Helping Children Learn New Skills

Helping Children Learn New Skills

Helping children learn new skills is a lifelong process. Some they will need - such as learning to walk and talk and some they will simply like to do - like learning to ride a bike or play a video game. In these ways they learn to negotiate and interface with the world they live in. In lies their development of confidence, self-esteem, and independence.

Learning a new skill can be exciting but can also produce anxiety. There can be a great deal of trepidation in a child who is uncertain and worried about a successful outcome. An example may best make this clear. If your child doesn’t know how to cut with scissors, they might refuse to try and insist that you do the cutting. If you show them how and offer encouragement, they are likely to try (and may even enjoy it!). They may also get frustrated if they are not able to do a “good” job. The more they practice, the better they are likely to get at developing the skill. And the more likely they may be to try some other creative venture.

Teaching Methods

There are a number of ways to help your child learn everything from basic hygiene to more complicated social skills.


Modeling is one of the most efficient ways to teach a child new skills, particularly for younger children. This involves the child watching your behavior and copying what you do and how you do it. Much of this actually happens organically. Think about how your child learns to walk or talk. As they get older, this may also involve other skills, like throwing or kicking a ball. This works for both physical skills and social skills - for example the use of tone of voice or non-verbal communication skills. Children also model other children, inside and outside of your home.

When you are using modeling to teach new skills, there are several factors that can make it more effective:

  • Be sure you have your child’s attention.
  • Work slowly through each step to ensure they know what you are doing.
  • Explain the important parts.
  • Give your child an opportunity to practice.
  • Offer positive encouragement and pointers along the way.


Providing instructions or explaining what to do and how to do it can also help your child learn new skills. In order to increase your chances at success, there are certain things to keep in mind when doing so:

  • Be sure you have your child’s attention.
  • Speak directly to them, even by name.
  • Use a calm and clear voice.
  • Minimize distractions around you.
  • For younger children, get down to their physical level.
  • Use language that your child will understand. 
  • Use gestures to emphasize what is most important.
  • Ask your child to repeat back the steps to ensure understanding.
  • Give your child an opportunity to put the instructions into practice.
  • Offer positive encouragement and constructive feedback along the way. 

Step-by-Step Guidance

More complicated tasks or advanced skills may involve a sequence of actions. These can be explained more efficiently by breaking the process into smaller steps and tackling them one step at a time. An example of this could be steps to complete an art project for a younger child or learning how to drive for an older teen. Here are some tips to helping your child learn in this manner:

  • Start with the easiest step first if possible.
  • Show your child the step and then let them give it a try.
  • When this skill is mastered, move on to the next step.
  • Learn the steps forward and also backwards.
  • Keep going until you are able to finish all of the steps. 

Some Notes on Learning in General

Children of all ability levels and ages need our help to learn about and master the skills necessary to live in our ever changing world. We must be mindful in order to increase their likelihood of success and reduce frustration along the way (for ourselves, too!). Keep in mind the following:

  1. Understand the physical ability and developmental maturity levels that are needed to attempt and master a new skill. Setting reasonable expectations will help your child with the immediate task at hand as well as helping them build confidence to acquire additional skills in the future. The reverse is also true - attempting tasks that are not possible will cause undue frustration and cause children to be reluctant to keep trying the same or new skills into the future.
  2. Be mindful of the time. Your child will be more attentive and focused if they are well rested, perhaps in the morning or after rest. If you are teaching a new skill, be sure that the time works in your favor.
  3. Minimize distractions around you - of the physical kind, like TV, or the people type, like siblings.
  4. Make time for practice and repetition.
  5. Provide lots of encouragement along the way, especially in the early stages of learning. Be sure to praise the skill or effort (instead of “you are so smart” try “I am proud of the way you kept trying until you got the right answer”).
  6. Avoid comparing your child to their siblings or to other children. Each has their own unique skills and challenges. It will not help to remind them that someone else had an easier time or already knows how to do something successfully.
  7. Nobody is perfect and there will be mistakes along the way. Avoid giving negative feedback or making judgements such as “you are just not trying hard enough.”

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