Self-Reliance Skills Help Children Navigate Their World

Teaching self-sufficiency builds confidence and makes transitions easier
toddler putting on a yellow shirt
© Can Stock Photo / SergiyN

Though there is no rush for little kids to grow up–we want them to play freely and stay safely attached until they're ready for independence–there's nothing like the joy of watching them learn new skills that pave the way for future self-reliance. The excitement of preparing your child for preschool or junior kindergarten, for example, 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 are the skills that will allow children to make the transition from home to anything a little easier and are a big first step towards self-sufficiency, confidence, and more sophisticated life-skills later on.

Age-appropriate self-reliance skills

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

Tips to encourage self-reliance in kids

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 and can be done with mom or dad’s help until their skills improve.

If you are teaching them to take their own shoes off, 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 or daycare 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.


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.

Daily routine

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.

Charting the routine

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.

Choice is important

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.

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 allow children to master self-reliance. (And it will be easier on you in the long run!) Once they’ve conquered these small but important things, they can graduate to even more complex life skills! Be sure to praise their efforts, and balance helping them when they need it with encouraging them to do it on their own. Make compromises: You do the pants, I will do the shirt. Sometimes just being beside them and offering your support with good cheer 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