layers that can be removed easily. For example, a T-shirt, with a cardigan on top.
- If your child is sensitive to touch, cut the labels out of his clothing and make sure there are no loose threads. Try to avoid sending him to school in new clothing in case the fabric is irritating.
* If your child has a physical disability that makes it difficult for him to move, grasp, or pull, you may want to speak to an Occupational Therapist (O.T.). An O.T. can provide you with information on techniques and devices that will make it easier for your child to dress himself.
The road to independence can sometimes be rocky, but setting small, realistic goals can make it smoother for both you and your child.
Cook, R.; Tessier, A.; Klein, D. (2000) Adapting Early Childhood Curricula In Inclusive Settings. Fifth Ed., Prentice Hall Inc.