Self-Reliance Skills in Children

Techniques for teaching self-sufficiency in young kids
toddler putting on a yellow shirt
©Can Stock Photo / SergiyN

The excitement of preparing your child for preschool or junior kindergarten usually involves teaching them their colours, counting, learning their ABC’s, and perhaps printing their names. Though these skills are certainly important, self-reliance skills in children are some of the most vital ones you can teach: dressing themselves, independence in the bathroom, self-feeding, and self-care. These are the skills that will allow them to make the transition from home to anything a little easier. But whether starting preschool or not, self-reliance skills in children are a big first step towards self-sufficiency and independence. Independence builds confidence and although it may be hard at times to step back and give your child the time and space to do it on their own, the benefits far outweigh the time it takes to see it through.

As former child care providers, educational assistants in the school system, and moms ourselves, we have some great parenting tips to help you teach your child how to acquire self-reliance skills.

Moving from "help me" to "I can do it!"

Dressing and self-care

At a young age you can start with teaching children simple tasks using the hand-over-hand technique where you physically guide them through the motions. Things like tidying up their toys, brushing their teeth, and washing their hands work well with this. The goal is to start with the hand-over-hand technique while continuing to encourage them to do it on their own. Things like brushing teeth and washing hands can be done again with mom or dad’s help until their skills improve.

If you are teaching them to take their own shoes off, you would gently take their hands in yours, guide them to their shoe while saying, “It’s time to take your shoes off”. With one hand on the heel and one hand on the tip of the toe (your hand is still on top of theirs), guide them to gently pull their shoe off so that they can feel the motion. Other skills such as putting on their own coat, tidying up toys, and putting on their own shoes and mitts can all really help in a classroom setting. Having these skills not only teaches independence but it also allows them a little more freedom by not having to wait for the teacher’s help.

Dressing tip

Teach your child how to zip other children’s coats. Being able to help the teacher gives them a sense of pride and a great boost in confidence.

Feeding themselves

When teaching them how to feed themselves solid food, hold their hand while they are gripping the spoon and guide it toward the bowl and then to their mouth. Once they have gotten the hang of it, you can hand-over-hand help them scoop the food into the spoon but then allow them the independence to guide it to their own mouth. 

Self-feeding tip 

Foods like applesauce, oatmeal, and yogurt are all great to start teaching our young toddlers to feed themselves. Put just enough in the bowl that they have something to scoop up with their spoon but not enough that it would make a huge mess if they dropped (or threw!) it on the floor.


Have a routine around basic skills so that they know what is expected of them and when. Routines offer children the predictability they thrive on and can lessen resistance to tasks. Knowing what comes next in their day to day also helps decrease anxiety surrounding transitions. Brushing teeth happens after breakfast and before bed; washing their face happens after meals; and putting on their own coat before leaving the house are all things that are done consistently throughout the day.

Routine tip

Making other fun activities while they are completing their tasks can help to keep them motivated. Singing a song as they are going through the motions is also a great way to make it fun for both you and your child. Setting a timer while brushing their teeth makes a game out of it and can help reduce any protesting that may be involved.


An easy way to teach your child about their routine is with a picture chart. You can create a chart with as many or as few steps as you need but the goal is that your child can see what their day to day looks like, giving them the control and predictability that they crave.

Using a picture chart if your child is in part time care, if a parent works away from home, or if there are bedtime battles can help reduce the associated anxiety. It can be as simple as a picture with a box for them to check off as you go through each step, or a colour-coded calendar with home and daycare days displayed as simple images.

Charts tip

Involve your child in the charts by having them help colour or create them. The internet has loads of free ideas for creating fun charts, like this post from the site, Carrots are Orange.


Some toddlers really struggle with control. Trying to get control and trying to keep that control can be what drives a toddler's whole day. Whether it’s picking the clothes they wear, the cup they drink from, or the books they will read, offering them a choice will help them feel more empowered. The trick is that you only want to offer them the choice between two things: “this” or “that”! Anything more can be overwhelming and create even more challenge.

Choices tip

If your child struggles with making decisions, tell them you will count down from 10 before choosing for them.

Age-appropriate self-reliance skills in children

18 months

  • Brushing their teeth (with help)

  • Cleaning their face and their high chair tray after a meal

  • Starting to feed themselves with utensils

  • Drinking from an open cup

  • Helping to dress and undress themselves: straightening their arms when you put their shirt on; recognizing where their socks and shoes go (let them try it on their own!)

2 years old

  • A little more independence with dressing and undressing themselves; putting on their own shoes and coat

  • Getting a tissue to blow their own nose

  • Washing their own hands (with help)

  • Pulling their own pants up and down when going to the bathroom

  • Some independent play in short increments

3 years old

  • Brushing their own hair

  • Brushing their own teeth (you will want to go over it after)

  • Going to the bathroom on their own

  • Washing hands independently with help from a bench

  • Dressing and undressing from outdoor clothes

4 years old

  • Increase time and opportunity for independent play

  • While staying nearby, let them explore outside

  • Fully dressing and undressing themselves, including zippers and buttons

  • Wiping their own bottom after they have had a bowel movement

Although we may need to fight the urge to jump in and do everything for them, it truly is beneficial to take the extra time to teach self-sufficiency skills in children. (And it will be easier on you in the long run!) Once they’ve mastered these small but important things, you can graduate to even more complex life skills! While teaching them these, be sure to praise their efforts, and help them if they need it while encouraging them to do it on their own. If they are really struggling in certain situations, make compromises: You do the pants, I will do the shirt.  Sometimes just being beside them and offering your support as they try can help them deal with the frustration that comes along with learning, but it won’t be long before they’re saying, “I can do it myself!”

*originally published November 23, 2016