A popular motto used by Montessori teachers is “help me to help myself”.
What does this mean?
We observe for signs of frustration or wait for the children to ask for help.
When it comes to dressing specifically, this means allowing them the time and space to remove and put on articles of clothing, only assisting when needed.
We also ensure the environment sets them up for success - the materials are accessible and age appropriate:
Store clothing in an accessible placefor toddlers - the lowest drawers in a dresser or in baskets they can access
Only offer a few of each item - 2 pants, 2 shirts, etc. Too many choices is overwhelming for young children
Setup a dressing area with a full body length mirror. It’s important for the child to look at themselves, observe or recognize what could be out of place. It's also helpful to add a child-sized stool or cube chair. Sitting makes it easier to put on underwear, pants, and socks.
Choose function over fashion - In Montessori, we encourage parents to dress children in comfortable, loose, and temperature appropriate clothing so that their movement is never restricted and they’re never distracted by uncomfortable clothes. It's also good to avoid buttons or closures in the back of clothing that are unreachable.
Once we've prepared the environment, here's 5 general guidelines we give to parents when teaching dressing:
1. Start with undressing - It’s easier to take things off than it is to put things on.
To boost confidence and initially engage young children in the dressing process, show them how to remove their socks, pants, or underwear.
Once they've mastered that, you can move onto shirts.
Summer is also the easiest time to teach dressing and undressing since the clothing tends to be easier to remove and put on.
Here's a summary of how to teach clothing removal:
Socks - choose very stretchy socks to make it even easier on little ones. Show your child how to put their thumb into their sock and peel it over their heel, then pull at the toe.
Pants - start by having your child work on pulling their pants down to their ankles. Once they’ve mastered that, add in the next step. Have them sit on a stool, ideally, or the ground and pull off each leg, one at a time.
Shirts - shirts are they trickiest and could take the longest to learn so be patient. Start by choosing shirts that are roomy and have a large enough neck hole for your child’s head. To show them how to remove their shirt, have your child hold the bottom of one sleeve, and pull their elbow, then hand inside the shirt. One hand comes out at the bottom of the shirt before pulling the other hand out. Finally show them how to push the neck hole off their head.
2. Use slow deliberate movements. Show your child how to remove or put on a piece of clothing using slow, precise hand movements. It can help to over exaggerate them.
There's a Montessori acronym to keep in mind:
Slow Hands Omit Words
This means that you demonstrate with slow hands and use minimal or no words.
This allows your toddler to focus on your movements and not your mouth or having to listen.
3. Leave extra time. Imagine learning a new skill at work and someone's yelling over your shoulder, "Hey, hurry up, we've gotta get going" the whole time.
Sounds pretty stressful, right?
When working on dressing or any new skill, allow 3-5x as long so you don't have to rush or feel stressed about being late.
4. “Show me the hard part” Break dressing down into steps and observe exactly where your child is struggling. If it's the same step every time, think about how you can help with or make that part easier.
For instance, your child may be able to get their toes into their shoes independently but struggle to get their heel into the shoe. Rather than putting on their shoes for them, allow them to put their toes in independently and then help wiggle their heel in or stand up and push their foot in.
Sidenote: Putting shoes on can be really tricky. It’s helpful to the child if the shoe can be opened wide. Velcro shoes are excellent for fine motor development.
5. Teach closures last. Once your child has mastered dressing, teach zippers, followed by buttons. Children need more precise fine motor skills and a strong pincer grasp to master these skills so it's best to wait until you think they are ready. Don't rush it and give them lots of time to practice.
Build New Skills on Previous Skills
Some educators call this scaffolding skills. It's a fancy term to mean you build new skills on previous skills.
Undressing and dressing is not going to happen overnight. It's easiest to teach one step at a time, building on the previous.
Last Notes to Keep in Mind
We teach dressing and undressing not just to make our jobs easier, but mainly because children feel a sense of accomplishment from completing these skills independently and this boosts their overall confidence.
Lastly, it's important to focus on the positives. They may put their clothes on backwards or inside out, but focus on all the progress they've made!
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