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Teaching skills to children: different approaches

1-8 years

Sometimes children’s difficult behaviour happens because they can’t do what you expect of them. Children need to learn behaviour and other social skills, so teaching skills to children can be an important part of managing their behaviour.

Parents teaching skills to children

You are your child’s first and most important teacher. Every day you’re helping your child learn new information, skills and ways of behaving.

Teaching skills to children can be an important first step in managing their behaviour. For example, if your child doesn’t know how to set the table, she might refuse to do it – because she can’t do it. The solution? Teaching her how.

There are several ways you can help children learn everything from basic self-care to more complicated social skills – instructions, modelling, shaping and step by step.

Whichever method you choose, make sure your child has the ability and understanding to do what you want. You might need to adjust the environment so it’s possible for your child to do as you ask. Or you might need to teach your child some basic skills before he can do a more complicated task.

If you have any concerns about your child’s behaviour or development, see your GP or your child and family health nurse.

Children with learning difficulties get special benefits from extra opportunities to learn more or new skills.

Instructions: teaching skills by telling

This is just teaching your child how to do something by explaining what to do or how to do it.

You probably give instructions and explanations to your child all the time. For some children, this is the easiest and most efficient way to learn something new. But it doesn’t always work.

Everyone has heard a parent say things like, ‘How many times have I told you …’ or ‘You never listen …’. This is because instructions aren’t always the best way to teach children. And if your child has a disability, learning from instructions can be particularly hard.

How to give good instructions

  •  Give instructions only when you have your child’s attention. Use your child’s name and encourage your child to look at you while you speak.
  • Use language that your child understands. Keep your sentences short and simple.
  • Use a clear, calm voice.
  • Explain exactly what you want your child to do by breaking the task into smaller steps. For example, don’t say, ‘Get ready for school’. Instead say, ‘Clean your teeth, and then get dressed for school’.
  • Make sure your child understands each step before you give the next one. If your child has a learning disability, you might need to let your child learn each step before teaching the next one.
  • Use gestures to point to things that you want your child to notice.
  • Use feedback. Praise your child when she follows your instruction, and say exactly what she did right or well. But avoid giving lots of negative feedback when your child doesn’t get it right. Maybe just point out one or two things your child could do differently next time.

Encouraging independence
If you want to help your child learn to do tasks independently, you can phase out your instructions and reminders.

Another option is to use a poster or illustration to help your child picture the instructions you’re giving. Your child can check the poster by himself as he works through the instructions.

A poster can also help children who have trouble understanding words.

Sometimes your child won’t follow instructions. This can happen for lots of reasons. Your child might not understand. She might behave inconsistently while she’s learning, and get better with practice. Or she just might not want to do what you’re asking. This is pretty normal!

Modelling: teaching skills by showing

Through watching you, your child learns what to do and how to do it. When this happens, you’re ‘modelling’. For example, you’re more likely to show rather than tell your child how to make a bed, sweep a floor or throw a ball.

You can also use modelling to show your child skills and behaviour that involve non-verbal communication, such as body language and tone of voice. For example, you can show how to ask a teacher for help, introduce yourself to another person, greet a guest and so on.

How to make modelling work well
Before you start teaching a skill by modelling, make sure that your child has the coordination, physical ability and developmental maturity to handle the new skill. Then you can use the following steps:

  • Get your child’s attention and make sure he’s looking at you.
  • Get your child to watch first, then move slowly so that she can clearly see what you’re doing.
  • Point out the important parts of what you’re doing. For example, ‘See how I am …’.
  • If the task is complicated, show the first part of the task and give your child a chance to practise. Then move onto the next bit. Start with the easiest parts. This is particularly important if your child has a learning disability.
  • Give your child the chance to practise after he has watched you. The more he practises, the better. Show him the step or task again if you need to.
  • Gently guide your child physically through the actions – it can sometimes help her to follow your demonstration.
  • Give praise and encouragement in the early stages of learning.

Shaping: teaching skills by guiding

Learning new skills and behaviour is a process. When your child first tries, he might not get it right. But with practice, he’ll get closer to what you want – and you can help by shaping what he does.

For example, your child might say ‘d’ or ‘da’. You’re excited when you hear these early sounds. You probably say something like, ‘That’s right – daddy’. As you shape your child’s sounds by responding to them and repeating them, your child will soon start saying ‘daddy’.

Tips on using shaping effectively

  • Be clear about what you’re aiming for. What behaviour are you trying to get?
  • What is the starting point? What is your child doing now that could be shaped?
  • Start noticing and rewarding the starting behaviour. When that’s happening more frequently or reliably, look for the next step. Give praise and attention only when it starts happening.
  • Move slowly. Wait until your child can do one step before moving on to the next one.
You can use shaping to help your child learn a whole range of new skills and behaviour. For example, shaping could help your child improve table manners, politeness and sports skills.

Teaching skills step by step

Some tasks or activities are complicated or involve a sequence of actions. For these, you can break down the task into smaller steps.

The idea of step-by-step teaching is to teach the steps one at a time. When your child has learned the first step, you then teach the next step, then the next, and so on. Move to the next step only when your child can do the step before it reliably and without your help. You keep going until your child can do the whole task for herself.

You can use instructions and modelling to help your child learn each step.

Step-by-step teaching: example
Here is how you might break down the task of dressing:

  • Get clothes out.
  • Put on underpants.
  • Put on socks.
  • Put on shirt.
  • Put on pants.
  • Put on a jumper.

You could break down each of these steps into parts as well. For example, ‘Put on a jumper’ could be broken down as follows:

  • Face the jumper the right way.
  • Pull the jumper over the head.
  • Put one arm through.
  • Put the other arm through.
  • Pull the jumper down.

Physical and verbal guidance
This can sometimes help when your child is learning a new skill.

Put your hands over your child’s hands and guide him through the movements. Phase out your help as your child begins to get the idea, but keep saying what to do. Then simply point or gesture. Once your child has learned the skill, you can gradually phase out the gesture and the verbal prompt.

Forwards or backwards steps?
You can teach the steps by moving:

  • forwards – teaching the first step, then the next step and so on
  • backwards – teaching the last step, then the second last step and so on.

Teaching backwards has some advantages. Your child is less stressed and less likely to misbehave because it’s easier and quicker to learn the last step. Also the task is finished as soon as your child completes the step. Often the most rewarding thing about a job or task is getting it finished!

In our earlier example, a dad might teach a child to dress herself by starting with a jumper. In this instance, dad would help the child get dressed until it came to the final step – the jumper.

Dad might help the child put the jumper over his head and put his arms in – then dad might let him pull the jumper down by himself. Once the child can do this, dad might encourage him to put his arms through by himself and then pull the jumper down. This would go on until the child had mastered each step of the task and could do the whole thing for himself.

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Last updated or reviewed
17-09-2015

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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