Dressing How-To: Tips and Tricks

Dressing is an essential daily activity that children feel proud to learn. Teaching kids dressing skills takes time and patience and is best not attempted at during a rushed part of the day such as getting ready before school. It is best to set aside some time during the day when the child is at a good level (not hungry, not tired, not too excited).

It requires many underlying skills such as the use of large muscles (gross motor), small muscles (fine motor), command of complex grasp patterns and hand manipulation skills, as well as motor planning (which hole will the head go through in the T-shirt), and sensory processing skills (grading pressure for zippers, buttons, etc.). Competency with dressing typically takes 4 years of practice.


Backward Chaining

This is a teaching technique where you model all the steps, then all the step except the last, which the child completes, then they complete the last 2 steps, and so on

Modeling the Task

If the child has adequate attention skills and is interested in dressing, you can sit behind the child with your hands out in front of them and demonstrate many components of the task, including where to put hands, orientation of the clothing, and specific skills including buttoning, zipping and snaps

Practice without wearing the clothes

It’s visually and physically easier for the child to practice buttoning, zipping, and buckling skills with the item while it is in front of them, instead of them wearing it. When they show competence with the task, the skill can translate when they are wearing the clothes.

Undress before dressing

Sometimes this happens naturally as undressing can be easier than dressing. At nighttime, have the child complete the final step in pulling off a piece of clothing. They can also help with putting on pajamas as more and more as their skills develop and their motivation for independence increases

Learn the Underlying Skills

Fine Motor Activities to learn to use the small muscles in their hands with precision
Gross motor skills - basic skills needed include postural control, balance, and range of motion (flexibility), there are several ways to adapt dressing for children with physical disabilities, consult with a therapist for specific challenges
Body Awareness and Sequencing - formulating the idea of how clothing will go on, what order to complete the steps, and adjusting pressure as needed for the task, ie - slow and steady for zipper, pull down and up with more force for pants, push hard for snaps, go slow for buttons to ensure accuracy

Using a mirror

Using a mirror can help with fine tune the details of dressing. Children can see if the buttons are aligned, if their shirt is on backwards, if hoods are tucked into jackets, or if they missed a loop in their pants while putting on a belt. Allowing them to make mistakes and self-correct is an important part of building their independence and self-efficacy not only in dressing for many life skills.

Give Choices & Behavioral Reinforcements

Giving choices and positive reinforcements can very motivating for children
Simple choices are usually best, instead of “pick your own clothes today”, you can start with 2 separate outfits that they can pick from, or pick one item to incorporate for the outfit, or even just choose a color that they want to wear that day
Behavioral reinforcements can also encourage kids to be independent, it could be a sticker if they already have a behavioral program in place, or a small immediate reward, such as a piece of a snack or a few minutes on the iPad

Behavioral reinforcements also gives them the sense that they worked for their reward increasing their intrinsic drive to do well

Specific Pieces - Buttons, Zippers, Laces

Dressing dolls, dressing boards

Dressing dolls and dressing board are a great way to practice the tasks without wearing the clothes. As discussed above, these skills can easily translate into functional skills when the child is wearing the clothes


For zipping, the lateral pinch (like holding a key) is important to learn. It is also important to be able to use both hands together (also called bilateral coordination).
Using toy keys can be fun for unlocking motivating items and works on lateral pinch

  • Cut zippers off of old clothes
  • Practice zipping and unzipping attached zippers first
  • Suitcases, backpacks, jacket pockets, pants

Buttons require the use of in-hand manipulation skills, such as being able to feel the objects with the tips of your fingers.

  • Practice playing with smaller-sized objects to increase in-hand manipulation skills
    Stringing beads, using WikkiStix, play dough activities
  • Practice pushing buttons or coins through slots such as a tennis ball or piggy bank
  • Cut large buttons and zippers off of old clothes
  • Start with at least 1-inch buttons
  • Try a thrift shop if you don’t have any
Shoe Laces
  • Lacing board
    • Lacing boards help improve eye-hand coordination and hand dexterity with string.
    • Using animal shapes can be motivating, making the task both play and motor training.
    • Using a lacing board shaped like shoes helps to visually translate the skill into the real activity of shoe tying and lacing. There is also the opportunity to tie a simple knot or a more complex shoe lace bow at the end.
  • Dual-tone shoe laces
    • Shoe laces with different colors on each side make it easy to differentiate the sides for knotting and tying shoe laces
  • Stiffened laces
    • These can be purchased online and help with learning how to tie shoelaces as they are forgiving of slips and hold shape when making loops allowing for more time for learning and visually seeing the shapes they need to make

Process skills

Processing skills involve choosing the appropriate clothing for the body part, weather or season, organizing the task, contextual changes (noise, unfamiliar materials). Ideas to address processing skills include:

  • Playing dress up
    • Using mom and dad’s clothes
    • Halloween costumes
    • Pick a character in the storybook and ask them to pick out clothes to look like the character, this activity can tie in with pretend play
  • Dressing game: Place a variety of clothes out including sweaters, pants, shorts, swimsuit, hats, mittens, jacket, swimsuit, fun accessories (floppy hat, sunglasses, floatie, etc), pick a season, ask the child to go through clothes and put on an outfit appropriate for the season, can reward with a snack for each correct outfit
    For a younger child, pick a body part and ask them to choose an item for the body part
Social Stories

Social stories describe a specific situation (in this case it could be about dressing). The stories tell what will happen in situation, what to expect, why to expect it and how you can react to it. Social stories were originally developed to teach social skills to children with Autism, but can be used with a wide population to help understand explain situations and expected behaviors. Examples of social stories can be found online or in books.


Resistant Dressers
Dressing: Adapting clothes & Techniques for Motor Limitations
Household Chores