Your browser (Internet Explorer 7 or lower) is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites. Learn how to update your browser.


Navigate / search

Teaching the Test

Though it is frowned upon in the educational community, I am teaching the test.

The test is ”survive in a house in which the parents are outnumbered by the tiny humans,” and I am teaching my family.

Madeline, through no choice of her own, has enrolled herself in a 4-month winter intensive called “Self-sufficient Big-sisterdom 201.”  Also known as “Put On Your Big Girl Panties (Literally),” “Do It Yo’self,” and “C’est la Vie, Honey; It Builds Character.”

She passed Big-Sisterdom 101 with flying colors, so we’re optimistic.

I have a working list of life skills that each family member will need to master to make everyone’s life (read: my life) easier come March.  Dan’s list mostly involves how to put a trash bag back in the garbage can after taking out a full one.  Also some light cooking (see: thawing soups).  He is selfless and patient and very competent; just a few weeks of instruction and he’ll catch on in a snap.

Madeline’s list is a little more challenging.  Some of the things I’m teaching are age-appropriate, next- step kinds of things, but most are visual skills.  (This is such a weird statement, because to me, everything is a visual skill.  What wouldn’t be easier with vision?)  This means we’ll have to be extra patient/diligent/creative in teaching them to Madeline.  I’ve shared a lot of her story here, so for the interested, the curious, and those who adore her, here is what we’re working on with our 4 1/2 year-old daughter who doesn’t see quite like everyone else.

Get off of playground equipment by herself.
I want to be able to let the kids run around while I sit with the baby on a bench, rocking, nursing, whatever.  Madeline is excellent at avoiding obstacles and fearless when it comes to climbing, but getting down is a totally different story.  Field loss (tunnel vision) and a total lack of depth perception make it really hard.  Mustering the courage to go down a slide is 100% out of the question for her [the slide-related nightmare she relayed to me between sobs a few months ago was enough to give me a scare], so this means getting down the playground stairs safely. In the words of Rafiki, “IT IS TIME.”   She’ll be able to actually play instead of just amusing herself in the mulch, and she’ll be able to navigate without fear.  She’ll be less likely to get left behind by other kids, AND it means we’ll go to the playground much more often – getting us out of the house I won’t be cleaning.  Everybody wins.

Fasten her own pants.
Fine motor skills are hard.  Anything requiring hand strength or finger dexterity is hard.  Add that to the fact that she can’t see the buttons/snaps on her pants while she’s wearing them and it means ALL OF US in crammed into a public bathroom stall so that Madeline doesn’t just give up and come out naked (there is precedent for my child leaving a public bathroom naked).  No thank you.  We’re practicing on pants that are off, spending inordinate amounts of time in the bathroom (where I often have to meditate and count to 10 while Madeline “tries again” so as not to completely loose it and do it myself), and steering clear of leggings and elastic waists until she gets the hang of it.  Toys like Play-doh and lacing beads help build hand strength and dexterity, but they also mean that I get Play-doh smooshed in the carpet and Sam ingests a lot of little beads.  Prayers for grace and patience are appreciated.

Buckle her own seat belt.
OH MY GOSH.  I posted this status on Facebook the other day:

122 of 122 moms agree, when the kids reach this glorious, glorious milestone, you get at least 10 hours of your week back.  It eliminates the lifting, the digging under little bottoms for straps, the clicking, the angry-toddler-back-arching, and the climbing into the backseat of a minivan with your duff hanging out the door trying to find the buckle that’s wedged down in the seats, bloodying your hand in the process.  I’ll be buckling Sam and our newest arrival for a lot of years still, but every day I can keep my postpartum butt from hanging out the side of a minivan is a good day.  It’s a tough skill (again, because of hand strength and dexterity), but also because some buckles are so finicky that they won’t buckle unless they are lined up just right.  Hard to do if you can’t see.  More Play-doh, more beads, more practice, more time, more prayers.

Pick up.
Despite her hoarding tendencies, Madeline actually appreciates a clean space.  I should rephrase this teaching point – she knows how to pick up; she needs to learn how to find the things she needs to pick up.  We have no problem with things like stuffed animals and dress up clothes (and she’s a pro at shelving books), but THE LEGOS.  THE BLOCKS. THE KITCHEN FOODS. THE 7 BILLION THOMAS THE TRAIN CHARACTERS.  We have more Thomas the Train pieces in our house than there are people on the planet, of this I am confident.  I am also confident that if you asked her to, Madeline would name every single one, right down to the obscure Alfie and Ivo Hugh.

Because a big part of Madeline’s vision impairment is field loss (no peripheral, very limited central – imagine looking through a drinking straw), seeing the “big picture” is hard work.  She has to scan back and forth and put together the whole picture in her head.  If toys have been dumped out (the toys are ALWAYS dumped out) she can’t find them without narration from one of us.  ”It’s behind your left foot.  Almost, now drag your hand in – it’s closer to you.”  ”It’s over by the red couch.  Other side.”

This one is hard because I’m not really teaching a skill (she knows how to scan) I’m teaching diligence.  This will ALWAYS be harder for Madeline than it is for other children; it will always take her longer.  It will always feel like I’m expecting too much, or that it is unfair.  But that’s another thing that all parents have to teach their children; sometimes life’s not fair.  Similarly, we had to teach her that sometimes she has to sit still on her carpet spot at school, even though she can’t see the board, and listen to the story even though she can’t see the pictures.

I can teach Madeline a lot of tips and tricks to help her clean, I can encourage her and reward her, but I can’t regrow nerves.  If it were possible to wish and hope and pray and beg and cry them into existence, she’d have them by now.  The best optic nerves ever.  So for now, we’re working on habits:

-Pick it up immediately, before getting out another toy (less confusing and less clutter this way).
-Don’t inspect a thing before putting it away.  You don’t need to know what the block looks like, you just need to put it in the box.
-Pick up handfuls, not individual pieces.
-Use your hands and knees and feet; sometimes crawling is easier than standing.
-Do the whole job.  Don’t quit.

And of course, there is much gratitude and praise from us.

Those are the big ones.  The rest are just self-help and life skills that all 4-year-olds are learning.  Basic chores like clearing the table, basic manners like LISTENING and OBEYING.

I’m telling you what though, I’ve never seen a little girl who so delights in her little brother.  She literally screams her praise of him, “MOM, SAM IS STANDING UP ALL BY HIMSEEEEEEELLLLLLFFFF!”  Nevermind that he’s been doing it for months – her sisterly heart is swelling with pride.  She’s nicknamed this new brother “Pencil” (no explanation, believe me, I’ve tried) and shouts praise at him through my belly button like it’s a megaphone.  This girl is – the best.


Moms of 2, 3, 4 and more, what are some of the most helpful things your “bigs” did to help you out with the “littles?”  What do you wish you’d taught them before the new ones came?

Teachers, what tips, songs, tricks, motivations do you use to teach these skills to sweet little hands?



  • KelliCox

    My 4 are way spread out- well the first 2 are close then big gaps… My girls are 13,11, 6 and 17 months and my big 3 are SOOO helpful and it has made a world of difference. The older girls bathe the younger which is huge and I definitely wouldn’t make it through the dinner hour without their help! I know mine are a good bit older and can do bigger chores but even little things like clearing the table, scraping plates, keeping their rooms straight. My 6 year old helps with dusting (she gets assigned doors and baseboards so things don’t break!), wiping down bathroom sinks, unpacking groceries (my 6 year old opens and puts up diapers, toilet paper rolls, things like that taht aren’t hard but time consuming…). Don’t know how much this will help considering my older ones are a good bit older than yours but I think it’s great to be thinking ahead and get them excited about helping!

  • Andrea

    Snaps can definitely be tough. A couple ideas to help w/ buttons:

    1. Maybe use the a-little-too-pregnant-to-button-my-pants hair tie trick on all of HER pants? :-) I’m guessing maneuvering a button through a loop would be easier for little fingers than finagling it through a button-hole.

    2. You could make a practice button & button-hole to help her get the concept & mechanics down~ cut a slit/hole in a piece of paper (& reinforce w/ duct tape so it doesn’t tear); make a 3″-4″ diameter button out of cardboard (cereal box?) & attach it w/ yarn to another piece of cardboard so she can practice manipulating the button through the hole. *The yarn would obviously have to be long Enough to allow for some movement (which is something I ALWAYS need to remind myself of if I’m sewing a button back onto something ;-) . *Disclaimer: I have no idea how effective this idea is~ it just came to me; I haven’t tried it myself (or with any 4 yr. olds).

    Also, I wonder –if you don’t already have this– if a play table or play tray would help with clean-up…namely one that has a vertical edge that’s a couple inches high surrounding it. Then if she dumps her legos (or whatever) on the table/tray, they’re all contained within that space & she can sweep her hands and arms around it to find the pieces instead of scanning the floor minutely. (Particularly if space is an issue, I’m guessing a tray would be fairly easy to make out of wood if you/your husband is vaguely handy like that [or someone else you know is]. And you could cover it with some colorful contact paper to avoid splinters.) Again~ just an idea… :-)

  • Katherine@YeOldCollegeTry

    We don’t have any kids’ shoes with laces in this house. None. Keens/crocs/flip flops/slip-ons.

    In this family, we wipe our own behinds. When help is asked for, it is given. But we make that the exception, not the rule.

    Absolutely- buckle your own belt, kiddo. And bonus points if you can learn to unbuckle your sibling to help Mommy when it is time to get out of the car. Can you buckle your sibling and then yourself?? Best kid ever!!!

    We focused intense energy on these things, one by one. Our 4 year old was probably ready for these things long before we required them of her, but we just had not made her do them. So with the buckle thing, we taught her how, step by step- and then focused on it for a couple of days. Made a game out of it. Rewarded everyone in the car with a smidge of gum when she got it. Raced to see who could do it the fastest. Etc etc.

  • Tara

    I love your blog! I don’t have kids yet but I am a teacher….one of the quick things I have done to get kids to clean up little things quickly…(because for some reason all kids must makes the largest mess possible, and then pick up one piece at a time and walk over and put it away)! If your toys are not already sorted in bins or baskets of some kind get some of those and a large sheet/tablecloth/piece of fabric. Lay the sheet out where Madeline will be playing and have her play on top, when it is time to clean up you or hubby pick up all the edges of the sheet so all the toys form a pile in the middle, open it back up, give her the basket and she can sit and scoop handfuls into the bin, put the sheet in the bin or spread it back out if shes going to play again. Still requires a little attention from you, but much less the constant explaining. I started this after seeing a “lay-n-go” (you can Google it) and decided the broke teacher in me had to come up with another way :)

    For fine motor: ripping paper builds muscles and will take care of your junk mail at the same time, picking up things with tweezers or clothespins (pom poms, cotton balls, etc), threading pipe cleaners into a colander, or weaving them over and under a wire cooling rack. (As that gets easier you can use ribbon which isn’t as stiff and requires more work), cheap locks and keys are always a hit, as are turkey basters or medicine droppers in the bath tub. Those are a few ideas I give the parents of my kiddos, hope at least one was helpful ;) .

    Good Luck and thank you for sharing your life, blessings and trials, with all of us,

  • Diana

    One thing that I did to save ME was use a crib mattress for middle-of-the-night emergencies. I placed that precious mattress under my side of the bed, all made up and ready to go. When someone woke up with a bad dream – out slid the mattress and they snuggled in “right next to me” without being in bed with me or me having to get out of bed to tuck them back in or settle them down. When someone had an accident, out came the mattress (after a quick change of pj’s which I also kept spares of nearby). Or if someone woke up with tummy issues, out came the mattress. It gave us HOURS of sleep back over the course of those early years. We had 5 kids in 7 years and so we needed every last minute. Once I figured this out it was a game changer. We called it the “Special Bed” and it was only allowed to be used for those 3 reasons. No exceptions.

  • Maddie

    Something that would keep all the kids busy–tell Madeline and Sam (once he is more of a talker) that they are in charge of entertaining Baby Boy Conner during car trips. Since babies are so visual, give them hand puppets or other soft toys that they can use to tell stories.

  • Amanda Rempe

    I have 2 kiddos that are 4 years apart. We just made it a point that oldest helped getting diaper and wipes ready, throwing it away, bath time of gettign towels ready, and help with picking out a book or be included in bed time routine. We just explained how she God gave us her and we had to protect and take care of her, that it was the same concept with her and her sibling.

    To get them to clean up, my little sings, “clean up clean up, everybody clean up” times 100 times over. I am also a fan of bribery in the right, “you can have a piece of candy if you take a nap”

    Your a great momma and I love reading your blog.

  • Aleks

    Do you think it is possible to train….er… i mean teach a Husband how to replace garbage bags? I would to hear the progress you make. :)

  • Rebecca Barth

    We trained my son up like a track star before the arrival of my second. Now, when I say, “Honey, can you bring me a…[fill in the blank here]“, my son is gone and back with said item in lightening speed. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work with cleaning up his room.

  • aimee m steckowski

    it’s officially, we’ve hit that rad milestone {most days} – both kids CAN buckle themselves, the younger prefers to have help sometimes! i cherrish each moment that we leave an area and grasp onto a new one — we are teaching these sweet kids to be independent, self-motivated, self-seeking, problem solvers… ohh, do we learn so much from our kids! keep at it Kate! you pretty much rock! :)

  • LindsyGriffis

    I love this! I’ll be following for advice as well. My two littles are 15 months apart and my plan was simply “survival”. It still is some days. :-) At that point, getting in and out of the house without me carrying him was a biggie. But now at 19 months and 4 months, teaching my oldest independent play so I can nurse the youngest has been the biggest lifesaver. Not throwing food on the floor. Not playing in the dog food. It’s just plain busy around here.

    I love your ideas and I can’t wait to read more!

  • GabrielLeoon


  • Yadvendra Singh

    This one is hard because I’m not really teaching a skill (she knows
    how to scan) I’m teaching diligence. This will ALWAYS be harder for
    Madeline than it is for other children; it will always take her longer.
    It will always feel like I’m expecting too much, or that it is unfair.
    But that’s another thing that all parents have to teach their
    children; sometimes life’s not fair. Similarly, we had to teach her
    that sometimes she has to sit still on her carpet spot at school, even
    though she can’t see the board, and listen to the story even though she
    can’t see the pictures.

    I can teach Madeline a lot of tips and tricks to help her clean, I
    can encourage her and reward her, but I can’t regrow nerves. If it were
    possible to wish and hope and pray and beg and cry them into existence,
    she’d have them by now. The best optic nerves ever. So for now, we’re
    working on habits: