Help Your Child Develop Competence In Adaptive Functioning

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By Kathryn Rea Smith, PH.D.



As you get ready for the new school year, take some time to assess your child’s progress in the area of “adaptive functioning,” also known as “activities of daily living” (ADL’s). ADL’s refer to non-academic skill development. Some good places to start taking stock of your child’s proficiency with ADL’s would be self-care and household chores.

In regards to self-care, generate a list of activities you would like your child to master by the time he or she is in later adolescence. Some examples include:

1) setting an alarm to wake up,

2) taking daily medications and calling in prescription refills,

3) keeping track of grooming/hygiene supplies and replacing as needed,

4) self-administering basic first aid and knowing how to care for one’s self when ill,

5) caring for clothing properly through laundering, ironing or dry–cleaning,

6) making good food choices,

7) obtaining regular exercise, and

8) communicating with physicians regarding health problems.

Once you have a tentative list, begin to assign your child or teen responsibility for a few items on the list. For example, you can tell him or her “I would like you to assume responsibility for waking yourself up each morning—I think you are ready to handle this on your own.” Walk your child through the steps involved in the activity, providing instruction and feedback, as necessary. Monitor your child until he or she has demonstrated success with the task, and then start assigning additional responsibilities from the list. Be mindful that some children will be slower to master tasks than others. For example, children who have been diagnosed with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder tend to need more time to internalize procedural steps and develop new habits than those without this diagnosis. If your child’s progress is slow, continue to provide encouragement and support and to communicate that you believe he or she is capable of achieving independence with self-care.

When it comes to teaching children to do household chores, you can employ an approach that is similar to the one suggested for facilitating mastery of self-care skills. You should convey the expectation that your child will learn to take care of his or her living space.  He or she will need to become competent in the tasks involved in cleaning, organizing, and maintaining a residence. In the process of learning to do household chores, children come to realize that when they pitch in to help, the work is completed more quickly and parents are less stressed. Children who have the opportunity to help with family chores develop a sense of pride about making a valuable contribution in addition to learning practical skills.

In these waning days of summer, ask yourself if you have been doing more for your child than he or she needs you to do at this point. Chances are there are some ADL tasks your child is ready to take on independently. As parents, it’s our job to “work ourselves out of a job” by preparing children to handle the challenges of daily living without our constant help.

Kathryn Rea Smith, Ph.D. is a private practice psychologist specializing in psychological assessment and parenting consultation. Dr. Smith can be reached at

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