Identify Skills to Teach

photo of daycare teachers showing a child a visual sequence

As a parent, teacher or early childhood professional, developing learning goals and teaching your child new skills may seem challenging. Remember that thinking small and short-term can help you find big, long-lasting success.

You may want to teach your child a new skill to help her reach a developmental goal and be independent at a task. This involves observing your child and getting input from others.

Let’s take a look at how you can identify skills to teach.

  1. Work from where you are, not from where you want to be

    It is important to set a goal, or teach a skill that is within your child’s developmental ability. Start by taking a look at her existing skills and abilities, or the things that she can do. This will give you a clearer picture of your child’s developmental strengths and needs. Remember to look at skills in each of the six developmental areas:

    • Cognitive skills focus on thinking, problem-solving, and general knowledge (e.g., naming colours and shapes, completing puzzles).
    • Social and emotional skills focus on relating to other people and expressing feelings appropriately (e.g., greeting others, taking turns during play, identifying emotions, such as “happy”, “sad” and “angry”).
    • Gross motor skills focus on controlling the body’s larger movements (e.g., sitting, walking, rolling, throwing a ball).
    • Fine motor skills focus on hand-eye coordination and controlling movements of one’s toes and fingers (e.g., stacking blocks, holding a crayon).
    • Language and communication skills focus on using spoken language (words or sounds), written, or visual language (e.g., picture symbols) to understand and to be understood by others (e.g., asking for objects, repeating words and rhymes).
    • Self-help skills focus on taking care of personal and hygiene needs (e.g., washing hands, putting on clothing, eating with a spoon).
  2. Choose a single area to focus on

    It is important to focus on one skill at a time and keep it simple. Teaching your child several skills at once may be overwhelming. The goal you set should be one you and your child will have the most chance of accomplishing.

  3. Break the skill into smaller steps

    Every skill or task can be broken down into smaller steps. This process is called Task Analysis. For example, teaching a child to “wash her hands” actually involves a number of steps including: turning on the tap, getting soap, scrubbing hands, rinsing hands, and then turning off the tap. Focus on completing one step at a time until she can wash her hands on her own.

  4. Decide how to teach

    Consider how often you need to work on this skill, who will be involved, and be sure that everyone is following the same strategies.

    We all learn in different ways. We can use some of the body’s senses to understand how children explore and learn about their world. Think of ways to teach your child each step. You may need to use real objects, or visuals to help her understand what is expected.

    Let’s take the example of teaching a child the letters of the alphabet to see how the different senses can be used.


    • Looking at alphabet posters.
    • Looking at alphabet books.
    • Looking for letters in the newspaper or magazines.


    • Listening to the ABC song.
    • Singing the ABC song.
    • Listening to and repeating nursery rhymes that mention certain letters.

    Touch and Movement

    • Touching plastic alphabet shapes.
    • Tracing letters cut from sandpaper with fingers.
    • Making letters out of clay.

    Most children will benefit from information that is presented to them in a variety of ways. For example, you may point to the letters while singing the ABC song. This teaches a child what the letters look like and how they sound.

  5. Build your child’s confidence

    Make sure your child has success with some part of the activity. For example, if your child has difficulty participating in a large group, try to encourage her to play with one other child first. Then gradually help her play with larger groups of children.

  6. Motivate and reinforce

    Success deserves recognition! Consider your child’s interests when deciding what to use as a reward, or how to give reinforcement. Some children will respond to getting a sticker, points on a chart, or verbal praise.

  7. Set short deadlines

    Set a time frame for your child to acquire this new skill. Consider how long or how much effort will be required of you and other care providers to teach this skill.

  8. Keep track

    Once you have a plan in place, write it down and keep track of your child’s progress. You will want to watch to see if your child is learning each step or struggling along the way. If your child is struggling, then take a look at the goal you are trying to teach, or how you are teaching it – perhaps it is too difficult for your child to learn at this time, or she has to learn some other skills first.

  9. Generalize the skill

    Children need to know that a new skill can be used in many places, with many people, and under many conditions. For some children, learning to wash their hands at home does not necessarily mean that they are going to demonstrate this skill at school.

    To encourage the use of new skills in as many ways and places as possible, a few tips include:

    • Use similar but different items to teach the same skills (e.g., if you are teaching your child to eat with a spoon, use several different types of spoons and bowls).
    • Have other caregivers teach the same skill BUT be certain that they know what steps are being taught and how you are teaching them.
    • Teach the skill in several different locations (e.g., at home, school, a friend’s house).
    • Teach the skill during different times of the day, if possible.
  10. Include others

    Include others in teaching a new skill. They will be able to help with selecting rewards, teaching the skill in another setting and keeping track of progress. You can also ask them for help if you are unsure of what to try next.

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