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Ready or not, winter is here! This means boots, toques, mittens, jackets, ski pants, and scarves...and then realizing you have to pee when it’s all done. Independent dressing is a valuable life skill, and there’s no better time to practice than winter. It may take a little longer at first, but kids will gain valuable fine motor and self-help skills each day!

Before you bundle up, make sure that all of the items fit - and that they feel good. Some kids are very particular about how their clothing feels, and dry winter skin makes everything more sensitive. Invest in seamless socks and spend some time doing a nice massage before getting dressed.

Undressing is easier than getting dressed. If your child is having trouble, have them learn to undress independently first. Offer reinforcements for not only getting undressed, but hanging clothes to dry. “Put your boots away, and then we can have hot cocoa.”

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, consider using a visual schedule. The thought of getting dressed is sometimes too daunting; a visual schedule breaks down the task into manageable steps. It can also remind kids of the order, so that they don’t get their boots on before their ski pants, which leads to a level four meltdown in the porch. You can also lay out the clothing in the correct order on the floor; make dressing into different stations that you can move between (bonus heavy work to keep the brain calm and organized!).

Some kids learn best through song. Try out this dressing song, to the tune of Oh My Darling, Clementine: First the snow pants, then the boots, then the jacket, then the hat; and the mittens go on last, so that we can play outside.

Make sure you give your child enough time to get dressed so you don’t end up doing it for them. Each child is different; time your kids to see how long it actually takes them to get their outerwear on. Provide practice opportunities at low stress periods throughout the day (during play compared to getting ready for the bus). This is the time to play “beat the clock” to see if they can get dressed faster than the last time.

Provide help only as needed. Consider these strategies and techniques when working on the components of dressing:

Shaping: Initially accept any response that even remotely resembles the desired one. This means that if they put their hood on and are wearing their coat like a cape, that counts for ‘coat on.’ Give them praise and help them finish the task. As they practice and gain skills, change the criteria for what ‘coat on’ means.

Teach your child small pieces at a time - focus on getting arms through the coat, and then the zipper. When all the steps are learned, they will be able to complete the full task. Backwards chaining is when you have the child do the very last part of the task. The adult puts the zipper together, and then the child pulls it up the rest of the way. Or, the adult helps the kiddo get their ski pants on their feet and up to their knees, and then encourages them to pull them up the rest of the way. This lets the child feel accomplished with dressing themselves, and stops adults from helping too much. Reduce or fade the amount of help gradually as your child becomes more independent.

Remember that dressing and undressing is a great motor skill challenge. We practice single leg balance when putting on ski pants and boots, and use that fine motor pincer grasp for pulling on mittens and toques. And don’t forget the more complex fine motor precision skills for latching a zipper and snapping up pants.

Other tips for minimizing frustration with dressing:

  • Choose items with minimal number of fasteners, and that have large buttons and buttonholes. Look for large tabs on zippers or add a zipper pull.

  • Provide a chair for the kiddo that needs extra stability, and allow for plenty of space.

  • Look for boots that slip on, and avoid laces or buckles. The same goes for ski pants - if your child has difficulty with fine motor skills, avoid types that have snaps, buttons, and belts.

  • Invest in a magnetic zipper that automatically clasps together and stays in place. This gadget might just be the coolest dressing tool out there.

  • Neck tubes are easier to manipulate than scarves, which usually require help from an adult to loop and tie.

  • Find mittens that can go over the coat sleeve. This helps to avoid getting snow down their sleeves; plus, they can go on last so that your hands are free to help with other items (like if your boots are in the boot room at school, so they have to go on last).

Remember to reward any effort towards independence, and get out there and play!

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