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Self-Help Skills

Dear Debi,
I’m writing about my 2-year-old son’s independence. I want to encourage his sense of self- reliance. Can you suggest some basic self-help skills he’ll benefit from later on in life?
Hope Geyer
Debi's Tips
Debi Gutierrez
Debi Gutierrez
  • Give children opportunities to do things for themselves
  • Provide materials that make it easy for kids to do things for themselves
  • Provide open-ended activities
Expert Advice
Su Livingston
Su Livingston
Early childhood education instructor
Toddlers go from infant stage of trust to autonomy and then to initiative. This is what they have to do to become independent – develop a sense of self, separate from the parent. These are the developmental stages that lead the child from being part of a mother’s body to becoming an individual in the world.

Toddlers learn self-help skills step-by-step. Here’s a tip: positive directive. Words are directives. For example, instead of saying, “Don’t spill the juice – be careful” tell them, “use both hands;” that way you are teaching them a skill. Too often we say “Here, let me help you” or “Watch me,” but what they need to do is do it themselves.

Open-ended questions and activities are very important because they stimulate problem-solving and self-help skills. Self-help is about solving problems. Try to provide open-ended activities so your kids can challenge themselves and experience success. Usually there is more than one way to solve a problem. If we’re always telling a child what to do or testing them as if there’s one right answer, they’ll get discouraged when they fail. For example, instead of saying, “sweep those leaves into this dustpan” try saying, “what do you think we can do to pick up all these leaves?” One is a command, while the other is an invitation for the child to make choices and solve a problem.
Child Care Provider Comments
Angela Johnson
Angela Johnson
Mother of two
In terms of overprotection, make the house as child safe as possible so the child feels comfortable that there’s nothing he can do that he’ll get hurt. Outside of the home, take him places that have boundaries like parks. There are boundaries but still very public. As long as the child is in the boundary, let them explore. Children are curious naturally. It’s watching their parents get worked up that inhibits their curiosity.
Cathy Agnew
Cathy Agnew
Cares for her grandchildren, mother of two
You can do things at home to help your kids feel independent. Some of the things we do with my granddaughter are letting her stand on her stool and wash her hands by herself. She turns on the water and dries her own hands. We also keep the kids’ toys and books are on their level so they can reach them easily.
Karolina Ramirez
Karolina Ramirez
Child care provider for 6 years
I encourage them to clean up after themselves because the children develop a sense of accomplishment. If the children are younger, letting them eat with their utensils on their own helps them develop independence. Also, let them put their own clothes on.

Lacing-Up Activity Featured Activity:
Lacing-Up Activity
Self-Help Skills Featured Video:
Self-Help Skills
Topic: Social & Emotional Development
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