Meaningful work: how kids with physical disabilities benefit from chores

Meaningful work: how kids with physical disabilities benefit from chores


Oftentimes, when I am speaking with families of kids with physical disabilities, I ask about their daily routines and activities – where they go, what they do, what they like to do and what they wish they could do. I need to hear what this family’s lifestyle is like, and what mobility issues I needed to work on with them during therapy. Is their bedroom and bath upstairs?  We’d best start working on stair climbing and/or an architectural modification early before it is no longer safe to carry them up and down the stairs. Do they like to be outside? I need to consider what types of wheels should be on their walker or gait trainer and we need to maximize those dynamic standing balance reactions.

It is rare that I hear about their child with a disability participating in family chores; if I suggest their adding in some chores, I am often met with blank stares and/or reasons why it won’t work: “We are too busy.”  “He’s too tired after school and therapy.”  “The day-to-day caregiving is just too much to add chores on top of it all.”  I agree…but still think chores should be considered. For all kids. 🙂

There are many reasons why kids, in general, should learn to do chores or meaningful “work”  as part of their family community, and many parenting articles listing the pros and cons.

Here are 4 reasons why we all should consider putting our children with special needs to work:

  1. Preparing for the future:  for all kids, learning to do tasks around the house such as sweeping, taking care of pets, and putting toys and clothing away are all life-long skills that need to be learned, begun at an early age with simple versions and expanded over time as they grow in mastery. For our kids with physical disabilities (as well as kids without disabilities!), they often become dependent on caregivers for tasks they are capable of learning and doing. Our goals as parents are to enhance their independence as much as possible and to counter-act the “learned helplessness” that frequently occurs. Start now and aim for future skills. Think about high schoolers who use power chairs and are planning to go to college – what skills do they need to live in a dorm or apartment with as little caregiver help as possible? Can they do a sit to stand transfer to put clothes in the washing machine?
  2. Presumed competence: contributing to family activities that support households running smoothly teaches kids that they are competent, fostering a sense of accomplishment and pride. Kids with disabilities are motivated to move, interact, and participate, and useful “work” at home is a great way to harness that motivation in a meaningful daily activity. Eyes light up when kids are told, “You’re a great helper – thanks!” Kids in power or manual chairs can push a broom or a shovel around or help cart groceries from the car on their lap. Add a basket to a gait trainer or walker and kids can collect and sort laundry. A soft duster is a wonderful tool for kids working on sitting or standing and can be done in all types of adaptive equipment. Who collects the mail from the mailbox? Hmmmm. Keep thinking….
  3. Meaningful practice of “therapy tasks:”  As my friend/colleague, Heather, has written on her blog, therapy tasks need to be functional, and I (almost) always apply the “Is this a therapy-thingy or a functional-thingy” test when giving families a home activity to practice. Chores are a great way to weave into daily life those gross/fine motor, problem-solving, and motor planning activities that we are encouraging in our therapy sessions. Working on two handed activities?  Put the child in charge of collecting the laundry in a laundry basket or carrying plates to the table with two hands. Need to practice stairs?  Ask the child to be the official “waker-upper” of their older sibling on a weekend morning, climbing the stairs to their upstairs bedroom. Working on standing balance?  Perhaps the child can stand at the table to set up the napkins and (not sharp) utensils. Squatting a goal?  Picking toys up off the floor is good practice. Emerging sitting balance?  Have them use a washcloth in the tub to wash their body and limbs. Kids will own the motor movement when they practice and they see its usefulness in the big picture.
"I"m catching my balance, Miss Karen - see?"

“I”m catching my balance, Miss Karen – see?” Thank you to Darcie for the fabulous photo

And a 4th reason – FUN!  Participating in meaningful family “work” can be just plain fun for kids. Shoveling snow can turn into a snowball fight. Raking leaves can lead to mazes or  to rolling in piles of leaves. Setting the table and arranging the flowers on the table can be pleasing to the soul. And because those of us who live in New England, “plowing” in snowy weather can just bring out the giggles:

Thank you to Aidan, the worker, and his mom, Heather from Family Synapse.

Yes, in the beginning, it will take more time and effort  to help the child do the chore, especially if they need assistance or adaptations, but in the long run, everyone benefits.

  • Look at the full spectrum of your family’s daily tasks and begin to see which ones can be adapted for your child with special needs.
  • Start small with one easy task and go for success.
  • Then expand as the child gains skill and confidence
  • Watch their sense of control and competence blossom!

I will leave the allowance debate for others!

What chores have you considered for your child?  Was the chore routine successful or challenging?  Share in the comments so others can see your creative chores!


~ Karen

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