There is so much going on in the news, in regards to education these days. The Common Core Craze has changed the way teachers teach, and Kindergarten is the new second grade. That said, there are many things that teachers are teaching that are not remotely on our politicians’ radar. Manners, character, and self-care skills are just a few. However, the list is endless.
Anyway, learning how to tie your own shoes is a rite of passage that turns your child into a “big girl” or a “big boy”. Think back to when you were little and you learned how to tie. I would bet that your parents or older sibling taught you how to tie. It takes practice and a certain amount of motivation. Both the adult and the child need to be motivated in order for the child to learn the skill. The adult is usually motivated to get the child to tie for themselves so that: A) they aren’t tripping on their laces and B) so there is one less thing for the grown-up to do. The child is usually motivated to tie because they are excited to be a “big kid”.
When are children ready to tie?
Some children are ready to tie before they even start kindergarten. Many are ready to learn in their kindergarten year. Keep in mind, this means children who are four and a half and five years old. It always concerns me when I see a third-grader in the halls, with untied shoes, and when I ask them to tie their shoes for safety, they end up telling me that no one ever showed them how. It’s easy to buy slip on shoes and Velcro, but kids still need to learn how to tie. I think, sometimes, it simply slips parents’ minds that they need to teach this skill, just like zipping, wiping and washing hands in the bathroom, and using a fork and spoon. Life is hectic and busy, but before you know it you have a ten-year-old who can’t tie. Uh-oh!
Of course, some children have motor or learning difficulties that interfere with their ability to easily acquire this skill. When this is the case, an Occupational Therapist may be the one who ends up teaching them, which is totally appropriate. If you have a child that receives OT and you are concerned about their ability to perform self-care skills, definitely let the OT know. You may think that the OT should automatically know this or look at this, but the truth is that school-based OTs are really supposed to work on skills that directly impact a child’s education. Not just handwriting (MYTH!) but copying from the board, visual processing, motor coordination, using two hands to manipulate school tools, and many other things that affect a child’s ability to learn the curriculum.
I’ve had parents ask me to work on riding a bike because their child can’t ride with the family or the kids in the neighborhood. That stinks! An OT will absolutely know how to teach a child to ride a bike because it’s all about balance, coordination, and motor planning; however, riding a bike has nothing to do with school. I always feel bad when I explain this to a parent. I can work on motor planning, coordination, and balance, but bicycles are on the other side of the line.
Untied shoes can be a safety issue for a child with special needs. Shoe-tying is a self-care skill, and that is school-appropriate. So, children who have motor or learning difficulties may end up learning how to tie at school. Everyone else will (hopefully) learn at home. I think I’ve taught at least a hundred kids to tie, over the years, and I’ve found that there are a few simple reasons why it’s so hard for some kids to tie.
Children who are low tone or have weak core muscles have a very hard time holding their trunks upright and managing the steps to tie. Even children who are simply young have trouble with this. It’s just too many things to conquer. You may notice that your child will use one hand to kind of hold themselves up. This obviously interferes with the ability to tie, because they need to manage both laces.
The easiest way to fix this problem is to have the child sit with their back against a wall or something flat. Try to get them to put their bottom all the way to the back of the wall. Kids often round their backs and scoot their bottoms forward, which provides less support.
So now the child is seated with their back against a wall. What next? Have you ever tried to do that thing where you tap your head and rub your belly at the same time? This takes a lot of motor planning and the ability to do different things with different body parts at the same time. Tough Stuff. So, the next tricky thing is getting the child’s body in a position that makes it easy to manage reaching their feet. We already took care of their trunk by propping it against the wall. Now, we need to get their legs in a good position. Decide what shoe you want to tie. Then tuck the other leg underneath and out of the way. Bend the knee of the tying foot up towards the chin. The hard part here will be getting the knee to stay there. I sometimes tell my kids that they should rest their chin on that knee. It helps keep it in place. For kids who are a little chunky, the knee usually falls to the side. This also happens to kids who are low tone. The only problem with this is that now, the bow will be on the Inside of the foot, instead of the Middle of the foot on top of the tongue. Although this isn’t the biggest problem in the world, it’s harder to tie because the laces aren’t the same length anymore. Also, the laces will probably dangle on the inside of the foot, making it more likely that the child will trip on them or step on them. So, get that knee under the chin.
Some children still don’t have great bilateral coordination at the age of 5. Bilateral coordination is the ability to use two sides of your body at once. Sometimes it is hard for a child to keep their first hand holding the loop while the second hand does the next step. I always tell the child “you have to hold onto the bunny, or he will hop away!” As I said before, sometimes a child will take that hand away and lean on it, using it as a support. That goes back to the postural control and positioning. It can be hard to tell why they are taking that first hand away (difficulty with using two hands at once? or the need to hold themselves up?) but if you get them against a wall in the right position, you may eliminate that urge to take the hand off the loop and put it behind them.
Length- Children’s laces should be the right length, of course, but very often they aren’t. At least they aren’t the right length for a kid who is learning how to tie. The laces should be long enough to give the child some leeway as they are learning. But, they can’t be too long or it becomes a big mess, AND they will trip on them even after they are tied. So, what is the perfect lace length? It depends on the size of the shoe, but I recommend that the laces should be between 11-13 inches long from the tongue (after the shoes are laced). The Dollar Tree sells packs of laces, for a dollar, in all different sizes. If your laces are too short or too long, you really should get a new pair of laces. It makes a world of difference. For some reason, kids want to hold the first loop or “bunny ear” with their whole fist, instead of pinching it with their two fingers. If the laces are too short, they disappear in that little hand. You need laces that are long enough to work with.
Texture- Now this may seem ridiculous, but it’s really true. Some of the new funky sneakers come with cool laces that are just too silky! They are usually round, too. I prefer the plain old flat cotton laces. They tie easily, and they stay tied. The silky ones tie, but because of their round shape and silky texture, they come untied right away. Little kids usually don’t have great hand strength to tie the final bow super tight. Those silky laces are like Houdini. Out of that knot in a few minutes.
For some children, half the battle is getting their eyes to look at what they are doing. For children with very poor visual attention, I recommend teaching one step at a time. I find that children who are motivated and feeling successful do much better with keeping their eyes on what they are doing. By teaching only step one, over and over a few times, the child learns it and then feels successful. Feeling like something is achievable or within their reach makes it more enticing and may help with the visual focus a bit.
Some OT catalogs sell toys, books, and other gadgets with laces that are two colors. This is great for kids who rely heavily on visual feedback. I really prefer to teach kids to tie on their foot though. Otherwise, you end up teaching them twice.
If your child has difficulty with left/right or spatial concepts such as over/under, it may help to use different colored laces. Buy two colors that are the same length. Then, cut them both in half, and tie them back together with the opposite color. Lace the shoe so the knot is at the bottom, in between the first two holes. Now when you are helping your child you can say, “the pink lace” rather than left, right, this one, that one, etc. It just takes away one more obstacle.
Sequencing and Motor Planning
Sometimes the real problem is remembering the steps. I like to use a story or a poem to help the child, because it helps them to remember what happens next. I prefer to use the one loop method, but you can teach it however you like. There are so many different versions of how to teach it, but if you get their body in a good, supported position, with the other leg out of the way, you are halfway there.
I use the bunny and the snake story. First, you make the letter X. I teach the child to make the X on the shoe, not in the air, because it is more work to hold the two laces up and manipulate them than to leave them down. Then, I help the child find the lace on top. (This is where the two colors come in handy). The lace that is on top goes underneath and into the middle. If you tied it correctly, it should look like a piece of twisty macaroni.
Now the child has to make a loop. This is the bunny, who sits on “macaroni hill”. I always talk to kids about how bunnies hop on the ground, so it’s important that he doesn’t look like a flying balloon. “Bunnies don’t fly!” Don’t forget to give the bunny a nice long tail. The other lace is the snake. Depending on the child, you can make the snake mean and hungry (you can guess the end) or nice. I like to have a snake in the story because I can tell the child that the end of the lace (the plastic part) is the snake’s face. This helps them remember that they need to work with the snake’s belly, not his face, in the middle of the story. “He might bite you! Don’t touch his face. Be Careful!”
The snake decides to sneak up behind the bunny. This part of the story helps a child to remember where the lace needs to go. “You would never walk in front of the bunny if you were trying to be sneaky…” Then the snake loops around and hides his face in the forest. This is the hard part for a lot of kids. They keep wanting to pick up the end of the lace. “Watch out! He’ll bite you. Not his face, grab his belly!”
The snake pushes his belly through the hole that he made when he walked around. I tell the child to “pinch the snake’s belly”. The other hand hops to the top of the bunny ear and then both hands pull. You can have the snake hug the bunny and invite him to lunch (awww) or eat the bunny for lunch (ewww). You will know what your child will like and remember.
It doesn’t matter what story or method you use. But, having a story with steps that help a child to sequence and motor plan their movements really helps.
I really hope these insights will help you to help your child to tie! Please comment and tell us if you have any other good tips! Good Luck!
~Miss Jaime, OT