How to Teach Children to Dress by Themselves

When your toddler pulls out his favourite red sweater to wear it on a sunny day or insists on buttoning his jacket himself, it’s a cue he wants to dress on his own. Here is how parents can help along

By Sahana Charan  • 7 min read

How to Teach Children to Dress by Themselves

When three-year-old Mia refused to wear the striped black and white dress to her playdate and asked for the floral one instead, her mother was a tad taken aback. Not only was her little one showing interest in dressing herself, but she was also indicating her choices. The little girl’s mother conceded to her decision but did not wait till Mia slipped the garment over her head. Instead, she quickly took it from her, made her wear the dress and fastened the buttons. The disappointment of not being allowed to exert her independence and do things on her own was writ large on Mia’s face.

It might take a while before the little girl can get the buttons right, put on a belt or tie her shoelaces impeccably. But if she is allowed to try dressing at her own pace, she will gain the confidence to do it. Adults often take such tasks for granted, and may not realise that for toddlers/preschoolers, mastering a task like self-dressing is a big deal. So, they need the time and space to slowly and surely learn the skill, while having a happy and stress-free experience.

“Learning to dress oneself involves multiple skills and is a gradual process of discovery, practice and ability. Toddlers from the age of two years begin to show interest in dressing themselves. They observe keenly, and with encouragement from parents and caregivers, pick up the skills as they grow. Overall, they must have pleasant experiences with learning to dress. Mistakes must be taken lightly so that the child learns that it’s alright to keep trying. First, allow them to try, and help when asked. Stepping in while they are trying can thwart their need to learn and move towards independence. Emotionally, it makes them feel frustrated and want to give up,” explains Arundhati Swamy, Head - Parent Engagement Programmes at ParentCircle and former president, Chennai Counselor's Foundation.

Getting Started

When your child is just getting started, there are some things you can do regarding educating your little one on basics of dressing:

  • Give a limited choice of clothing, so your child does not get confused about what to wear
  • Show him different types of garments, including sweaters, cotton shirts, windcheater, party clothing and so on, and explain the occasion and weather conditions for wearing these garments.
  • It is a good idea to name each piece of clothing and where your child goes, for example - socks for feet, pants for the lower body and the like.
  • Initially, give the child loose, easily wearable clothing, pants and dresses with elastic waistbands, dresses that can be slipped on without difficulty, garments with Velcro and simple, large buttons.
  • Avoid pants and other garments with difficult hooks and buttons, especially if your child has just learnt or is learning to use the toilet.

Each child has her own pace; one may learn quickly while another may take a little more time. They graduate from skills that are simple to the more complex ones. 

“Simple tasks include garments that are easy to slip on and require large motor movements such as taking off and pulling down garments. The more complex tasks include putting on and pulling up garments, manipulating buttons and tying shoelaces, as they require fine motor movements, coordination, memory, body awareness,” says Arundhati.

As kids learn to dress, here are the skills your child will master:

Physical: large and fine motor movements and coordination, balance, body awareness.

Emotional: self-satisfaction, expression of choice, bonding with the helping adult or sibling, the value of effort and practice, sense of accomplishment.

Social: conversation, cooperation

Cognitive: thinking about the how and what of a garment, memory, language – naming the garments and its parts, colours, texture, sense of body in relation to space and dimension.

“Mastery over a task makes them feel competent and good about themselves. Children who are always dressed by others, without involving them actively in the process, are likely to expect others to do it for them, and become dependent and passive in self-help tasks,” she adds.

Milestones to expect

Parental expectations can either make or break the learning process. Expecting too much too soon or excessive pampering are deterrents to a child’s growing sense of self. Realistic expectations must be based on the child’s development stage that gives broad limits within which a child learns to do things.

Arundhati Swamy gives parents important pointers on what self-dressing milestone to expect at what age and what parents can do to help their child, in the box below: 

How to Teach Children to Dress by Themselves

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