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 General Practitioner or your paediatrician.
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
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:
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
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:
You could break down each of these steps into parts as well. For example, ‘Put on a T-shirt could be broken down as follows:
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:
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 T-shirt. In this instance, dad would help the child get dressed until it came to the final step – the T-shirt.
Dad might help the child put the T-shirt over his head and put his arms in – then dad might let him pull the T-shirt down by himself. Once the child can do this, dad might encourage him to put his arms through by himself and then pull the T-shirt down. This would go on until the child had mastered each step of the task and could do the whole thing for himself.