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Updated: Apr 1, 2020

One of the things that makes ABA such a great treatment model for anyone is that it targets so many different types of skills––Everything from functional communication, to play skills, and everything in between!

We all know the every-day importance of these skills, but there is one skill ABA addresses that is really stealing the limelight right now: Washing your hands!

Hand washing can be considered a “complex skill” in the behavioral world because it’s an activity that requires a specific sequence of multiple steps for it to be effective.

Because of the worldwide issue with Coronavirus, and the constant threat of other seasonal illnesses, the skill of hand washing (and doing it correctly) is more important now than ever before. The World Health Organization, among other agencies, is consistently citing this preventative measure as the predominant way to slow the spread of the virus, and to keep yourselves safe!

Hand washing can be considered a “complex skill” in the behavioral world because it’s an activity that requires a specific sequence of multiple steps for it to be effective. Doing half of the steps, or doing them out of order, just won’t cut it! Applied Behavior Analysis targets this from a few different approaches to work on this skill, and we’d like to share our tips and tools with the entire community to help you support your kiddo and others!

Breaking it down:

When we tackle these “complex skills” in ABA, we create what is called a Task Analysis––A breakdown of all of the individual steps that are needed to complete a skill. Instead of presenting the instruction “Wash Your Hands” to your child or person in care, you can instruct them to do each task independently such as:

  • Go to the sink

  • Turn on the water

  • Get your hands wet!

  • Pump the soap

  • Scrub for 20 seconds

By doing these steps individually, you can ensure that your child knows exactly what is expected for this step, where “washing your hands” might be more vague and confusing to a child who isn’t familiar with the entire process.

Get Motivated!

If washing hands is a non-preferred or aversive activity for your child, use motivation as a proactive measure to help you gain compliance! When health concerns are involved, there’s always room for a little reward to make sure your child is engaging in the right behaviors to stay healthy and safe.

To effectively motivate your child, choose one or two things that you know are preferred activities or items. Before asking them to wash their hands, present a choice to your child between those items: “Do you want a cookie, or do you want to play with your Hot Wheels?” Once your child picks, make a “first-then statement” such as “Great! First, let’s wash hands, and then let’s play with your Hot Wheels together!!” Sound excited, and get your kid pumped for that activity. Make sure that you present this before you let your kiddo know that they’re washing their hands.

Don’t forget to deliver on your promises once your child has completed the task!

Using Support Tools

There are a variety of visual supports that we use in Applied Behavior Analysis to help kiddos in completing skills. Often, when we are working with a child on hand washing, we include a visual of each of the steps that help them see what the next step is! This can help your child become more independent with the skill if you are previously having to model or physically help them with each individual step. Check out our visual support below, based on Healthcare's recommendations for effective hand washing.

ABA Pro Tip: Print out our visual, and tape it above the sinks that your kiddo frequently uses! This will allow them to easily see the steps while they are engaging in the skill.

Keep it Fun and Effective!

Just because a task is routine doesn’t mean it has to be boring! We like to keep hand washing fun by incorporating some kid friendly (and some parent friendly!) songs that conveniently last about 20-25 seconds each. Sing this song with your kiddo every time they scrub their hands. When the song is finished, your kiddo will know they are all done scrubbing, and can move on to the next step!

Don’t hold us accountable if your child wants to sing more!

1 verse of Old McDonald Had a Farm

2 verses of Wheels On The Bus

A modified version of London Bridge is Falling down (repeat twice!)

[Kiddo’s name] is washing hands, washing hands, washing hands,

[Kiddo’s name] is washing hands, and scrubbing with bubbles.

Can’t stop this feeling

Nothin' I can see but you when you dance, dance, dance

Feel a good, good creepin' up on you

So just dance, dance, dance, come on

All those things I shouldn't do

But you dance, dance, dance

And ain't nobody leavin' soon, so keep dancin'

I can't stop the feelin'

So just dance, dance, dance

Use our above tips to help anyone in an impacted area wash hands effectively. Remember, grown ups can use a little encouragement these days too! For additional support, ask your ABA provider or BCBA what steps they’re taking to work with your child on this skill! If you'd like to connect with our Care Team to talk about how we might be able to help your kiddo with this type of skill and more, connect with us today!

For additional information regarding proper hand washing techniques, visit the CDC's Hand Washing Information Guide and because we love science in ABA so much, read more about the science behind the CDC's hand washing recommendations.

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