Developing Life Skills: How to Teach A Skill

October 10th, 2015

Developing Life Skills: How to Teach A Skill

What are life skills?

Basic life skills are laundry, cooking, cleaning, getting dressed, shaving, personal hygiene, shopping, ordering at a restaurant, paying bills, working, taking vitamins or pills, making healthy choices, exercise, self-advocacy, navigating the community, and making and keeping friends. Some life skills overlap with social skills, and both are necessary to live a safe, fulfilling life.

You can teach these skills using books, websites, and curricula, or you can work with a specialist – usually a therapist or teacher – experienced with teaching life skills. If you work with a professional, take the time to learn what they are teaching and how they are teaching it, so you can follow through at home.

Teaching a skill
How do you teach a child to do basic life skills tasks? Repetition. Repetition. Repetition. Every task has steps to it, and just like any ABA or Discrete Trial drill, you just need to break down the task into tiny bits, teach each bit separately, and then put them together. Some kids do better with photos of each step, some with words. We used both – photos with the written description under the picture.

How many steps are there in folding a towel anyway? A lot.

Breaking Down a Task – Folding a Towel

  • Pick up towel
  • Lay on table
  • Smooth towel flat
  • Grab two corners on top
  • Pick up corners
  • Fold corners to bottom edge
  • Smooth out towel
  • Grab two corners on top
  • Pick up corners
  • Fold corners to bottom edge
  • Smooth out towel
  • Move towel to basket/side/closet

Breaking Down a Task – Washing Your Hands

  • Turn on faucet
  • Place hands under water
  • Pump liquid soap into one hand
  • Rub hands together
  • Rub backs of hands
  • Rinse hands under water until soap is gone
  • Turn water off
  • Dry hands on towel

It also helps to laminate and tape a graphic like this one next to every sink the child uses:

Washing Hands

Washing Hands

Breaking Down a Task – Brushing Your Teeth

  • Get toothbrush
  • Get toothpaste
  • Open toothpaste cap
  • Squeeze toothpaste onto toothbrush
  • Turn on water
  • Run toothbrush under water to get it wet
  • Turn water off
  • Brush teeth, starting in the back on top right
  • Brush teeth, starting in the back on top left
  • Brush teeth, starting in the back on bottom right
  • Brush teeth, starting in the back on bottom left
  • Turn water on
  • Fill cup with water
  • swish mouth with water
  • Spit water out
  • Rinse toothbrush with water
  • Turn water off
  • Put toothbrush away
  • Put toothpaste away
  • Dry hands and mouth

Again, it's very helpful to laminate and tape up a graphic like this one next to every sink the child uses:

Brushing Teeth 1

Brushing Teeth 1

Brushing Teeth 2

Brushing Teeth 2

Brushing Teeth 3

Brushing Teeth 3

Visual guides

If your child is a visual learner, you’ll need visual supports to teach new tasks. Take a photo of every step, use software like Word to create a document, and under each picture, type words your child will understand to explain the picture. You will find MANY examples online for just about every task, chore, or skill when you do a Google search for that skill. For example, type in “steps to sweeping the floor,” and you will find many examples, with pictures and videos on how to do that task.

Depending on your child’s functioning level, you may also need to do each step of a new task hand-over-hand, again and again, until your child masters each step. After that, keep practicing so that the child doesn’t lose the skill. Remember, the goal is NOT perfection, but function. If your child gets all the steps done, that’s your first goal. Neatness, hopefully, comes later. Eventually you can fade the prompts, and your child may even memorize the steps and be able to do the task with fewer supports. If your child continues to need support, that’s OK too – you’re still increasing independence.

Using Video Modeling to Teach offers many free video modeling clips, but you can also make your own. Others ideas are here.

Be patient
In order for my son to be successful at a low-interest task like laundry, I had to make sure there was laundry to be folded every single day. Eventually I just left the same batch –a towel, washcloth, pants, shorts, long sleeve shirt, short sleeve shirt, tank top (that one messed with him!) and three pairs of different colored socks. It took a few months for my son to really master this task and it’s by no means a favorite for him, but he can do it. I routinely give him a basket of laundry to fold just to keep the skill fresh for him even though it’s his sister’s chore to do it normally. Yes, this approach takes a lot of YOUR time, every day for a while, but if you want your child to be able to do things independently, this is the only way.

How can you know what your child needs to learn?
Assessments like the ABLLS-R and VB-MAPP can be used to find out where your child’s strengths and weaknesses lie and show you what skills need to be taught to fill in the gaps. During your transition IEP meetings, which start no later than age 16, the evaluation should include a Present Levels of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance (PLAAFP) results of vocational aptitude tests, and if possible, the student’s input about likes, dislikes and ambitions for the future.  

Some life skills are needed by everyone, like doing laundry, while some are job-dependent, like taking orders and making change for a cashier. Few skills can be learned overnight. There are also developmental steps to learning each skill, so starting early is key.

Parents can get help from Vocational Rehabilitation and the Transition IEP team, who can provide vocational aptitude tests and job shadowing, job counseling and supported job coaching, if needed.

Why are life skills so important?

  • Safety: People who cannot care for themselves are more open to abuse and neglect by caretakers.
  • Self-esteem: Self-esteem comes from achievement and ability. Kids who can do things to help themselves are empowered and happier. Self-reliance makes people the “master of their destiny,’ because they don’t always have to wait around for others to do for them and they can choose to do things their way.
  • Health: Kids who can feed, clean, clothe themselves, and take care of their own basic needs will live a healthier life.
  • Independence: Not having to depend on someone for everything will open the child’s world up to more independence. The child will have more living and work options to choose from, rather than requiring a maximum care facility. For example, if your child isn’t toilet-trained and can’t do basic self-care, housing options are limited. There is no guarantee that placement would be good, but you’d be left with no other options.
  • Self-advocacy: When children can care for themselves and perform decision-making tasks, they can have a larger say in their own lives can make informed choices to create and accomplish their own dreams. Being empowered to set your course for the future is something all people strive for, regardless of disability.
  • Self-regulation: Learning to manage stress, anxiety and feelings is a very important life skill and will help your child be able to cope with the rigors of daily life.

If you ask parents of older teens and adults what advice they have for parents of tweens, you will consistently hear one resounding concern – “academics are nice, but if your kid can’t function in the real world, he’s in trouble, so teach them life skills.”

Here is the critical piece though – YOU must teach life skills to your child. Yes, the school or a therapist can help, but unless you are consistent with your child 24/7 about learning and using these skills everywhere you go, then they won’t stick. Always remember that life skills must be functional and must be maintained to be useful.

Are you babying your child?
It is not uncommon for parents to “just do it for him” when it comes to children, with or without autism. While our kids with autism do have delays, some profound, it doesn’t mean they cannot do things. Lots of things.

Teaching our kids these important skills does take a lot of time, effort, and repetition, and yes, it would be MUCH faster for you to just do functional tasks for them, but then they never learn how to do those tasks themselves. So while it’s faster for you to tie their shoes when they are 7, are you still going to be willing/able to do it when they’re 57? If not, take the time, teach the skills. Our kids ARE competent, they just need more repetition and help.

More on Babying Your Special Needs Child.

Transition IEPs
By the time your child is 16 (earlier in some states), the IEP must include a transition component. Transition goals address expected outcomes and the goals for achieving them when high school ends. The transition section should include information about your child’s interests and skills and what needs to be done to prepare for post-school activities. Your IEP will also note whether your child is working toward a high school diploma or a certificate of completion.
One big difference between the transition section and the rest of the IEP is the emphasis on student-driven plans for the future over teacher-developed goals. Transition IEPsare to include an emphasize the child's self advocacy and self-directed vision for his/her future.

One big difference is the shift from teacher-developed goals and activities to student-driven plans for the future. Transition IEPs are to include and emphasize the child’s self-advocacy and self-directed vision for his/her future.

Preparing transition goals starts with the development of a vision for the child’s future. What would the child like to do? What can the child do? What skills should the child develop between now and the end of school to attain needed skills? Check your state laws to determine the age that the transition component takes effect; IDEA dictates no later than 16, but many states begin at age 14. Some districts hold a transition IEP meeting separate from a regular IEP meeting, and some do not.

Goals should be in these areas:

  • Employment
  • Vocational/Technical Training
  • Higher Education
  • Residential
  • Transportation/mobility
  • Financial/income
  • Self-determination
  • Social competence
  • Health/safety

Recommended Resources:
Developing Lifeskills: Chores
LifeSkills for Teens with ASD
Volunteering Opportunities for People with ASD
Skills Checklist
WEBINAR SLIDES: How to get your kid with ASD into college
Transition IEPs

Autism Journey Blueprints
Parent Mentor Program
Find a TACA Chapter near you
Email or Phone

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5 Responses

  1. […] do you teach a child to do basic life skills tasks? Repetition. Repetition. Repetition. Every task has steps to it, and just like any ABA or Discrete […]

  2. […] Resources: Developing Lifeskills: How to Teach A Skill LifeSkills for Teens with ASD Volunteering Opportunities for People with ASD Skills Checklist […]

  3. […] Life skills, or independent living skills, are often included with social skills in treatment plans or IEPs. They should be viewed differently from social skills, since life skills are pertain to self-care, rather than social behavior. Examples of life skills are doing laundry, preparing food, bathing, shopping, paying bills, working, etc. Life skills can also be written into IEPs or treatment plans, but should be distinguished from social skills. […]