Share the Mental Load Series: Delegating Tasks to Your Children.
In my June 5, 2023 Blog, I talked about how parents who are primary caregivers can reduce their cognitive load by outsourcing my physical and mental work to others. This week, we’re focusing on how you can outsource some of that work to your child, even if they have special needs or disabilities. This includes intellectual disabilities. You know your child best, but as an educator, I encourage you to adopt a bigger, open-ended view of your child’s abilities. Even if if your child is not high-functioning (and the even in the land of high-functioning kiddos, there is a ton of variance) you just have to remember that one problem that were trying to solve (remember, because multitasking is a myth) and think about how your child can participate.
In education, we have a framework for lesson planning called “I do, We do, You do” . I recommend this framework most of the time to use to teach your child a skill, whether it is a math problem, sight work or a life/self-care skill.
“I do”. This is where you model for your child. You brush your teeth. Let them wash. Talk aloud about what you’re doing. Let them focus on watching you do it and not yet on doing it alongside you.
“We do”. This is where you do it together. Be prepared to brush your teeth alongside your child every night for three months if you have to. And don’t do it in silence. Narrate what you’re doing and why. Exaggerate. “Oh my goodness, look at these dirty teeth! Germs, no way, you’ve got to go! Time to brush
“You do”. This is where your child gets independent practice. They may stain their pajamas, soak their tops with water, and go through a half a tube of toothpaste. Help only as needed, and try coaching - Talking them through- instead of doing it for them.
Step 1: Name the Problem you need to solve for.
For example, I would like my child to brush their own teeth independently. (Woo, you go for the jugular, don’t you?)
Step 2: Count the cost
When I named that I would teach my daughter to brush her own teeth as she was approaching school-age (she had a low IQ number that I chose not to remember so I could see how far we could stretch her), I thought it would take two to three weeks. It actually took three months of me committing 15 to 30 minutes each evening, and the rest of the year of maintenance (physically being in our bathroom for 10 minutes) and coaching before 95% independence came. Sometimes I wanted to slap myself. Sometimes I’d grab the toothbrush and do it for her, but the next time it was taking too long in the bathroom and was starting to look like a zoo, I would restrain myself by asking myself- “Am I willing to do this for her until she turns 18?”
Step 3: Set up the experiment and break it down into smaller steps.
Tell yourself and your child that they are going to have to brush their own teeth! Do your research, watch you tube videos, talk to other parents in support groups about how they’ve done it, gather the materials needed, then get started right away. Break down the task. For example, brushing teeth may look like this: 1) Part one: Prep toothbrush and toothpaste. 2) Part two: Brush top, bottom, front, and tongue until the timer goes off. And 3) Part 3 might be: Rinse toothbrush, mouth a sink.
Step 4: Remove any barriers to success.
If your child is a toddler who is ambulatory, get a stool. If they are in a wheelchair, get or make water and a washbasin accessible. If they have sensory challenges, get the right kind of toothpaste and toothbrush. Use visual aids, such as pictures or diagrams, to help children understand what they need to do. And get the right materials for you. I went through traditional toothbrushes, natural brushes and finally landed on an electric toothbrush for my daughter. I also had to introduce a timer, a cup, mouth wash, hand towel (she hated her hands staying wet). Also, I made brushing my teeth something that happens right before we watch our tablet for 30 minutes before bed.
Step 4: Hunker down, commit, and ignore the casualties for a while.
It may take weeks or months or a year or more. My daughter used too much toothpaste. lined the sink with it, speckled the mirror with it, ran the water and knocked down enough capfuls of mouthwash to fill a fish tank. She would sometimes try delay or avoidance tactics that caused me to discipline her and send her straight to bed. But be and stay reflective. If you abandon the goal because you’re focused on the casualties, you will end up as a life-time toothbrush! You will have to adjust your goal or the routine, but unless it’s physically impossible for the child, stick to it- and make sure you hold them accountable. I had to incorporate cleaning the sink as part of the tooth brushing routine.
Step 5: Celebrate success, big and small!
Provide positive reinforcement when children complete tasks independently, or part of the task. This will help them to feel good about themselves and encourage them to continue trying. I’m a big fan of cheer and exaggeration because that works for my daughter. It gets her gassed up, so I start doing touch down dances, showering her with “big girl” compliments, and giving her high fives when she meets the goal we planned for her, or is consistent.
I hope you find the tips and tools I shared helpful to help your child learn tons of things that go beyond toothbrushing, despite their disability. There are many tasks that children with special needs can do for themselves, even if they have lower IQs or physical disabilities. The specific tasks that a child can do will depend on their individual abilities and disabilities,and to some extent, your resolve. However, some common tasks that children with special needs can do include:
- Choosing their own clothes
- Dressing themselves
- Eating independently
- Combing their hair
- Using the toilet
- Taking a bath or shower
- Getting in and out of bed
- Playing with toys (and cleaning up after play)
- Reading books (Just make sure you get what they’re interested in!)
- Cleaning their space up after a meal
- Taking of their shoes (or putting them on)
- Accessing their shows or apps on a tablet
- Pouring a drink for themselves, or accessing their water bottle, juice or milk
- Making simple meals, like cereal and sandwiches
As a mother of a child with special needs, and one without, and an educator who's taught hundreds of children, I want to stamp that every child with special needs is different. Some children may be able to do more tasks than others. It is also important to provide children with the support they need to do the tasks they are able to do. This may include providing them with adaptive equipment, such as a wheelchair or a walker, or providing them with one-on-one assistance with graduated support.
With the right support, children with special needs can do many things for themselves. They can learn, grow, and develop like other children.
With your help, patience, special children with special needs can learn to do many things for themselves. They can live happy, fulfilling lives just like any other child, and it will reduce the load on you.