Developing Lifeskills: How to Teach A Skill


Developing Lifeskills: How to Teach A Skill

What are LifeSkills?

Basic lifeskills 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, advocating for themselves, navigating their community, and making and keeping friends. Some life skills overlap with social skills of course and both are necessary to live a safe, fulfilling life.

There are many books and a few websites available but there are also curriculum and therapists or teachers who already teach these skills. You can use teachers or therapists to teach the skill but if you do, you need to also 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 and teach each bit separate and then together. If you'd like to learn more about Task Analysis and Breakdown, read here. Some kids do better with photos of each step, some with written word. 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

We would also tape up a graphic like this one next to every sink where the child may wash hands:

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

We would also tape up a graphic like this one next to every sink where the child may brush his teeth:

Brushing Teeth 1
Brushing Teeth 1

Brushing Teeth 2
Brushing Teeth 2

Brushing Teeth 3
Brushing Teeth 3

Visual Guides

You need to take a photo of every step and put them in a document like Word and under each picture, type whatever words your child will understand to explain the picture. You will find MANY examples 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.

Whether you use visual guides or not, depending on your child’s functioning level you will need to do all of these steps hand-over-hand, again and again, with your child until he or she gets it and then keep practicing so they don’t lose the skill. Remember, the goal is NOT perfection, but function. If he gets all the steps done, that’s your first goal. Neatness, hopefully, comes later. Eventually you can fade the prompts, the child may even memorize the schedule and be able to do the task without it, but if they don’t that’s OK too – you’re still increasing their 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 such a low interest task as laundry, I had to make sure there was laundry to be folded every single day. Eventually I just left the same batch – one of each of a towel, washcloth, pants, shorts, long sleeve shirt, short sleeve shirt, tank top (that one messed with him!) and 3 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 awhile, but if you want your child to be able to do things for him or herself, 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 at age 16 (14 in some states), the evaluation should include a Present Level of Performance (PLOP) as well as vocational aptitude tests and if possible, the student’s input about likes, dislikes and ambitions for their future.  

Some lifeskills are needed by everyone, like doing laundry, while some are job dependent, like taking orders and making change if they work as a cashier, as example. Few skills can be learned overnight, they need a lot of practice. 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 LifeSkills 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. If your child can do things to help themselves, they 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 and they will have more living and work options to choose from, rather than being locked up in a maximum care facility. The more skills they have, the more options they have for housing and work. For example, if your child isn’t toilet trained and can’t do basic self-care, there will only be one type of housing he can go into. 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 and making informed choices to be successful in creating and accomplishing 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 stick to be useful.

Are You Babying Your Special Needs Baby (child)?
It is not uncommon for parents to “just do it for him” when it comes to our 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 it for them, but then they never learn how to do it for 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 he’s 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
A transition IEP is a regular IEP but includes expected outcomes and the goals for those outcomes for the child after high school ends. It will include information about your child’s interests and skills and what needs to be done to get him/her ready for the post-school world or work or college, whichever is appropriate. It will also include which route to graduation, diploma or certificate of completion, your child will take.

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 for the transition IEP starts with the parent, and child if able, to create a vision of the child’s future. What would your child like to do? What would he be able to do? What skills would he need to develop between now and the end of school to attain those skills?

When: IDEA says “Beginning not later than the first IEP to be in effect when the child turns 16, or younger if determined appropriate by the IEP Team” but in many states it’s done when the child turns 14. Some districts hold a transition IEP meeting separate from a regular IEP meeting, and some do not.

The IEP should include a student profile with a statement of current functioning covering all areas of performance including current academic achievement, current functional performance and recommendations for achieving post-secondary goals. 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
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