Make Learning New Skills Manageable

Last week we talked about how to use pre-teaching with your child to develop a new skill or behavior. But what if the new behavior you’re teaching is too hard and your child is struggling to complete the skill even with your pre-teaching? You probably realize that this skill needs more than just pre-teaching to learn, and you’re wondering, how can you make it more manageable so that your child can be successful? What a fantastic question! You are such a supportive and thoughtful parent.

One of the most important parts of adopting a new behavior or habit is whether we are actually capable of completing the new skill. If it is far too difficult to even complete, we are highly likely to get frustrated and give up or go back to an old habit.

So what can you do if you recognize the new skill is too difficult?

Break the skill into smaller steps

Some skills may need to be broken down into steps to make them more manageable. For example, being ready to leave for school.

  1. Get dressed
  2. Eat breakfast
  3. Make sure homework/supplies/lunch are in backpack
  4. Put on shoes and jacket

Depending on the age and skill set of your child, each one of these steps may also need to be broken down into pieces and practiced first. Using a picture schedule for the steps in getting dressed, or the steps in being ready to leave for school can be a great way to build independence in your child’s routines and learning new habits.

Working on the first step

An example of a complex skill that requires mastery of foundational steps might be teaching your preschooler to write her name. The first step would not be to hand her a pencil and tell her what letters to write; this would be an exercise in frustration if she has barely any practice holding a pencil or crayon.

  1. The first step might be just practicing how to hold, and manipulate a crayon or marker by drawing, coloring, or scribbling. This builds the fine motor skills necessary to hold a pencil and write. (Often this happens naturally as children are younger and coloring and drawing is a fairly common activity.)
  2. The next step might be to practice fine motor control: drawing straight and curved lines, perhaps tracing letter shapes as well.
  3. The next step might be to begin learning to practice saying the letter names, and connecting the letter name with the written shape of each letter in her name.
  4. From here she might move to tracing her name, or writing her name with the support of an adult placing their hand on hers.

Practicing the hard part

Let’s take the example of leaving the park to go home. This is a less complex skill, but can still be a very difficult one, especially for young children. For many kids, using pre-teaching may be sufficient to help them leave without a struggle. But for others, helping them to stop doing what they’re engaged in so they can be ready to leave can be really difficult. The hard part of leaving the park is not so much leaving, but having the self-regulation to stop something you’re engaged in and having fun doing. So we can help kids practice this part of the behavior in ways that are easier, and sometimes settings that are easier.

  • Try pre-teaching that it will be time to leave the park in 2-minutes, then help your child develop the complex skill of wrapping up the activity. (Depending on the situation you could give a 5 minute warning. The point is to give your child time to process and practice the skill of being ready to stop doing what he is doing.)
    • Try prompting the skill of finishing what he’s doing to be ready to leave. “What could you do to be ready to leave in 2 minutes? Could you go down the slide 2 more times and then it will be time to leave? You’re such a big kid, I know you’ll be ready to leave in 2 minutes.”
    • Or remind your child that you get to come back to the park tomorrow, or let him know the fun thing they will do when they leave (if this is happening). “In 2 minutes it will be time to leave. Remember, when we leave the park, then we get to pick up big brother and get a snack. I know you’re going to make a good choice and be ready to go in 2 minutes.”
  • Practice this skill in a situation or environment that is similar but easier. Maybe your child really struggles to stop playing with Legos, but they have an easier time stopping playing with Playdoh. Using the same routine and structure to practice transitioning from an easier activity (Playdoh) can build the skill of being ready to stop in 2-minutes, which will generalize to the harder skill (Legos). “In 2 minutes it will be time to stop Playdoh to eat dinner. What could you do in 2 minutes to be ready? Maybe you could make one more Playdoh pizza? I know you can do it! I’ll do it with you.”

Notice the little wins along the way!

Whether you are breaking a new skill into pieces, or focusing on the one piece that is difficult, be sure to label and encourage the little steps toward success! Not only will this motivate your child to continue practicing and building this new habit, but it will help the skill generalize from easier situations to more difficult ones. “Wow, you were ready to go as soon as I said it was time to leave. That tells me you are a big kid, thanks for being flexible.”


When we recognize that kids are struggling with a new behavior, breaking the skill into smaller steps, and noticing and encouraging their successful steps along the way to mastery can be incredibly helpful. Have you used any of these strategies to teach children new skills or behaviors? We’d love to hear from you!


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