Why your child needs to learn how to get dressed

It’s the usual morning rush – you were supposed to be out the door five minutes ago, and your child is still putting on his socks. It’s no surprise that dressing your child yourself seems like the easiest and quickest option.

But your child needs to learn how to do it. The ability to dress yourself builds confidence, independence and a sense of achievement – and once your child has it mastered, it’s one less thing for you to do in the morning!

Getting dressed is about more than just putting on or taking off clothes. It helps your child develop many other skills, including:

  • fine motor skills as she learns to fasten buttons and zips
  • gross motor skills as she stands on one leg to pull on a pair of pants
  • cognitive skills as she remembers what bits of clothing go on first, and builds the patience and attention to finish the task
  • language as she names types of clothes, colours and sizes
  • awareness of time and space as she learns to dress for certain occasions and weather conditions.

Teaching your child how to get dressed: basics

Learning how to get dressed needs patience, persistence and practice from both you and your child.

It also involves getting to know the things you have to do to get dressed, like:

  • picking out clothes that are right for the time of day, the weather and what you’re doing that day – the tutu might not be the best thing for a bushwalk!
  • deciding what to wear – the dinosaur t-shirt or the truck t-shirt today?
  • putting on and taking off clothes and shoes
  • doing up buttons or zips, getting collars and waistbands comfy, and getting socks on the right way around.

Getting started with getting dressed

Often very young children start to be aware of their clothing by pulling off easy-to-remove items such as socks, shoes or hats. Sometimes they try to put them on again. You can build on this early awareness by naming the items of clothing your child has taken off and the body parts those clothes go on.

You can start to include your older baby or toddler in getting dressed by giving him a limited choice of clothes, and naming them as you put them on him.

When you decide it’s time for your child to really start learning this skill, it can help to have some easy clothes on hand. These might include:

  • loose, elastic-waisted pants – these are good if your child is also toilet training or can’t manage zips and buttons
  • clothes with velcro or large buttons and button holes
  • jumpers, t-shirts and underwear with logo or pictures on the front to help your child work out front from back
  • clothes that are easy and comfortable for your child to move in.

Step by step to getting dressed

Breaking down the steps
Getting dressed can have a lot of steps. It helps to break it down into smaller steps – for example, putting on underwear, then t-shirt, shorts, socks and shoes.

You can also break down each of the steps in getting dressed, depending on your child’s skill and age. For example, you could break down the steps for putting on shorts like this:

  • Face shorts the right way.
  • Hold onto the front of the waistband.
  • Push one leg at a time through the leg holes while also holding pants.
  • Pull the shorts up.

Talking your child through each step lets her know what to do and includes her in the process. In the early stages, simple words or phrases are OK – for example, ‘Shirt on’. You can say more as your child’s language develops – for example, ‘Push your arm through the sleeve’.

Teaching steps backwards
A good way to teach your child to how to get dressed is to break down each task into small steps and teach him the last step first. Once he can do the last step of the task, teach him the second-last step, then the third-last step and so on.

For example, when putting on shorts, you might help your child face the shorts the right way, hold the waistband and put her legs through the leg holes. Then teach her the last step – pulling up the shorts to her waist by herself.

Once your child can do this, teach him to put his legs through the leg holes and pull his shorts up. You can keep working your way backwards through the steps until your child has mastered them all and can put his shorts on for himself.

A big advantage of this approach is that often the most rewarding thing about a task is getting it finished – and your child gets to this reward sooner when she masters the last step first.

When your child can almost dress himself (usually from three years and up), you can check whether he understands the steps by asking, ‘What’s the first thing you need to put on?’ If he can’t remember, you can help him get started by reminding him.

If your child is having trouble, it can be tempting to jump in to help. But give her a chance to work it out for herself, and cheer her on as she tries – she’ll get a real confidence boost when she does it on her own. Try to step in only when she really needs your help.

Tips for helping your child learn to get dressed

If you can be positive and supportive, your child is more likely to cooperate. So a lot of praise will go a long way, even if your child has put his pants on backwards! Here are some practical tips to help:

Making time

  • Try to allow a realistic amount of time for getting dressed. If your child needs 20 minutes to dress, don’t try to do it in 10 minutes. If you’re often rushed getting dressed in the morning, it can be a good idea to choose clothing with your child the night before.
  • Practise getting dressed when you and your child aren’t in a hurry or tired. When you’re in a hurry, let your child do the easy tasks and help her with the difficult tasks.

Choosing appropriate clothes

  • Let your younger child choose from a couple of options – for example, let your child choose between two t-shirts. Older or more mature children might be able to choose their own clothing.
  • Talk about the weather when you and your child are choosing clothes. Ask him whether it’s hot or cold, raining or sunny.
  • Teach your child the difference between dirty and clean clothes – for example, ‘Dirty clothes go in the laundry basket, and we don’t wear them again until they’re back in the drawer’. You can use some simple guidelines, like wearing clean underwear and socks every day.

Making it easier

  • Have your child sit down for dressing tasks. Sitting on the floor might be easier than sitting on a chair or bed for some children.
  • Store clothing in drawers and cupboards that your child can get to easily. Label clothing drawers with a picture or word to describe the clothing that’s in the drawer.
  • Wear clothes that have clear front and back clues – for example, a picture on the front and a tag on the back.
  • Teach undressing first – it’s easier than dressing, which needs more coordination, planning and body awareness. Being able to undress by herself will boost your child’s confidence.
Tying up shoelaces is a skill that  most five-year-olds are still learning. It might be helpful  to start teaching your child how to do up his shoelaces as part of  getting him ready for school. Our handy illustrated guide to tying shoelaces outlines some easy steps for teaching your child this skill.

Teaching children with disability or developmental delay to get dressed

Some children with disability or developmental delays can have trouble getting dressed. Some children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have sensory sensitivities that make it hard for them to cope with the texture of different materials on their skin.

If you’re having trouble teaching your child with disability or development delay to get dressed, a qualified occupational therapist (OT) who works specifically with children might be able to help. OTs can give you strategies to teach your child to dress, or suggest equipment that can make the process easier.

Development of skills for getting dressed

Here’s a rough guide to dressing skills at different ages. Keep in mind that every child is different and will develop skills at different rates.

At one year your child will:

  • hold her arms out for sleeves and put her foot up for shoes
  • push her arms through sleeves and legs through pants
  • pull her socks and shoes off.

At two years your child will:

  • take off an unfastened coat
  • take off his shoes when the laces are untied
  • help push down his pants
  • find armholes in t-shirts.

At 2½ years your child will:

  • pull down pants with an elastic waist
  • try to put on her socks
  • put on a front-buttoned shirt, without doing up buttons
  • unbutton large buttons.

At three years your child will:

  • put on t-shirts with little help
  • put on his shoes without fastening – he might put them on the wrong foot
  • put on his socks – he might have trouble getting his heel in the right place
  • pull down his pants on his own
  • zip and unzip without joining or separating zippers
  • take off his t-shirt without help
  • button large front buttons.

At four years your child will:

  • take off t-shirts by herself
  • buckle her shoes or belts
  • connect her jacket zipper and zip it up
  • put on her socks the right way
  • put on her shoes with little help
  • know the front and back of clothing.

At 4½ years your child will:

  • step into his pants and pull them up
  • put his belt in the loop.

At five years your child will:

  • dress without your help or supervision
  • put on her t-shirt or jumper the right way each time.

This information is adapted from the following source: Dunn Klein, M. (1983). Pre-dressing skills (rev. edn). Tucson: Communication Skill Builders.

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