Tips for Teaching Disabled Children Self-Care Life Skills

Life skills for students with disabilities are skills that will help them live independently and need to start with grooming, feeding, and toileting.

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Self-Care Life Skills: Self Feeding

Little boy is sitting in a cafe
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One might think that self-feeding is a natural skill. Even children with severe disabilities get hungry. Once you have created an environment that permits children to explore finger foods, it is time to start teaching them how to use utensils. 

Spoons are, of course, the easiest. A spoon doesn't require spearing, only scooping. 

Learning to Use a Spoon

Teaching a child to scoop can start with scooping beads, styrofoam packing noodles, or even M and M's from one container to another. Once the child has mastered scooping from one container to another, start to put a favorite food (perhaps a single M and M, for hand-eye coordination?) in a bowl. You will find your occupational therapist will often have a weighted bowl so it doesn't slide around on the table as the child learns to maneuver and master manipulating a spoon.

Games for Knife and Fork

Once the spoon is partly mastered, you can start handing the fork to the child, perhaps with a preferred food speared on the tines. This will provide preliminary motivation; once you have started giving that preferred food (pineapple slices? brownie?) on a fork, only give the preferred food on the fork.

At the same time, you can start offering the student opportunities to build cutting skills: model rolling playdough into a long "sausage" and then cut with a knife while holding it down with the fork. Once the student (child) can execute the task (which involves crossing mid-line, a real challenge) it's time to start with real food. Making pancakes from a mix in a skillet was always a fun way to give students some practice cutting.

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Self-Care Life Skills: Self Dressing

Boy getting dressed
Getty Images/Tara Moore

Often parents of children with disabilities will over-function in life skills, especially dressing. Too often looking good is more important to parents with young children than teaching independence. With children with disabilities, it can be even more difficult. 

Dressing for Independence

Children with disabilities, especially developmental disabilities, can sometimes become rigid in the application of the skills they learn.  Since self-dressing is a skill best learned at home, it is often the task of the special educator to help parents teach their children to dress themselves, though individual parts of the dressing task, such as putting socks on, or pulling a big tee shirt over their heads may be appropriate ways to encourage independence at school.  

Chaining Forward

At home, try chaining forward; have the child put his underpants on first. At school, you may only want to isolate parts of the task, such as fasteners, or finding the sleeves of their jackets. The order at home might be:

  • Underpants
  • Shorts
  • Shirt
  • Socks
  • Shoes
  • Belt

Parents with children with disabilities will find their children often want elastic waists and soft pullover shirts. Initially, to ​encourage independence, it's important to let them wear their chosen items, but with time, they need to be encouraged to dress age-appropriately, more like their peers. 


One of the challenges is, of course, the fine motor skills to fasten and unfasten the variety of clothing closures: Zippers, buttons, snaps, Velcro tabs, and hook and eyes (though much rare today than 40 years ago. 

Fasteners can be purchased to give your students practice. Mounted on boards, the snaps, etc. are large to help students learning the skills can have success. 

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Self-Care Life Skills: Toilet Training

Little boy sitting on toilet
Getty Images/Tanya Little

Toilet training is usually something that school will support rather than initiate and teach.  It is often the job of the special educator to support the actual efforts the parents are making.  That may be included in accommodations of the child's IEP, requiring the teacher or the teaching staff to place the child on the toilet at certain timed intervals.  It can be a real pain, but when paired with lots of praise, it can help the child "get the idea." 

At some point, you may want to encourage the parent to send the child to school on the bus in a pull up disposable diaper, but with training pants or just plain underwear to school.  Yes, you will end up with some wet clothes to change, but it prevents children from being lazy​ and reminds them that they are responsible to ask for the bathroom. 

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Self-Care Life Skills: Tooth Brushing

Happy father brushing son's teeth in bathroom
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Tooth brushing is a skill you can both teach and support at school.  If you are in a residential program, you absolutely need to teach this grooming skill.  Tooth decay leads to trips to the dentist's office, and for children who don't understand the importance of a visit to the dentist, having a strange man or woman shove their hand in your mouth is more than a little alarming.

Read this article about tooth brushing, which includes a task analysis and suggestions for forward or backward chaining.

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Self-Care Life Skills: Bathing

Twins showing off their bare feet in a bubble bath
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Bathing is a task that will happen at home unless you work in a residential facility. Small children usually start in the tub. By the age of 7 or 8, you can expect a typical child to be able to shower independently. Sometimes the issues are prompting, so after you help a parent create a task analysis, you can also help parents create a visual schedule to support the student's independence, so the parents can begin to fade their support. We need to remind parents that verbal prompting is often the hardest to fade. 

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Self-Care Life Skills: Shoe Tying

Girl learning to tie her shoelaces
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Shoe tying is one of the most difficult skill to teach a child with disabilities. In some cases, it is far easier just to buy shoes that don't require tying. How many students shoes do you tie each day? If students want shoes that tie, contact the parent and make it clear that you are not responsible for tying their shoes, then provide a step by step to help them support shoe tying. 


  • Break it down. Try forward chaining. Start with having the child learn the over and under. Then, once that is mastered, have them make the first loop, and you complete the tying. Then add the second loop.   
  • Creating a special shoe with two colored shoelaces can help students differentiate between the two sides of the process. 
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Your Citation
Webster, Jerry. "Tips for Teaching Disabled Children Self-Care Life Skills." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Webster, Jerry. (2020, August 27). Tips for Teaching Disabled Children Self-Care Life Skills. Retrieved from Webster, Jerry. "Tips for Teaching Disabled Children Self-Care Life Skills." ThoughtCo. (accessed September 24, 2021).