Encouraging Independence in Pre-School Children

As children approach the age for starting school they are expected to become more independent. How can this be encouraged and what are they really supposed to be able to do for themselves when they start school?

It is unusual for a four-year-old to be able to dress completely independently into a fiddly school uniform and finish up looking smart! Some schools consider this when choosing their uniform and specify easier to don items such as polo-shirts. Reception class staff expect to help with top buttons, inside-out garments and twisted socks but don’t expect to help most children with taking their uniform off and putting it back on again.

Tips for practicing buttons:

  • Remove some buttons from an old shirt and practice posting them through a small hole in a piece of cardboard. Encourage holding the button between the thumb and index (pointing) finger.
  • Use an old shirt for practicing. Make the button holes slightly bigger with scissors to ensure the button passes through easily.
  • When practicing lay the shirt on the table in front of your child or put it on a large doll so the buttons can be easily seen.

If buttons are a step too far right now consider alternatives: polo shirts are available in shops like Next with a zip at the neck. School trousers and skirts are available with elastic waists.

Buttons on a ‘proper’ shirt can be removed and sewn on the front of the button hole; a small piece of Velcro attached behind the button will hold the shirt together. Alternatively, teach undoing only the top few buttons and passing the shirt over the head.

When buying a winter coat check that the zip is easy to fasten or that it has Velcro that can be used instead.

Shoes: Most school shoes and plimsolls are available with Velcro or elastic fastenings as most starters will be unable to tie laces. If shoes often end up on the wrong feet draw a semi circle or half a butterfly on the instep of each shoe, these have to be put together to complete the picture before putting them on the feet.

Using the toilet
Reception class staff are familiar with an occasional ‘accident’ and are usually prepared to deal with it. However, they do not expect to wipe bottoms on a regular basis. Remember that wipes are not usually available at school so encourage your child to practice wiping with regular paper.

Tips for using the toilet independently:

  • Put a chart on the wall in the toilet with pictures of your routine. For example: use toilet, wipe, pull-up pants, flush, wash hands. If necessary you can talk through the chart each time until you are sure it is understood, then just watch it being used, then remove the chart when you are satisfied it has been learnt.
  • Some children struggle with learning the motion necessary for wiping their bottom and tend to just move the mess around.  Try putting a little liquid soap on a smooth surface such as a plate and use toilet roll to wipe it off whilst trying not to spread it.
  • Talk about how to leave the toilet in a clean and tidy state and practice this at home (flushing, picking up dropped tissue, reporting any accidental soiling of self or toilet/floor, etc).
  • Check that trousers or tights can be removed quickly enough. Often children will leave it to the last minute to go to the toilet particularly if they are busy or in an unfamiliar place.
  • After a couple of days at school casually ask your child about toilet routines in class. Occasionally these haven’t been understood and children can feel that they are unable to ask to use the toilet.

If you are concerned that your child is struggling with independence discuss this with your pre-school or your Health Visitor.

Further information and tips can be found at:

Abi Johnson, Occupational Therapist and Mum of 2 boys.
www.occupationaltherapyessex.co.ukOccupational Therapy Essex offers groups for pre-school children to work on motor skills and developing independence.  For more information see http://occupationaltherapyessex.co.uk/services/pre-school-groups/ or contact me on 07903 085883

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