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Daily Living — Daily Living

Daily Living Skills in Childhood

Young boy in towel in front of his mother.

Marcy Willard


Last modified 01 Sep 2023

Published 15 Mar 2022

What Are Daily Living Skills in Childhood?

Daily living skills in childhood are the skills needed for independent living, such as hygiene, domestic chores, self-care, eating, and sleeping. 

Adaptive skills refer to a person’s ability to function independently at the level expected based on their age and development. 

  • For a child, independence may be dressing themselves and brushing teeth without help from a family member. 
  • For a teen, managing transportation or meal preparation shows independence. 
  • For a young adult, safe driving, getting to appointments on time, or managing finances are independent living skills. 

Daily living skills are also referred to as Activities of Daily Living or ‘ADLs.’ Activities of daily living should develop as your child grows up. For example, a five-year-old who cannot sleep in their bed, manage toilet hygiene, pick up their toys, or feed themselves is delayed in their daily living skills. 

In this section of the Cadey site, you will be introduced to all of these adaptive skills and will have the opportunity to assess whether or not these skills seem to be on track for your developing child.

Symptoms of Daily Living Skills Problems in Children

Normal Daily Living Skills Issues At Various Ages

Children mature at different rates, and people may say that girls mature faster than boys. It is important to support your child in daily living tasks and to understand that it is normal to struggle here and there with these skills as your child matures.

It is essential to have realistic expectations for your child. A young child 2 or 3 can get dressed by themselves, brush their teeth, and put toys in a toy basket with help. As children age, you can expect more from them. If your child appears delayed in a skill, ask yourself if you are requiring your child to do a developmentally appropriate task. Expecting a 7-year-old to cook dinner would be an example of expecting too much

Normal challenges with daily living skills 

  • In younger children (kindergarten-2nd grade), it can feel like a challenge to walk your child through every step of a self-care routine or get them to do basic chores around the house. There is no major cause for concern at this age so long as the child will still do the tasks with your help.
  • As children get older (4th-6th grade), it becomes harder and harder to influence their hygiene. It is not uncommon to have a ‘stinky phase’ in about 5th grade when your child isn’t aware that it’s important to shower every day and wear deodorant. Working with your child from a young age to establish routines for dressing, showering, brushing teeth, and wearing clean clothes can help things later. At this age, there is no cause for concern if your child is still willing to do these tasks and simply needs reminders from you to complete them.
  • With a teenage child, you may be frustrated when you notice that you have to tell them to brush their teeth or pick up their dirty clothes off the floor for the 100th time. This pattern tends to be fairly normal and may simply require more patience and persistence on your part. 
  • Throughout adolescence, there are periods where kids tend to become sluggish and may seem to avoid any task that feels like ‘work.’ Most teenagers go through periods where they move slowly and seem like they are always half-asleep. This pattern is generally normal, and they will likely grow out of it over time. Remember that teenagers need a lot of sleep and that most adolescents go through phases of ‘sloth-like’ sluggishness for a few months. This is okay, so long as your child does not have huge outbursts over chores or refuses all tasks, even with your support. 

What To Do About Daily Living Skills Issues in Childhood

Do break skills down into simple steps: and support these developing skills for your child. The simpler you make the task, the more likely your child is to start working on it

Do get started with your child: The quickest way to get your child going on chores is to join them. Work with them to clean up toys in the bedroom or to rake the yard.

Do create a morning routine poster: to hang in the bedroom and bathroom that reminds your child of the steps to complete the routine. 

Do make a chore chart with stickers: that can be exchanged for family game night, ice cream, or a trip to the park. Keep things simple, and make rewards meaningful.

Don’t threaten things you cannot or will not enforce: such as, “No TV for a week if this room isn’t clean.” If everyone else watches TV, this consequence may not be possible.

Don’t sweat the small stuff: It is better to not assign the chore at all versus assigning it, making it a huge issue, and then eventually doing it yourself. Let it go if you really don’t think your child will do the chore. If you cannot let it go, you may need support in teaching your child how to do it. But it is almost never a good idea to assign a chore and then do it yourself.

Do make rewards contingent: ‘Contingent rewards’ are prizes you only get when you do the assigned task. Research shows that people are more likely to do the task when it is tied to something fun or meaningful. If your child doesn’t do the chore, you don’t have to get mad. Just make sure you do not provide the reward until it’s done.  

Do have a mix of fun and tasks: Make sure evenings and weekends are a mix of both fun family activities and important household tasks that have to get done.

Do be specific and model requests: some children need more hand-holding than others. Make chore requests brief and specific, and offer them one at a time. 

Do make a visual chore chart: and provide some choice for your child in selecting chores to complete. Provide a weekly incentive, like family ice cream or a movie night, for each week they complete a certain number of chores.

Do help your young child: do the chore with them at first with young children. “Let’s collect your Legos” is more manageable than “You have to clean your room.” 

Do direct your child to the chore board: instead of providing multiple verbal reminders. If they are particularly stubborn, add a more immediate incentive like “15 minutes of Minecraft after you put away your clean clothes.”

Do say what needs to be done to get a positive outcome: Say, “First put all your dirty clothes in the hamper, then you can get outside.” This reward is immediate and straightforward, and the chore is clearly stated.

Please note: Some children struggle with adaptive skills even with all of these lovely strategies in place. This struggle means it is time to consult a behavior therapist. Consider having your child evaluated to better understand their strengths and weaknesses that may contribute to adaptive deficits.

Causes Of Adaptive Skills Challenges

  • Lack of parental follow-through: children can struggle to do daily tasks when parents always do the job for their child, in turn never allowing their child to learn and grow to be able to do it for themselves. Children will also struggle to follow through with requests if you ask and then do it for them. If you plow the way for your child, never allowing them to learn and follow through with a task, your child may not gain essential skills. Your child may know that you will do it for them if they wait long enough. 
  • ADHD: children who have challenges with attention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity often demonstrate “immature” behavior and lower skills in some areas, such as listening and following directions, emotional control, and self-care tasks
  • Intellectual disability: children with intellectual disabilities who have general delays across cognitive and adaptive domains may struggle with daily living skills
  • Autism spectrum disorder: children with deficits in social communication and restricted interests or behaviors can have overall difficulty with adaptive skills, or perhaps the deficits are social, while other adaptive areas are developing typically
  • Language disorder: children with challenges with communication may have issues with functional communication and may impact daily living tasks. 
  • Attachment disorder: children who struggle with attachment to primary caregivers have often come from inconsistent or unpredictable settings or poor prenatal care. Children may be late to talk or walk, and this delay may then impact their adaptive skills
  • Anxiety or depression: children with excessive worry or sadness that has an impact on day-to-day functioning may have poor adaptive skills; children with these emotional struggles may withdraw from peers, communicate less, and may let self-care skills decline

When to Seek Help for Daily Living Skills Challenges

“It is okay for children to mature at different rates. If your neighbor kid is raking the yard where your child cries on the back porch for another popsicle, consider yourself normal.”

The time to seek help is when your child is falling behind to the point that they either aren’t engaging at all with peers or the classroom teacher is getting concerned and frustrated with your child’s poor participation.

Another reason to get involved is when your child’s behavior is extremely disruptive such as the child who throws a complete tantrum every time you ask for the slightest chore to be completed. 

Here are some other reasons to be concerned about your child’s adaptive behaviors: 

Poor social awareness: A child may find grooming and hygiene to be a waste of time, taking them away from more important interests like YouTube or Minecraft. When children struggle to see things from others’ perspectives, they may not realize the importance of hygiene. If your teenager is completely unaware of how they are perceived socially, it will be important to check in with them and explicitly teach this. 

You can say something like, “Other students at school will be put off by stinky kids in the class. Even if it is not bothering you, it is important to bathe and dress in clean clothes so as to be more pleasant to others.” If your child is still very resistant, it would be good to consult with a psychologist to see if there is anything else going on that prevents your child’s understanding of social perspective-taking. 

Meltdowns & tantrums: If your child doesn’t want to clean his room once in a while, that is not a major concern. However, if your child goes into orbit every time you ask that the simplest task be completed, there could be a problem. When you are supportive and encouraging, and your child is still refusing, this could be a sign of a behavior issue that could require treatment. Typically ABA therapists or Occupational Therapists can help parents manage these challenges. 

Warzone in the morning: It is important to work with your child, particularly on tasks like getting ready for school on their own. The best way to do this is to go and sit with your child but not do any chores for them. If this takes a long time, give yourself more time in the morning. Be consistent and persistent. 

In your elementary school-aged child, the time to be concerned is when your house starts to feel like a warzone because your child is constantly having meltdowns over basic chores and self-care tasks.

Refuses all tasks: The time to be concerned is when your school-aged child almost never does the chores, even with your help. In younger kids, remember that it is normal that they will need lots of help and encouragement from parents to do chores. Keep your instructions specific and short. Help your child complete any tasks where they are really struggling. 

The best time to jump in is when the task is really long (clean your room) or complex (organize all of these books by category). They may get overwhelmed and not even start. However, if they are just refusing everything you say, regardless of the level of difficulty, you may need help from a therapist.

Sudden drops in skills: By high school, the time to be concerned is when your teenager seems lethargic and sad for longer than just a few months. If your teen’s grades are slipping, they are having dramatic outbursts over chores, or they seem generally ‘checked out’ in life, it is time to get help.

Sometimes, a child who once had very good hygiene suddenly appears unclean or very ‘checked out’ in life. This rapid change might reflect more serious concerns like depression, self-esteem issues, and a lack of engagement in life. Some children will suddenly drop their self-care routines due to recent changes at home, trauma, or depression. As adults, it is important to notice these changes and to offer support for any emotional issues that may be at the root of them.

Similar Conditions To Daily Living Skills

  • Socializing: difficulty socially interacting with others impacts adaptive skills because children learn as they interact with one another, share toys and make friends. Vygotsky’s social learning theory suggests that social interaction underlies typical learning and development. Social Skills impact daily living skills and independence
  • Communicating: trouble with communication impacts a child’s ability to express their wants and needs, develop conversation skills, and engage reciprocally with peers
  • Intelligence: trouble with thinking and reasoning can cause general delays that would encompass areas like communication, daily living skills, socialization, and motor development
  • Motor planning or handwriting: motor impairments are a component of adaptive skills. Being able to move about, grasp items, turn the pages of a book and later draw and write are important skills that facilitate learning
  • Focusing: trouble paying attention may impact receptive communication. Also, perhaps the child was not paying attention as you taught the routines in the first place, like how to brush teeth properly, where the toys go at the end of playtime, etc.

Therapeutic Resources on Daily Living Skills

  • Applied behavior analyst (ABA therapist): to treat behavior; can help your child increase adaptive skills and improve communication. In-home treatment plans make addressing self-care and domestic skills easier
  • Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to consider a full assessment to examine possible symptoms in a mental health or behavioral context
  • Psychotherapist or play therapist: to treat emotional symptoms as needed; work on social skills via a social skills group or psychotherapy interventions
  • Occupational therapy: to address any fine motor needs that may impact a child’s independence
  • Physical therapy: to help a child with gross motor needs that impact mobility or completion of ADL tasks
  • Speech pathologist: to treat language deficits. Children need the language to communicate their needs and to state when they need help. Having good language skills will help a child develop these ADLs

Book and Web Resources for Daily Living Skills

Barkley, Russell A. (2013). Taking charge of ADHD, 3rd edition: The complete, authoritative guide for parents. 

Giler, Janet Z. (2011). Socially ADDept: Teaching social skills to children with ADHD, LD, and Asperger’s. 

Siegel, Daniel J. & Bryson, Tina Payne (2012). The whole brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind.

Seigel, Daniel J. & Bryson, Tina Payne (2014). No drama-discipline: The whole-brain way to calm the chaos and nurture your child’s developing mind.

Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.

Books for kids

Cook, Julia (2012). Personal space camp

Esham, Barbara (2015). Mrs. Gorski, I think I have the wiggle fidgets. (New edition) (Adventures of everyday geniuses.) 

Smith, Bryan & Griffen, Lisa M. (2016). What were you thinking? Learning to control your impulses (Executive function). 

Gordon, Jon (2012). The energy bus for kids: A story about staying positive and overcoming challenges.

Cook, Julia (2013). Thanks for the feedback, I think (Best me I can be!)  

McCumbee, S. (2014) The garden in my mind: Growing through positive choices.

McCumbee, S. (2014). The garden in my mind activity book.

Resources for eating problems 

For Sensory Processing Related Eating Challenges: Children’s Hospital of Colorado- Swallowing

Kay A. Toomey Ph.D.: Individual Practitioner, Feeding Specialist Denver Colorado

Star Institute Occupational Therapy, Denver

For Eating Disorders in Colorado; Referral at Eating Recovery Center would depend on insurance, but they offer outpatient services, nutrition, psychiatry, and individual and group therapy

Eating Disorder Center of Denver

Kaiser Permanente Eating Disorders Program. Eating disorder program (outpatient) at Highline Clinic and their Hidden Lake Clinic in Westminster. 

La Luna Center: in Ft. Collins and Boulder

Books for eating problems in children and teens

Nelson, Tammy (2008) What’s Eating You?: A Workbook for Teens with Anorexia, Bulimia, and other Eating Disorders. 

Muhlheim Lauren (2018) When your Teen Has an Eating Disorder: Practical Strategies to Help Your Teen Recover from Anorexia, Bulima, and Binge Eating. 

Taylor, Julia (2014) The Body Image Workbook for Teens: Activities to Help Girls Develop a Healthy Body Image in an Image Obsessed World. 
Resch, Elyse (2019) The Intuitive Eating Workbook for Teens: A Non-Diet, Body Positive Approach to Building a Healthy Relationship with Food.