Basic Life Skills for 3 & 4 Year Olds to Know


When Henry started preschool, I started thinking about life skills for kids to know and wondering if Henry can do what he should be doing at this time.

As a parent, I often wonder if Henry’s on the right track. If he’s doing everything he should be doing. Or if he’s lacking in an area. When he was younger, I’d track all the developmental charts to make sure he’s on track. But somewhere along the way… I’ve gotten to not looking at those charts anymore.

So what should he be doing?

Basic Life Skills for Kids to Know

I asked Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed, early childhood educator and author of the blog Teach Preschool, about what life skills young kids should be doing. To start, I asked what she hopes to see three year olds doing when they enter into preschool.

Deborah suggests that parents encourage independence in their child by:

  • Helping their child learn how to put on or take off their own coat or jacket.
  • Helping their child learn to stuff their mittens in a pocket or hat when they take it off rather than just dropping them on the floor.
  • Helping their child know how to pull up or down their own pants. [I always help but we want preschoolers to be self-sufficient as soon as possible.]

Basically, Deborah says that, “Any task a child can learn to do on his or her own that relates to taking care of his or her own body or getting dressed or putting things away in the backpack will help the child be more independent and confident in preschool.”

By then end of the school year, Deborah says four year olds should be able to do the following basic life skills:

  • Put on their own jacket, mittens, hats
  • Put papers away in their backpacks
  • Fold up their own clothes or blankets and put them away
  • Help clean up toys and materials at clean up time
  • Set their own table space for snack and throw away their own trash after snack

Ultimately, by the time they enter our four year old program, I want the threes to be past the stage of total dependence and able to do most personal care process and organizational processes on their own. When we get into the four’s/Pre-K program, we want to focus on more advanced skills and not still be spending lots of time trying to find mittens or zipping up backpacks!

I’ve learned to start allowing time for Henry to do things on his own. Allowing another 5-10 minutes to get out the door each morning, so Henry can put on his own shoes.

At night before bedtime, I’ve started letting Henry dress himself in his pajamas [or 'pee-gay-gays' as Henry calls them] because these are loose fitting clothes that are easy practice for him. He recently started doing this entirely on his own and is very proud of himself. He’s now starting to tackle getting dressed in the morning.

Basic Life Skills for Kids to Know

Knowing what to expect is one thing, but relaying those expectations to your child provides another challenge. Deborah told me how she teaches the kids in her preschool [can be applied at home too!] about her expectations:

Make your expectations clear.

I think the first place you start is making sure your expectations, both at home and in the classroom, are clear. This requires breaking things down for the children step by step and teaching them what it is you are expecting them to understand. My belief is if you haven’t taught the child the process then a rule can’t be understood or followed.

For very young children [twos and threes], I start with teaching expectations first and foremost. We practice the skills that I need them to understand.  For example, we practice how to wash our hands so that they get all the germs to go away but then we go on to teach how to use one pump of the soap bottle, how to use one paper towel for drying, how to throw the paper towel in the trash, and how to turn the water on and off.  This is a process that needs taught.

Henry has always been quite a loud child. When he’s playing with friends, he always has the loudest motor, and at the library or in stores, I am constantly telling him to use his inside voice. Teaching him to use this ‘inside voice’ has been difficult for me and hard for him to understand. I am mostly okay with Henry being loud, I love his enthusiasm and excitement, but there are times when we’re expected to be quiet.

At this age, this seems to still be a common occurance and Deborah explains why:

Young children are still ‘all about me’ when it comes to their development, so they are not aware of how they are affecting others around them. This is a skill that needs to be taught rather than told.

Model life skills to the kids.

A common suggestion, and one that Deborah suggested as well, is to model to your child what you expect of them. Modeling the behavior that you expect just before you expect it makes it stick in their mind. Deborah says, “The child will probably think this is funny but it will help him remember what you expect and practice the skill of using a quiet voice.”

How to teach responsibilityAlong with Life Skills, learn how to teach responsibility to kids too!

I am particularly excited about learning this next approach from Deborah. This approach not only teaches what you expect from the child, but it puts in a learning twist as well.

If your child is using a loud voice to talk to you at home or in the store, stop and softly say something like,

“Are you talking to me?”

“I thought you must be talking to that lady way over there because she can hear you better than me.”

In other words, teach your child to judge the need for using a loud voice to talk to someone far away versus a casual or normal voice when standing right next to you. But above all – be aware that you model appropriate talking tones and levels. If you are shouting,

“Don’t talk so loud!”

Then you are not teaching.

Another approach Deborah takes is to show how the childrens’ actions are affecting others. Deborah says to try things like, “Your loud voice is hurting my ears!” or “I can’t understand what you say when you talk so loud so let’s try it again and use a normal voice.”

This all revolves around teaching expectations and helping young children to be successful in life.

And one thing Deborah would tell parents of all preschool childrenis:

“… to look at EVERYTHING as an opportunity to teach and to learn.

Preschool age children are discovering their world as well as the boundaries in their world. They need both the space to try and fail and the support to try and succeed.

Look at every new task or interest a child explores or tries as small opportunities to teach them and then where possible, give them the tools they need to be independently successful in the process.

Understand that independence doesn’t mean letting a child run around wildly wrecking up the living room. What it means is giving children the time, space, and opportunity to explore the environment or a new idea and then guiding that child towards the understanding, skills, and discipline he needs to be successful in both the home and classroom environment.”

My latest motto is to treat my parenting approach as a teacher would their teaching approach. I find that all teachers are so calm and collected [yes, because its expected of them] but the children respond to this so well. Can I manage this as a parent?

What basic life skills would you add?

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  1. Jackie H. says

    As a mom of a three year old, I think this is a fantastic article. I don't want to baby my son, but I don't want to set unreasonable expectations for him. He's my oldest, so it's hard to know what is reasonable for this age. Thanks for sharing Deborah's expertise :)

  2. Amber says

    Thanks so much for this wonderful post. As a mom of an almost 3 year old its nice to know some things to expect . I know I am so guilty of just getting him ready we need to work at being more independant.

  3. Cindy says

    This is such an amazing article! I teach 3 yr olds, Tuesday and Thursday from 9-1:00. I taught 4 yr olds 4 days a week before and boy has this been an adjustment. This just puts it all into perspective! Thanks!

  4. Melissa @ The Chocolate Muffin Tree says

    Great advice! Glad to reminded about when you are yelling you are teaching your child to yell! You are teaching your child by how you act and what you do! So true!

  5. Toddler Approved says

    This is very useful info. Thanks Deborah and Jamie for sharing!! I love the reminders to teach the skills :)… sometimes it is easy to forget that kids need to be directly taught, they don't just learn by observation or osmosis.

  6. barb says

    Great parenting tips . Its important to know what milestones to expect and you explain why nicely.
    Barbara Smith,M.s., OTR/L

  7. Rashmie @ MommyLabs says

    Very insightful article and practical advice – Jamie and Deborah. I totally agree about the point on modeling. If they use loud voice, replying in softened tone will make them think rather than asking to stop being loud.
    Loved all other points…

  8. Kevin and Kristina says

    Jamie I love this so much I am just re-reading it and pinning it.

    As a teacher, I have found that YES you can be calm and step back and be objective as a parent too… but it is just harder! Definitely try it. When I channel my "inner teacher" and remember to look for the positives and actually teach, my little guy responds so well! When I nag and get overly emotional… it isn't so successful :)

  9. says

    I’m guilty of helping my youngest with some things he should be doing on his own — definitely need to build in that extra time so he can do it himself!

    I have been trying to get the kids to clear their dishes from the table lately — a skill I think they should be able to do at this age.

    • says

      Clearing the dishes after a meal is one of the first ‘jobs’ I gave my kids. Henry took to it right away, but George threw a fit about it. Literally had a melt down over taking his plate to the sink. It happened for a couple of nights, but I stuck to it and now he does it willingly, but never remembers, so I’m constantly reminding him to do it [he is probably on the younger side though]. How old are your kids?

  10. says

    Great ideas! As a Kindergarten Teacher it is always important to remember all the learning that happens before kindergarten – and there is a ton! I am focusing on ’1 skill at a time to teach children to be polite’ with my wee ones right now. I think manners and politeness are important life skills too. Excellent article – thank you both for sharing!!

      • says

        Hi Jaime,

        I actually just wrote a post on “5 Steps to a Polite Kid”. It’s about keeping your focus on 5 Specific Things :
        1. Clearing your plate
        2. Say “Excuse Me”
        3. Hold Open Doors
        4. Smile and Be Positive
        5. Say “please” and “thank you”)
        And how these specific things can give your wee ones almost all the manners and politeness one needs throughout life!

        Would it be okay if I shared my link?

        Thank you for asking :)

  11. says

    I saw this on Pinterest today and looked forward to reading it during a brief break from the kids :) Great post! I have to say I am actually pleased it is not a HUGE list and is really quite do-able. I’ll be implementing the fold own clothes and setting the table over the weekend. Can I just add that I am also working on wiping themselves after the toilet. I expect that when Chook attends Kindergarten next year (4 – 5 year olds in Australia) he will be expected to be able to take just enough toilet paper and be able to wipe himself. He’s doing really well :)

  12. Danie says

    As a preschool teacher of those ages, I’d just like to add MANNERS! I completely understand that they are children – they won’t always say please, or thank you, or even ask nicely. But I can’t tell you the amount of kids who just say “give me that” or “i want a drink.” What we’ve been working on in my class is yes, please/no, thank you at meal times. And asking, instead of demanding.

    • Delores says

      That has been a big problem in our classroom too! We also have a problem with children saying ‘I don’t like that!’ instead of ‘No, thank you!’ One thing for sure, every moment in preschool is a teaching opportunity!

  13. Kathryn says

    I love that our daughter and son-in-law taught all four of their children to say, “I don’t care for this or care for that. Instead of, “I don’t like this or that. And “hate” is never used. Having the support of other parents that also teach there children manners is a big help from what I experienced.

  14. Lynne says

    This is perfect.
    As a JK/SK teacher, I’d like this to be required reading for all my parents of kids new to JK (often not yet 4) and even those SK parents who still don’t see the need to encourage independence.

  15. Katie King says

    Two ways we teach independence at our school is hand washing and getting into winter clothes. We use the 1 rule with hand washing. 1 dunk in the water to get hands wet, 1 squirt of soap, 1 song…(Frere Jacques) “Tops and bottoms, tops and bottoms, in between, in between, round and round, round and round, now they’re clean, now they’re clean!” 1 paper towel, 1 trash can!! For winter wear we say….First your snow pants, then your boots, coat, hat and mittens!!

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