Teaching kids with motor-skills challenges and/or ADHD to tie their shoes, get dressed, or take a bath takes creativity, lots of patience, and, especially, a sense of humor. A parent can try using oral instructions, writing down the steps on poster board in colorful ink, or drawing pictures to show how to do the task. One thing that has worked for my daughter is teaching the task in reverse order — a process called backward chaining.
When you teach your young child how to count or say the alphabet, you start at the beginning. The same holds true for skills such as putting on socks and pants, taking a bath, and tying shoes. Parents break the skill into smaller steps and chain those steps together, from first to last. This process sounds logical enough, so why do so many of our kids struggle?
First, some kids get discouraged, because it takes so long to master all of the steps to achieve success. Second, children forget the sequence of steps and get anxious over completing the next one. This anxiety frustrates some children and lowers their self-esteem. Some just give up.
Start at the End
So what is a parent to do if their child is not making progress? Try backward chaining.
My daughter had a hard time learning to tie her shoes because of her fine motor-skill challenges. What’s more, no matter how many times she practiced, she could not remember the steps. Here is how I solved the problem in a matter of weeks:
1. I nailed an old shoe to a board and I replaced the shoelaces with much longer ones, so she could handle them more easily.
2. I broke down the job into smaller tasks and wrote them on a large piece of poster board.
3. I demonstrated each task to my daughter and emphasized the last one.
4. I repeated Step 3, but this time I allowed my daughter to complete the last task — tightening the bow. We practiced for a while until she felt comfortable doing it. Then we quit for the day.
5. The next day, I repeated Step 4 to make sure my daughter remembered what to do. If she did, we moved on. Then I added the next-to-last step — pushing the laces through. Again, I completed all the beginning steps and let her do the last two.
6. I continued this process, last to first, until she was able to tie her shoes.
Teaching a task backward is effective for a couple of reasons. As soon as your child completes a step, she gets immediate satisfaction. Her shoe is tied, and she has experienced success! Also, with backward chaining, your child is always completing the newly learned step first, alleviating the stress of having to remember a new step.
Less stress minimizes mistakes.
Getting Dressed — and Undressed
You can use this technique to teach your child how to get dressed, too. For instance, when instructing your child on how to put on a sock, start at the end by placing the sock all the way over her heel. This leaves the last step for her: pulling it up.
Once she masters this, pull the sock up to the heel and have your child place it over the heel and up her calf — until, finally, she can put on a sock starting at her toes.
Use the same method to have your child undress and put clothes in the hamper. Remove all of your child’s clothing except for the last item. Have her take it off and put it, and the rest of her clothes, in the hamper.
By the end of the training session, your child should be able to undress and put her clothes where they belong.
By now, you can probably figure out how to teach your child to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The last step is cutting the sandwich in half and the next-to-last step is putting the jelly side on top of the peanut butter side. And so on.
Think about the tasks that have been causing your child frustration and disappointment. Would using backward chaining make sense? Try it. You may be surprised by the results.
Danette Schott, M.A., is the founder of S-O-S (Social-Other-School) Research, which provides information on special needs to parents, teachers, and other professionals. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.