How can I support my child to learn to dress themselves?

Dressing and undressing yourself is very much part of everyday life, but it can be tricky and children learn at different rates.

Children learn best when they are motivated and it is important that at every stage of developing skills the ‘just right challenge’ is provided. This sets the challenge at a level that is right for them – not too easy and not too hard – ensuring a sense of achievement and success. 

Boy pulling on jeans, with dad looking on

Below our team of Occupational Therapists set out information and strategies to help you support your child to learn these skills.

The stages of learning how to get dressed

Dressing is a skill that is learnt gradually and usually happens in the order below. It is important to recognise the stage your child may be at as they may be doing a lot, all, or a little of the skills below.

Cooperates whilst being dressed

Holds out arm for sleeve or leg for trouser. Can take off shoes, socks and hat (but not able to replace these)

Finds arm hole and removes unfastened tops.

Helps to push trousers/pants down.
Able to put on hat and shoes.

Able to put on front button tops, coats and cardigans.

Some assistance needed to put on and remove tops. Able to push down and remove lower garments. Tries to put on socks. Can complete large buttons and pull up a closed zip.

Dresses and undresses independently but may still need help with fastenings.

Clothing may still be back to front or on the wrong feet.
May be starting to tie knots for lacing.

Knowing what stage your child has achieved can help you to set appropriate targets ensuring your child experiences success, encouraging motivation and most importantly participation in the dressing task.

How can I help my child move through the different stages of dressing?

Before children are able to learn to undress/dress themselves there are pre-dressing skills they need to learn.

  • Play is really important in helping children learn these skills.
  • When dressing, your child will need enough hand strength to help grip and move clothes and fastenings.
  • Children also need a good understanding of how their body works together and how it moves.

Please see below for ideas to help develop these skills:

Little girl sat on floor pulling on trousers
  • Using button boards, play cubes, cloth button or popper books.
  • Find your tail – tuck a toy or fabric tail into the back of your waistband and find it and pull it out.
  • Posting and threading games.
  • Package wrapping. Making parcels and tying them up with different sorts of ties.
  • Playing with a hula hoop, stepping in and out, pull up and down, lifting over head.
  • Magnetic games and pull apart toys e.g. Lego
  • Playing ‘Simon Says’ and games that name parts of the body. 
  • Action songs like ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ and ‘Wheels on the Bus’.
  • Hide and seek.
  • Matching sock game. Place a variety of socks in a pile, the child has to find pairs and put them on.
  • Dressing up in a variety of clothes and costumes and playing pretend games. 
  • Dressing and undressing dolls and teddies.
  • Musical dressing up (a variation of musical chairs) – The children put items of clothing on from a pile until the music stops, at the end of the game the child with the most clothes on is the winner.
  • Spend time getting everything you need together before you start. Putting things in the order you are going to need them will help. Children will need help with this at first.
  • Putting pictures on drawers and cupboards will help your child to find things more easily.
  • Sitting down will make getting dressed easier so try a small chair or on the floor leaning against the wall or your bed. It is advised that feet, hips and ankles are at a 90 degree position if sat on a seat
  • Children need to be able to focus on getting dressed. So where possible make sure the TV is off, the toys are put away and you have enough space.
  • When learning to get dressed it helps if you can do it in the same way and in the same place each time. Pick a place that is private and your child feels comfortable.
  • Enable your child to look in a big mirror to check how they look when getting dressed
  • Start dressing and undressing instruction early to establish a routine as this helps build a child’s confidence.
  • Sit next to, in front of, or directly behind the child during activity and adjust your position as needed. 
  • Be predictable, use the same technique every time. · Talk about what you are doing to reinforce the action. Use simple, clear language.
  • Allow time when the child begins to anticipate the next stage. Let them take the initiative when they can.
  • Establish the developmental level of the child and then teach the next step. 
  • Remember undressing is learned before dressing.
  • Give the child time to react.
  • Weekends and school holidays are good times to work on dressing skills when time pressures are lower than during the week.
  • Master one process or garment at a time.
  • Assistance should be withdrawn as confidence is gained.
  • It is helpful to mark the back or front of the garment clearly so the child can clearly tell the difference.
  • Sometimes a bright coloured mark on the arm hole inside a jacket or shirt may enable the child to distinguish left from right
  • If your child gets in a muddle with putting clothes on the right way round, look for a label at the back or a picture on the front.
  • Try socks with different coloured heels and toes and that are a size bigger – this makes it much easier to put them on!
  • Always praise any efforts, even if these are not successful.

Strategies and Tips

  • Tops could be brought a size larger than the child normally wears so that they are easier to get on/off and are not restricting
  • Look for shirts with easy neck openings, boat necks, horizontal crossover necks and V necks.
  • Have the child wear a mitten to prevent their fingers from getting caught as they go through the sleeve.
  • To help the child distinguish front from back, mark one side with a coloured label or patch.
  • Reinforce cuff buttons with elastic thread so the button can remain buttoned while the sleeve is being slipped on or off.
  • Buttons are easier to grasp if they are flat (instead of concave) large, textured or sewn slightly above the surface of the garment. Be sure buttonholes are large enough for buttoning with ease.
  • Shorts, bathing suits and pyjama bottoms often are easier to work with than long trousers.
  • Try starting with trousers with elastic waistbands and eventually progress to trousers with fastenings.
  • Pull-loops can be sewn inside trouser waistbands to help your child pull up the garment (if belt loops are not already sewn on).

Use of a backward chaining technique may be useful when teaching your child dressing skills as it encourages independence gradually without overwhelming your child. Below is an example of how to break down a task into different stages. Once a stage has been mastered, move on to the next stage – this will help to make the task achievable for your child.

Removing Socks

  • Child removes socks from toes only (after the rest of the sock has been removed for them).
  • Child takes off the sock from just below the heel/mid-arch (after the rest of the sock has been removed for them).
  • Child takes off the sock from just above the heel (after the rest of the sock has been removed for them).
  • Child removes the whole sock.
  • When providing instructions/directions to your child, use short simple phrases such as “sock down” or “sock up” and repeat the same phrase every time your child is completing that task.
Once your child has begun to master dressing, this would be a good time to introduce learning fastenings. Please see below for some general advice on how to support this.
  • Begin practicing on bigger buttons and looser buttonholes first, before trying smaller buttons.
  • Start with buttons that the child can see – leave trouser buttoning until last.
  • Sit or stand in a stable position
  • Hold a button with your thumb and index finger of one hand, while your other hand holds the matching buttonhole.
  • Use one hand to push the hole over the button and the other hand to push the button through the hole.
  • The hand that pushed the button can swap to pull the button.
  • Keep pulling from both sides until the button pops out.
  • If your child is struggling, provide hand over hand assistance in addition to verbal instruction to complete buttons (and zips).
  • Using verbal cues such as “pinch, pull, post” will prompt your child to remember the actions needed to fasten/unfasten buttons.

Tip: To help your child locate the correct button to its hole, mark them with coloured thread.

  • Start by doing ‘closed end’ zips, encouraging your child to use two hands.
  • Teach larger zips first.
  • Sit or stand in a stable position
  • Pull the zip down to the bottom of the garment.
  • Bring both sides of the garment together.
  • Hold the tag with one hand and put the other side of the zip into the slot, making sure it is firmly placed.
  • Hold the garment bottom with one hand and pull the tag up to the top of the garment

Tip: Enlarge the zip tag using a paperclip or key-ring to make it easier to hold.

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