Getting dressed in the morning can be grounds for a battle between you and your child, or it can be a task your child accomplishes without your involvement. It can make or break whether you get to work and school on time. And, getting dressed is a skill that even the youngest toddlers can begin to use.
However easy dressing oneself may seem, there are several fine and gross motor skills and cognitive skills involved. Gross motor skills required to dress oneself include balancing to take off shoes, socks, and pants; and lifting arms and legs in a coordinated way while putting the article of clothing on. Fine motor skills include working with buttons, zippers, and other fasteners. The cognitive skills required include sequencing and decision-making. If your child struggles in any of these areas, getting dressed independently could be a major accomplishment.
Below find a development timeline for dressing. It’s interesting to note that undressing skills are acquired first!
A typically-developing 1-year-old can: push his arms and legs through sleeves and pant legs, take off shoes and socks.
A typically-developing 2-year-old can: unbutton larger buttons, pull pants up and down (elastic waistband), undress independently.
A typically-developing 3-year-old can: put on her own shoes (velcro is great!), pull a shirt over her head, begin to button large buttons, pull a zipper up and down once fastened.
A typically-developing 4-year-old can: engage the zipper, put on his own socks, manipulate smaller buttons.
A typically-developing 5-year-old can: dress herself without supervision!
To help your child be more successful at independent dressing,
-make sure his or her pants have elastic waistbands
-choose larger, looser clothes
-make sure the available clothes are seasonally appropriate
-show your child tags on the insides of shirts and pants which indicate the back of the garment, and have them locate the tags on all the clothes they choose
-use a permanent marker to put a dot or image on the inside edge of each shoe’s inner sole to help the child get the shoes on the right feet. They just align the dots (or the picture) before putting the shoes on!
Whether or not your child has these skills yet, motivation to use them is probably another story. Starting at age three (or earlier), children can be motivated by rewards. It’s often best to keep these rewards concrete: once you have gotten dressed, you can have breakfast. (Aside: keep his clothes clean through breakfast with a large napkin tucked into his shirt collar). Older threes can enjoy using a sticker chart: every day you put your coat and shoes on by yourself, you get a sticker. At the end of five days, you get a prize.
Timers can also be useful incentives. Time your child the first few times you have them attempt dressing themselves. Once you have a baseline, have them “beat the timer” each successive attempt, cutting down the time each day by 30 seconds. This will create a realistic sense for you of how much or little time it actually takes for your child to execute the independent dressing skill.
Children who have the motor skills to dress themselves but struggle with the order of operations or appropriate clothing choices can be supported by visual checklists posted near the dresser or closet. Kids who use tech can go to http://kidsweatherreport.com/ to find out what the weather is going to be like today in their zip code, plus appropriate clothing suggestions (need for jacket, raincoat, shorts, etc).
If you are ready for your child to begin dressing more independently, start on a weekend when there isn’t time pressure, and remember to encourage and praise a lot! Resist the urge to take over when they struggle– struggling is part of learning! Keep it positive with verbal support, and step in only at the last second. Good luck to you and your independent little dresser!