Teaching New Skills and Behaviors


Growing up involves learning many new and complex skills such as brushing teeth, getting dressed, cleaning up after yourself, managing school work, and strategies for problem solving. There are many ways you can support your child to learn and build these skills. Here are some ideas:

Set a good example (all ages)

Our children don’t always do what we say, but they always do what we do. You can’t expect your child to follow the house rules, if there are different rules for you. Take a minute to consider the rules of your house or the behaviors you expect from everyone in your family. Then, think about whether you yourself are also following those rules and modeling the behavior you want to see in your child. Whether it’s “quiet voice in the house,” “roll the ball in the house,” “clean up after yourself,” “use kind words,” it’s important to check in with yourself to make sure you are setting a good example for your child. You are their #1 role model.

Tell your child why the skills are important

Just like you tell your child why you have a rule, let them know how it will benefit them to learn the skill. Whether it is for safety, or to learn polite conversation to get along with others, your child will more likely follow the rule if they know why. We brush our teeth because it is part of taking care of our body, so we can stay healthy.

Show and tell (all ages)

We all learn through watching others. If you want to teach your child a new skill or behavior, let them watch you. If the skill is putting their toys away, show your child how you would like them to do it. Using words, describe what you are doing and let your child copy you. If your child needs help, provide it, but also encourage your child to try again. And remember to use supportive words and praise to let your child know that you think they are doing an awesome job, and encourage them to be proud of themselves.

Incidental teaching (1-12 year olds)

When your child comes to you to ask a question or get help, they are often ready and open to learning something new. This is called incidental teaching. The first step to successfully mastering a new skill is curiosity. We want our children to be curious and ask questions. We can use their natural curiosity to help them think about the task in a deeper way. We can also highlight their excitement and joy in doing something new. A pleasurable activity is more likely to be repeated.

Instead of just answering their question for them, ask your child questions that help them think on a deeper level. Here’s an example: Your toddler asks you what color the firetruck is. Instead of answering back “red,” you could ask your child, “What color do you think it is?” If they answer “red,” follow up with “Yes! You got it right. What else is red? Why do you think firetrucks are red?”

Ask-say-do teaching (3-12 year olds)

As parents, we know that sometimes it is just easier (and faster, and less messy) to do things ourselves rather than letting our toddler pour their own glass of milk or feed the pet. But if your child is showing interest in doing things themselves, it’s a good time to teach the skill rather than always doing it for them. We want to capture that curiosity and excitement, and encourage them to develop competence around that passion. We can provide just enough assistance so they can be successful.

Ask-say-do is a good way to help your child learn to do things for themselves. It can help you teach new skills such as getting dressed, getting ready for bed, preparing a snack for themselves, or chores. When a task is challenging, break down into steps and teach your child one step at a time using this process:

  • Ask: Ask your child what the first step is – “What is the first thing we do when we get ready for bed?”
  • Say: If your child is unable to answer the question, gently tell them what they need to do – “The first step for getting ready for bed is to put on pajamas.”
  • Do: Let your child try the task by themselves first, but step in for help when they need it. Stop helping once the task is started to let your child finish by themselves.

Let your child rise to the challenge. When they struggle just a bit, and overcome the challenge, they are building resilience. It’s similar to when they were first learning to roll or crawl and you put an object they wanted just out of their reach. Remember how they were so pleased when they got it! You will see that same pleasure again and again as they rise to each new challenge.

Learning new skills and behaviors is something we develop all throughout our lives. The #1 thing you can do for your child is be supportive of the process, and encourage them as they continue to grow and flourish throughout their childhood and beyond.

This article is brought to you by Parenting Now Parenting Educators and authors Amanda Bedortha, Claire Davis, and Lynne Grilley. 

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