Teaching Hygiene to Students with Special Needs

Instructor: Abigail Cook
Students with disabilities often need extra, specialized instruction in order to learn basic skills for independent living. This lesson will focus specifically on how teachers can help their students learn personal hygiene skills.

Students with Disabilities and Hygiene

Students with disabilities do not always naturally acquire a regimen of personal hygiene like their typical peers. The added tasks of showering, brushing teeth, and combing their hair usually seem like too much work, which results in them refusing to take care of themselves. They also may not pick up on the nonverbal social pressure to look and smell nice. Parents of children with disabilities often experience frustration as these activities become a major battle at home.

For this reason, many teachers find it necessary to focus on personal hygiene skills at school.

Personal Hygiene Instruction

In this lesson, we will review techniques for individualized instruction, while focusing on specific personal hygiene skills, such as doing laundry, brushing teeth, and washing hands. Keep in mind that the ideas in this section can be applied to a much broader list of skills. It will be up to you to determine how to best utilize these strategies in your classroom.

Task Analysis

Task analysis is a technique used to break down a complex skill into small, manageable parts. Learning skills in small steps allows students to focus on one basic task at a time, helping them master each individual part. Task analysis is also conducive to positive reinforcement. Teachers should praise students as they complete each step of a task, encouraging them and making the activity a positive experience that builds self-esteem. Let's see how this might be used when teaching a student to do laundry.

When teaching a student how to do a load of laundry, you might break the steps down like this:

1. Gather all dirty clothes.

2. Separate the colored clothes from the white clothes.

3. Open the washing machine.

4. Put the colored clothes in the washing machine.

5. Put one pod of laundry soap into the washing machine.

6. Push the knob in and turn it until the arrow is pointing to 'Normal'.

7. Close the lid.

Your students must master each step before moving on to the next one. As they do this, they will experience success and learn to complete all of the steps independently.


Personal hygiene is part of a daily ritual that usually follows the same pattern. Making it part of students' daily routines, where they do the same things in a specific order each morning or night, will help them remember what they need to do. This routine can be written out in the form of a checklist for students to refer back to. Here is an example that students might use for their morning schedule before school.

1. Wake up.

2. Shower: wash hair and body.

3. Get dressed.

4. Brush or comb hair.

5. Eat breakfast.

6. Brush teeth.

7. Put on socks and shoes.

8. Get backpack.

9. Walk to bus stop.

Creating a schedule can help students build independence. Parents and teachers can slowly abandon the constant prompting and reminding, as students learn to follow their checklists on their own.

Simple Language

Many students with disabilities get overwhelmed and stop listening to instructions when teachers use wordy language. Make your instruction as basic and simple as you can, using the fewest words possible. For example, rather than saying 'It's time to go to the sink in the back of the classroom and wash your hands. And make sure you use enough soap and make lots of bubbles to get rid of those germs,' try saying, 'Wash hands.' If this skill has been taught effectively, students will not need the additional, wordy explanations to complete the task.

Here is a list of simple phrases you may use while helping students practice personal hygiene skills.

  • Get dressed.
  • Brush teeth.
  • Comb hair.
  • Shoes on.

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