3 top tips to help kids do things for themselves

Psychologist, Judy McKay

How do children learn to become independent and contribute to the household? The key is to start early, by building independence while they are young and harnessing that enthusiasm that young children have to “help” or “do it myself!” If you’re having trouble letting them step up, or unsure of how to go about it, here are three top tips to get you started!

  1. Give them choice – Kids love feeling in control of their decisions. Providing them with 2 options instead of telling them what they need to do can be a simple and effective strategy to build autonomy. It can also be useful when encouraging your child to do something they don’t want to do (e.g., You need to have a bath and eat your dinner so which would you prefer to do first?). 
  1. Develop their sense of responsibility –  Allocate them a special job or role within the family system (e.g., Feeding the dog, unpacking the dishwasher or watering the pot plants). Encourage them by praising their efforts. You could also track their success with a star chart with a reward they are working towards.
3.  Encourage Exploration - Once you feel that your child has developed a sense of safety and security (i.e., they have a safe and protected place to return to if they venture too far),  it’s time to let them explore their surroundings and to test their limits outside the safety net you can provide. Show confidence in your child’s abilities and let them know you think they can do it! 

Judy is a registered psychologist with a Master’s degree in Educational and Developmental Psychology. Judy has experience working with young people, their families and extended support networks across educational, clinical and community-based settings. Judy enjoys working creatively and flexibly with children and adolescents to explore their difficult emotions and experiences. In the past, Judy has supported young people experiencing a range of neuro-developmental disorders, anxiety, trauma, social skill and emotional regulation difficulties. Judy values the individual needs of each client and attempts to incorporate their personal interests, strengths and goals throughout therapy. Judy utilises a client-centred approach to her therapy which is grounded in cognitive-behaviour therapy and other evidenced-based techniques.

Outside of work, Judy loves spending time at the beach or in the countryside. She further enjoys playing social sports and prioritises spending time with friends and family.

Discipline and ADHD – can the two go together?

Psychologist, Emily Coen

Before parents with kids with ADHD stress out…..the answer is YES! Of course kids with ADHD can also respond to discipline and boundaries! They just may need a slightly different set of strategies that really fit their needs. Kids with ADHD may have difficulty sitting still, completing tasks, managing impulses, and following directions. The strategies below can be helpful in assisting your child with ADHD to follow the rules.

  1. Set limits: 
  • Be firm, fair and consistent. 
  • Start by establishing just a few specific rules, expectations and consequences for their behaviours.  
  • Follow through is important as children are great at identifying “soft spots” and learn how to get their own way.
  1. Release energy:
  • Children with ADHD often have excess energy. Allow your child to release this in an appropriate manner. Activities include trips to the playground, heavy work activities such as lifting and pushing, jumping on the trampoline, sensory games, or structured activities such as sports. 
  1. Managing attention problems: 
  • Establish a habit of working in short uninterrupted blocks of time to maintain attention and focus. 
  • Assist your child to stay on task by using visual reminders of tasks they need to complete. 
  • Give effective instructions. Start by gaining full attention, and avoid multiple step instructions with complicated language. Keep instructions and give one step at a time.
  1. Managing impulsivity. 
  • Come up with a private signal to remind your child it’s time to try and settle down. For example, use a hand as a stop sign to cue to the child to stop, breathe and think. 
  • Teach your child to go to a quiet spot to calm down when they are overstimulated or frustrated. Create a comfortable area and calmly guide the child there, not as punishment, but as a way to soothe themselves. They might need you to sit with them and help them regulate, this is OK! We call this “time in” with an adult who can support them, rather than the old-fashioned term of “time out” which is more of a punishment.
  • When talking to your child, bend down to their level and calmly explain their actions and consequences to their actions. 
  1. Praise 
  • Be proactive! Catch your child when they are displaying positive behaviours and praise them for it. Praising motivated children about what behaviours we are looking for, and providing frequent feedback, are really important.  
  • Establish a reward system for when your child is engaging in positive behaviours. 

6. Attention

  • Give your child 10 minutes of undivided attention. Learn about your child’s interests, their day at school, their friends. Check in on their feelings and allow them to ask questions. Giving your child attention in a proactive way can reduce attention-seeking behaviours.
  • If you’re finding it hard to fit this in, schedule it! Plan ahead, such as walking home from school once a week and chatting to your child on the way; or stopping for a milkshake before their after-school sports. It doesn’t matter how, where or when you do it – just plan it in!

Things to remember:

  • Stay calm. If you are angry or upset, do not deal with the situation on the spot. Or tag team with a partner or another family member who may be in a calmer state than you are! When you are calm, you are more able to communicate effectively with your child.
  • Do not take your child’s actions personally. It’s not about you! All kids struggle at times to regulate their emotions and behaviour, and it can sometimes be even harder for our kiddos with ADHD. Try and keep this in mind when your child pushes your buttons and remember: kids generally want to do the right thing, it’s just sometimes hard! (Just like it can be hard for all of us sometimes!)
Emily is a registered psychologist with a Master of Professional Psychology. Emily has experience working with children, adolescents and their families across home, clinic, and educational settings. Emily has a special interest in working with autism spectrum disorder, developmental disorders, anxiety, behaviour management, and emotion regulation difficulties. Emily is passionate about working with children and their families in a flexible and creative manner, to best support their goals. Previously, Emily has worked as an ABA therapist and supervisor, allowing her to develop strong relationships with children and their support networks.
Emily works predominantly within the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy frameworks. Emily is an accredited Tuning into Kids facilitator and Cool Kids Anxiety Program facilitator. 
Outside of work, Emily enjoys spending time with her family, reading a good book, playing netball, and cheering on the Geelong Cats.

How can I help my child cope with starting school?

Last week we covered emotional readiness, what it looks like and how to develop it. But what can we do as parents before school starts to help our children cope with the transition? 

Prior to school commencing, it can be helpful to assist your child in establishing expectations around what school will look like, discuss their emotions around starting school and develop effective coping strategies that they can use to manage strong emotions. 

To assist in establishing expectations, you can prepare your child for what school might be like by talking about what is going to happen at school, explaining the new routine, driving past the school, taking tours of the school, completing practice runs of the first day or reading books about other people’s experiences of starting school. When discussing emotions around starting school, it is important to provide space for your child to explore the feelings they are having in relation to this transition. Young children may experience difficulty putting their feelings into words, so it may be helpful to draw or play out how they are feeling about the first day of school. To develop effective coping strategies, it is important to teach skills that your child can use when they are feeling calm before trialing these out during a strong emotion. Examples of effective coping strategies include positive self-talk, breathing exercises, getting a drink of water, asking for help or labelling an emotion. 

As parents, it is really important to think about how you are feeling about your child starting school and the emotions and reactions you are showing to them. Children will look to you to determine how safe a situation is, so even if you are not feeling it, showing enthusiasm and excitement communicates to your child that the transition to school is exciting and something that they can cope with.

If you have been through all these strategies and are still unsure about whether your child is ready for school, there are several people who can help.  Your child’s kindergarten teacher is a great source of information and will be able to give tailored advice specific to your child.  Alternatively, you can always book a session with one of our paediatric Psychologists to explore your child’s needs and make a plan that works for you and your child. 

Laura Moresi is a psychologist completing the Educational and Developmental registrar program. Laura is passionate about working collaboratively with families and other professionals to support children and adolescents to reach their best potential. Laura has experience working with a variety of development and mental health concerns.

Is my child emotionally ready for school?

Starting school involves a big change for your child, and as such it is normal for children to experience strong feelings as they begin to think about and prepare for this change. Just like with other new experiences, the transition to school can bring a wide range of emotions. Your child may experience feelings of excitement at the prospect of going to school,  nervousness about what lies ahead, or anger and sadness around the thought of leaving kindergarten and losing close relationships formed with teachers and peers. Understanding and helping your child label and respond to these feelings will not only help reduce their stress as they prepare for the transition, but also provide them with effective coping tools that will help support a positive start to school. 

What Does Emotional Readiness Actually Mean?

When talking about emotional skills in preparation for school transition, we are looking at a child’s ability to recognise, label, understand and manage a wide range of emotions; self-regulate and cope when they have to do something that they do not want or when things do not go according to plan; and show resilience or the ability to ‘bounce back’ following challenges.

Self-regulation refers to a child’s ability to understand and manage their behaviour and reactions to feelings and the demands of various situations. A child with well developed self-regulation abilities should be able to:

  • Limit highly emotional reactions to various situations, such as calming themselves down when frustrated or excited
  • Adjust to changes in expectations or routine
  • Focus on a task or shift focus to a new task
  • Control impulses

Self-regulation is an important skill for starting school as it can impact a child’s ability to learn, socialise, be independent and cope with big feelings. Children that typically feel things strongly and intensely will generally find it more difficult to self-regulate than children who are more easygoing and will likely require additional support to develop these skills. 

How Can You Support Emotional Readiness?

The best way to assist children in learning to self-regulate is to provide support when they need it. Some ways that you can do this include:

  • Talking regularly about emotions with your child and normalising that it is okay to have these feelings
  • Assist your child to regulate and encourage them to name the feeling and cause when they are experiencing a strong emotion
  • Support your child to develop effective coping strategies, such as deep belly breathing or positive self talk, to manage strong emotions
  • Provide specific praise to your child when they demonstrate appropriate self-regulation skills while managing tricky situations
  • Model effective self-regulation to your child through providing an age-appropriate dialogue when you experience an emotion (i.e., I am feeling frustrated that I have so much work to do, I;m going to get a drink of water and take some deep breaths to feel calm before I start working on this again)

Above all, remember to be patient. It can be really hard for young children to cope when they are experiencing strong emotions and developing these skills takes lots of practice and praise.

Laura Moresi is a psychologist completing the Educational and Developmental registrar program. Laura is passionate about working collaboratively with families and other professionals to support children and adolescents to reach their best potential. Laura has experience working with a variety of development and mental health concerns.

Routines – do we have to?

As adults, some of us are real ‘creatures of habit’ and thrive on routine (I count myself amongst this group!). Others are more content to ‘go with the flow’ and if that works for you, great. What we do know however when it comes to children is that keeping a regular routine as a family for daily activities (e.g. morning routine, bedtime routine, family games night etc.) is greatly beneficial. These benefits include:

  • Helping your child to become more independent in their daily living skills 
  • Your child learns an important life lesson that we must balance work and play
  • Reducing any stress or anxiety your child might be experiencing 
  • Your child is more likely to comply with your instructions and knows your expectations 
  • Your child feels safe and secure 
  • Your child will likely sleep and eat better, which will improve their mood and behaviour 
  • Providing stability at times of transition, such as parental separation, starting kindergarten or school, death of a family member, birth of a sibling or puberty
  • Encouraging bonding time as a family 

Of course, it also important to have some unstructured ‘down time’ in your child’s life in which they can rest or be creative. It is important to not be overly rigid in your routine (e.g. it may change for special occasions) as this helps your child be flexible. 

Olivia Smith is an endorsed Educational and Developmental Psychologist and is a strong believer in the importance of working collaboratively with families and other professionals to ensure a holistic approach to child wellbeing. She is passionate about advocating for and working with children presenting with anxiety and/or neurodiversity (e.g. ASD, ADHD and specific learning disorders) and their families. Olivia strives to make therapy sessions engaging, effective and applicable to everyday life, and views the relationship between child and therapist as key to success. She is also a certified SOS-feeding therapist.

Is my 4-year-old’s play typical for their age?

As children commence 4-year-old kindergarten, their ability to engage with peers develops further. They begin to engage in ‘cooperative play’ in which they share mutual goals in the play and are assigned certain roles.

Children at this stage are interested not only in the play activity, but also in the children they are playing with. Play themes start to extend beyond their own experience (e.g. an astronaut going to outer space) and are more imaginative in nature. They might begin to take on role-play games, such as playing ‘doctor’ or ‘mums and dads’. Children of this age are also able to play some games with simple rules, such as hide-and-seek. 

If you have concerns about your child’s play skills, a good source of advice is their kindergarten teacher, who understands the typical development of children their age. Alternatively, your Maternal Child and Health Nurse or GP can assist and of course, the team at CCD are always able to help!

Olivia Smith is an endorsed Educational and Developmental Psychologist and is a strong believer in the importance of working collaboratively with families and other professionals to ensure a holistic approach to child wellbeing. She is passionate about advocating for and working with children presenting with anxiety and/or neurodiversity (e.g. ASD, ADHD and specific learning disorders) and their families. Olivia strives to make therapy sessions engaging, effective and applicable to everyday life, and views the relationship between child and therapist as key to success.

How can I tell if my 3-year-old’s play is age-appropriate?

Around the age of 3 years, children begin to engage in what is called ‘parallel play’. This can sometimes look like they are in fact playing with another child, but if you look closely, they are often in close physical proximity but engaging in their own separate play. They may, however, mimic what the other child is doing without interacting with them.

As children get close to 4 years old, they begin to shift to what is deemed ‘associative play’. This play is not particularly organised or coordinated, but children begin to interact in their play. This is also the age that children begin to exhibit preferences for particular play partners, and begin to use symbols in their play (e.g. pretending that a stick is a sword). 

If you have any concerns about your child’s play skills, a good starting point is your Maternal Child and Health Nurse or GP. If further support is required, the team at the Centre for Child Development is also here to help!

Olivia Smith is an endorsed Educational and Developmental Psychologist and is a strong believer in the importance of working collaboratively with families and other professionals to ensure a holistic approach to child wellbeing. She is passionate about advocating for and working with children presenting with anxiety and/or neurodiversity (e.g. ASD, ADHD and specific learning disorders) and their families. Olivia strives to make therapy sessions engaging, effective and applicable to everyday life, and views the relationship between child and therapist as key to success.

What should my 2-year-old’s play look like?

The best way to describe typical 2-year-old play is that they are an onlooker or a spectator. Children at this age are interested in what other children are doing, often watching them and perhaps talking about what they are doing. They do not yet, however, engage in play with another child. Most 2-year-olds also do not understand how to share or take turns.

Children at this age can begin to imitate pretend play actions (e.g. giving a teddy bear a cup of tea) and start treating toys as though they were animate beings (i.e. a doll is treated as though it were a real baby). Children learn best when they lead play, so let them sometimes forge ahead and follow them to see where the play goes!

If you have any concerns about your child’s play skills, a good starting point is your Maternal Child and Health Nurse or GP. If further support is required, the team at the Centre for Child Development is also here to help!

Olivia Smith is an endorsed Educational and Developmental Psychologist and is a strong believer in the importance of working collaboratively with families and other professionals to ensure a holistic approach to child wellbeing. She is passionate about advocating for and working with children presenting with anxiety and/or neurodiversity (e.g. ASD, ADHD and specific learning disorders) and their families. Olivia strives to make therapy sessions engaging, effective and applicable to everyday life, and views the relationship between child and therapist as key to success.

What does play look like in a 1-year-old child?

It is typical for a 1-year-old’s play to be solitary in nature. They often seek to explore objects and learn about their world through cause-and-effect manipulation of these objects (e.g. I fill up my bucket with sand- now it is heavy! I made a big stack of blocks and they fell!).

1-year-olds are generally highly focussed on what they are doing, and in a setting such as a playgroup are not aware of or interested in what other children are doing. It is important to note, however, that when a caregiver approaches a child to join their play, a 1-year-old would usually make eye contact, smile and laugh at appropriate moments during their interaction together. 

If you have any concerns about your child’s responsiveness or have noticed a lack of interest in other people or objects, a good starting point is your Maternal Child and Health Nurse or GP. If further support is required, the team at the Centre for Child Development is also here to help!

Olivia Smith is an endorsed Educational and Developmental Psychologist and is a strong believer in the importance of working collaboratively with families and other professionals to ensure a holistic approach to child wellbeing. She is passionate about advocating for and working with children presenting with anxiety and/or neurodiversity (e.g. ASD, ADHD and specific learning disorders) and their families. Olivia strives to make therapy sessions engaging, effective and applicable to everyday life, and views the relationship between child and therapist as key to success.

Help! My child hates haircuts….

Haircuts in children tend to be driven by necessity and practicality (hello lockdown locks!) rather than personal expression. When the time for a haircut does roll around it can be a great source of stress for all involved. Children who are overly sensitive to sound or touch can find haircuts very unpleasant. For these children, sensations such as hair falling on their face, the sound of clippers, and the plasticky cape, are magnified and can cause distress. Other children may dislike haircuts due to bad past experiences, concerns about their appearance, or worries about social interactions. 

Although you may be tempted to ‘cancel’ haircuts all together, the best way to help your child get used to them is through graded exposure. This means gradually exposing your child to the feared situation (or object) in small steps. To sweeten the deal, reward your child for doing each step. Most kids love getting extra 1:1 time with parents, or the chance to request their favourite meal. Just make sure they can remain calm at each step before moving onto the next.

To keep the plan clear, create a poster or visual with the goal, each step, and the accompanying rewards. Your child may even want to help decorate it! Initially the goal might be for the child to sit in the hairdresser’s chair for two minutes. Once this has been achieved, you might then progress to the actual haircut.

Some other strategies to try are:

  • Using social stories
  • Taking a transition/comfort object
  • Scheduling the appointment with the same person each time
  • Booking appointments during quiet times
  • Keeping the child’s haircut simple and consistent
  • Having the child’s hair cut at home

Yvette Zevon is a psychologist based at The Northern Centre for Child Development, who is completing the registrar program in educational and developmental psychology. She is passionate about working with young people and families and is grateful for the daily opportunities to express her playful side.