#113 - Sensory Strategies for Improving Self Care Skills

by Jessica Hill, COTA/L & Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC August 05, 2020

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Sensory Strategies for Improving Self Care Skills

Welcome to episode 113! Today’s episode is all about the daily tasks that our children complete - activities of daily living (aka ADLs). We discuss the reasons WHY a child might struggle with these tasks as well as our fav tips, tricks, and strategies to help improve success and independence. We also share our fav products that can help make these tasks more motivating!


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Sensory Strategies For Improving Self Care Skills

Activities of daily living (ADLs) refer to the fundamental tasks necessary for our overall well-being. That’s why occupational therapy greatly emphasizes assisting individuals with essential activities such as feeding, mealtimes, dressing, personal hygiene, and toileting.

Occupational therapists and assistants are crucial in addressing these aspects during treatment sessions, promoting a comprehensive approach to improving daily functioning. By prioritizing these areas, we aim to enhance the quality of life and foster independence.


What Causes Difficulty With Activities of Daily Living (ADLs)?

From a therapeutic standpoint, various factors can hinder the performance of daily activities. These encompass sensory sensitivities, physical constraints, cognitive impairments, and emotional influences.

People with sensory processing disorders often have sensitivities that can make it challenging to efficiently or even complete certain activities. As a result, we often observe behaviors such as avoidance or resistance when faced with tasks related to activities of daily living (ADLs).

Here are a few additional factors:

  • Poor bilateral coordination and core stability.
  • Poor overall fine motor skills.
  • Difficulties processing tactile and olfactory stimuli, or essentially any sensory processing challenges.
  • Poor sequencing and executive functioning skills.

While these examples provide a glimpse into the discussion of ADLs, countless reasons deserve recognition. These specific factors are the ones that indeed leave a lasting impression, making a substantial impact.


Promoting Independence in Your Child’s Activities of Daily Living

Mastering activities of daily living isn’t always effortless; it necessitates time, empathy, patience, and effort on your part at home. You can make significant progress by delving into the core reasons behind these ADLs’ challenges.

Parents play a vital role in teaching and demonstrating to their children how to independently carry out daily activities (ADLs). Whether brushing their teeth or getting dressed, their hesitation is not an intentional effort to create trouble or upset you; there is always an underlying reason behind their behavior.

Providing repetitive guidance and gradually decreasing support as each step of the sequence is mastered is essential. Interestingly, children’s proficiency in activities of daily living (ADLs) typically improves when parents step back and empower them to take ownership of these tasks.


Strategies for Supporting All Children In Mastering Activities of Daily Living (ADLs)

One effective strategy is implementing a visual schedule to help your child navigate their daily routine. For example, when assisting your child with getting dressed, you can create a visual checklist of the items they need to wear.

By marking each task as accomplished, you encourage independence and organization while establishing a clear and structured routine for your child. To inspire children who may be hesitant to take on challenging activities, offering a positive incentive for their efforts can have a remarkable effect.

Most importantly, it is crucial to maintain consistency and enjoyment in daily activities. You can listen to music, turn it into a friendly competition, or incorporate fun lighting. Discover what brings joy to your child and create a positive and enriching experience.


Tips for Dressing Your Child

Teaching young children the skill of dressing and undressing without assistance is crucial. A practical approach to aid this learning process is to place a full-length mirror in their room, allowing them to observe and comprehend their actions while getting dressed.

Encourage your child to embrace autonomy by allowing them to choose their outfits. For many children, selecting their attire is a means of asserting control and nurturing independence; therefore, it is crucial to choose your battles wisely.

Imagine it’s a chilly 25 degrees outside, and your child insists on wearing shorts. In this situation, you decide to engage in a conflict or allow them to exercise their independence.

By granting them this autonomy, they can learn from their own experience and, if they feel too cold, choose warmer clothing next time. It is often through personal mistakes that children gain knowledge most effectively.

Chaining is another technique that can be utilized, encompassing two approaches: forward chaining and backward chaining. Both methods involve offering assistance to the child, either in the initial or final steps of a task.

Through the use of chaining, you can carry out all the steps of a task except for the final one. In subsequent practice sessions, gradually increase their involvement by having them complete the last two steps and so forth.

Encourage your child to express which part they would like to contribute while refraining from immediately assisting them. This approach enables individuals to cultivate their skills, nurturing a sense of self-reliance and fostering their growth and independence.


Teaching Your Child To Self-Feed

When your child shows aversion to certain textures or smells, has trouble sitting at the table, or struggles with self-feeding, it’s important to remember that their hesitation is not a form of defiance. Instead, it is likely rooted in anxieties or unresolved underlying issues.

Approach these challenges with empathy, understanding, and support to help them overcome these obstacles. You can start by providing ample exposure to various textures and smells and offering different utensils for them to practice with.

Enhance your child’s mealtime experience by introducing a mirror to the table. This provides them with the opportunity to observe themselves while enjoying their food.

Additionally, encourage utensil practice during playtime, not just during meals. Incorporate forks and spoons into sensory bins, engage in cut playdough activities, or scoop and pour beans to develop the fine motor skills necessary for self-feeding.

When serving food to your child at the table, if they immediately express dislike for it, consider allowing them to serve themselves. Even if it’s just a small portion of each food item required on their plate, this strategy promotes independence and control.

Consider a gradual approach if you have a child who resists feeding themselves and only eats when you put the food in their mouth. Start by having them take the first bite and then assist with the rest.

Over time, increase their involvement with each meal; for example, have them take the first two bites before you step in. Doing this creates an expectation that you’ll assist when they make an effort.

Instead of giving in to tantrums, gently inform your child that you can help whenever they are ready. If you consistently give in to tantrums, they will continue, and the situation may worsen.


Brushing Your Child’s Teeth

It’s a common challenge when it comes to kids and oral hygiene. Children often find the sensation of a toothbrush in their mouth unpleasant, and the taste of toothpaste may not be appealing to them either.

Children with a sensitive gag reflex may feel discomfort when the toothbrush reaches the back of their mouth, causing them to gag. Naturally, this can make the entire experience unpleasant for them, resulting in avoidance.

For parents with infants, using a small finger brush to gently massage their gums and cheeks to begin desensitizing them as early as birth is beneficial. Consider transitioning to a vibrating toothbrush and introducing different toothpaste varieties as they age.

Incorporating oral motor input at various times throughout the day is beneficial. The Z-Vibe by Ark Therapeutic and sour spray and vibrating infant teethers are helpful with desensitization.

You can incorporate oral motor games into your practice, such as bubble mountain, blowing cotton balls through straws, imitating mouth noises or silly faces, whistles, or kazoos. These activities help develop awareness of oral structures and enhance speech skills.

Brush-Ease is another delightful tool that provides a whimsical song and a visual timer to guide you, making the toothbrushing experience enjoyable and effective. Its playful nature adds a touch of fun to your oral care routine.


Toilet Training Your Young Child

To help your child understand their bathroom needs, try providing vestibular input and establishing essential connections before encouraging restroom use. This process is called interoception.

Teaching proper body mechanics when your child is seated on a toilet is essential. Providing foot support with a stool ensures correct alignment, vital for their ability to push effectively and comfortably.

Teaching children proper bathroom hygiene, including effective wiping techniques, can present challenges. One approach to promote core stability and trunk rotation in your child is to have them sit on a therapy ball while a balloon covered with shaving cream is placed behind them.

Next, guide your child to reach behind themselves and gently remove the shaving cream from the balloon. This interactive method encourages cleanliness and boosts physical coordination and balance.


Teaching Older Children To Shower Independently

A social story is an excellent starting point to address the social aspects, safety, and hygiene needed for functioning in society. Additionally, a visual schedule is invaluable for children who struggle with sequencing, as it visually depicts the step-by-step process of bathing or showering.

To help your child remember their shower routine, try using two buckets: one for tasks to complete and the other for tasks completed. After washing their hair with shampoo, they can move the bottle to the completed basket and proceed to the next step.

Moreover, you have the opportunity to elevate the sensory ambiance in the bathroom. You can achieve this by fine-tuning the lighting, incorporating twinkling lights, allowing your child to select a candle, and playing delightful music.

Installing a mirror in the shower can be highly convenient, as it facilitates effortless hair and face washing. Moreover, consider placing a mirror on the ceiling, which can serve as a visual aid for your child when they tilt their head back to rinse their hair.

Additionally, incorporating simulated shower tasks into play provides a valuable opportunity to practice these skills in a relaxed, stress-free setting. Here are a few of our favorite activities for honing these abilities:

  • Demonstrate shaving by applying shaving cream on a balloon and using a popsicle stick to simulate the process.
  • Performing exercises that involve tilting the head back and extending the neck while simultaneously raising the arms against the force of gravity.
  • Upper-body strengthening activities like rock climbing.
  • Vestibular-based activities: downward dog yoga pose, wheelbarrow walk, leaning back while swinging, and hanging upside down.
  • Simulate washing hair by manipulating yarn: cut it into small pieces, apply shampoo, and rinse by covering a balloon with the yarn or placing it in a bowl.

If your child finds taking a shower too overwhelming or challenging, an alternative would be to have them continue taking baths. This allows for a more comfortable and manageable bathing experience.


Assisting Your Older Child In Maintaining Personal Hygiene

Numerous parents have expressed that when their older child reaches the age where it’s time to begin using deodorant, their child often struggles to grasp its significance and remember to apply it.

Incorporating a visual schedule can be incredibly helpful in this situation. Consider adding deodorant to the schedule and including a social story to explain the social aspects of wearing deodorant, such as being around friends or crushes.

Give your child the freedom to choose their preferred deodorant. Encourage them to experiment with different types, as each person may react differently to various deodorants.

Parents can empower their children by allowing them to select from various deodorant options such as gel, spray, or natural alternatives without aluminum. Listening to their preferences and granting them control in this aspect is crucial.

If you find it challenging to motivate your child to engage in this routine, seeking assistance from an occupational therapist might be beneficial. They can consider incorporating deodorant introduction into therapy sessions, as children are typically more receptive to trying new things when guided by someone other than their parents.


Tips for Older Children’s Bathroom Etiquette

Utilizing a social story can aid in your child’s understanding of the significance of maintaining proper hygiene practices after using the bathroom. We can engage in a thoughtful conversation about personal hygiene by discussing potential negative consequences without instilling fear.

If your child avoids messy activities, you can incorporate more hands-on experiences into their daily routine. Engaging in playful activities like exploring peanut butter or shaving cream, and using gloves, can help them gradually overcome any discomfort they may feel.

Additionally, ensure that their feet are firmly planted on the ground when using the toilet. Consider using flushable wet wipes instead of toilet paper, and practice in-hand manipulation to perfect the folding technique and apply appropriate pressure while wiping.

Remember, honing these skills during play or other activities can be equally effective as practicing them in the moment while on the toilet. Here’s a helpful suggestion: encourage them to wipe independently first, then you can follow up to ensure thoroughness.

Seize the opportunity to discuss these with your child and allow them to preserve their independence while ensuring a thorough cleaning. Moreover, explore avenues to offer positive feedback, even when they require additional assistance.


Hair Management For Older Children

If your child is sensitive to having their hair styled, using a wet brush can be helpful for gently untangling their hair. Additionally, you can explore alternative options like vibrating hair brushes, scalp massagers, or combing their hair in the shower while applying conditioner.

Whether you choose to believe it or not, the act of practicing can yield remarkable results. Consider this effective technique: grasp a small section of hair near the roots, just above the area you are brushing, and gently brush downwards towards the ends.

If your child struggles with tasks like creating ponytails or simple braids, it can be helpful to concentrate on exercises that strengthen their upper body and hands. They can practice with dolls, manipulate their hair, or even practice in front of a mirror.

Creating a positive and supportive environment can be an invaluable tool for learning and the mastery of daily living activities. Furthermore, remember that taking time to celebrate even the smallest accomplishments is an essential part of building self-esteem.





While we make every effort to share correct information, we are still learning. We will double check all of our facts but realize that medicine is a constantly changing science and art. One doctor / therapist may have a different way of doing things from another. We are simply presenting our views and opinions on how to address common sensory challenges, health related difficulties and what we have found to be beneficial that will be as evidenced based as possible. By listening to this podcast, you agree not to use this podcast as medical advice to treat any medical condition in either yourself or your children. Consult your child’s pediatrician/ therapist for any medical issues that he or she may be having. This entire disclaimer also applies to any guests or contributors to the podcast. Under no circumstances shall Rachel Harrington, Harkla, Jessica Hill, or any guests or contributors to the podcast, as well as any employees, associates, or affiliates of Harkla, be responsible for damages arising from use of the podcast.

Keep in mind that we may receive commissions when you click our links and make purchases. However, this does not impact our reviews and comparisons. We try our best to keep things fair and balanced, in order to help you make the best choice for you.

This podcast should not be used in any legal capacity whatsoever, including but not limited to establishing “standard of care” in a legal sense or as a basis for expert witness testimony. No guarantee is given regarding the accuracy of any statements or opinions made on the podcast.

Jessica Hill, COTA/L & Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC
Jessica Hill, COTA/L & Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC

Rachel Harrington, COTA/l, AC, CPRCS, and Jessica Hill, COTA/L, CPRCS are Harkla's in-house Certified Occupational Therapy Assistants (COTA) and Certified Primitive Reflex Clinical Specialists. They have been working with children for over 6 years in outpatient settings. They specialize in creating easy-to-digest, actionable content that families can use to help their child's progress at home. Jessica and Rachel are the in-house experts, content creators, and podcast hosts at Harkla! To learn more about Jessica and Rachel, visit the Harkla About Us Page. Make sure to listen to their weekly podcast, All Things Sensory by Harkla for actionable, fun advice on child development.

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