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Skills and activities

Life can become dull quite quickly when we do little for long periods of time. In the short term this can feel quite nice (like if on holiday being waited on hand and foot!) but for extended periods of time (for instance if unemployed, chronically unwell, or during the COVID-19 situation) this is altogether different.

Video: "Skills and activities" 

Being active and developing skills means that people can access things that make them  happy, make choices and gain a sense of achievement. Learning new skills and taking part in activities can be difficult for some people with learning disabilities, but there are lots of ways family carers can support with this. Here are a few key ideas to keep in mind:

Getting the Balance


Your relative will have somethings, or parts of things, they can do more easily than others. Providing support is not ‘all or nothing’. It is about supporting your relative in a way that allows them to do whatever they can by themselves whilst giving support for parts they find more difficult.  


Finding opportunities

Activities do not have to be ‘special events’. Opportunities to take part in things are all around, from the moment your relative wakes up to the moment they go to sleep. Often these are the very normal things that happen, or need to happen, throughout the day (as well as all the leisure activities and hobbies your relative enjoys): 

  • getting dressed;

  • self-care;

  • preparing snacks and meals;

  • cleaning and tidying.

Being mindful of what you and your relative are already doing, and thinking about how they could be involved in this as much as possible, is the key. ​


Although there are opportunities all around for supporting involvement in activities this does not mean every moment can be or has to be acted upon. It would be exhausting for both you and your relative to be using all the moments available for engaging or learning new skills.  ​


The trick is to pick moments that work for you both, whilst knowing that if you miss that moment another will be along. It’s the awareness that opportunities are many that is important, you can pick the ones that work for you both.  

Breaking activities into steps

The sort of activities above are also made up of lots of smaller actions. It can be really helpful to identify the full sequence of steps that make up an activity or skill from beginning to end. This makes it easier to get the balance of support right for your relative, really focusing on the parts where they need extra help and the parts they can complete with less support.  

Here is an example of breaking down the steps involved in brushing teeth.

By breaking down activities in this way you can discover that there are some parts your relative can do on their own, can do with a little help or can do with lots of help. Recording these details can be a useful way to remember exactly what support they need (there is a space to do this in the example and template provided). 


I was talking about my wee boy and about the eating and I was going , he can’t do anything for himself or then whenever we broke it down again with the sheet...then I realised , and the other thing was as well was that, I really need to let him try for himself because  we are that used to just going, oh we need to do it, I wasn’t picking up on the cues of my child, you know I was taking the spoon off him and trying it myself, I was able to think when I  was writing it all down, I was going he can do that, but I am actually not letting him so I need to let him have more, be more independent and things like that

I had just assumed my son couldn’t put his shoes on, so I did it for him. When I broke the activity down into individual steps, I realised he could do around half of it. For example, he could point to his shoes, bring them to me (one at a time), lift his foot and help push the Velcro part down at the end. Allowing him to do the parts he can do while supporting him to do the rest makes him feel empowered.

Flexible support

The way you support your relative for parts of an activity they find difficult may take many forms. It may include:

Physical supports

Like guiding their hand with yours 

Positioning of objects

For example, moving something to within their reach


Such as pointing to what they need to do next

Verbal instructions

Like saying what to do next


The aim is to:

  1. Use the form of support that is right for your relative.

  2. Use this in a way that gives just enough support for them to be successful. 


Over time, it may be possible to slowly reduce the amount of support your relative needs during different steps of the activity.  Look out for opportunities for when they are ready to move forward – taking a tiny step at a time.  ​


It’s also really important to remember that your relative might have better days and days when they find things more difficult.  Even if you are very confident that they have the skills to do something without support, on some days they might just need more help!


If at first you don’t succeed – try another way!

Trying to support your relative during activities is not always straight forward. Often the way we first plan to provide support in a task turns out to be not quite right. It may be too big a step or be done in a way your relative doesn’t like. This is all quite normal. The important thing is not to give up. Take a step back, perhaps looking again at the steps for the activity and see if you can think of another way of approaching things. When the time is right you can give it another go.  



Taking part in activities is often very empowering for people. Sometimes people need a bit of encouragement to take part, especially when they are not used to doing so or part of the activity is difficult for them.  Offering encouragement for even the tiniest of achievements is important at these times.  This is called ‘positive reinforcement’ and it is part of the bedrock of how we all learn. ​


Encouragement for your relative’s successes can come in many forms.  It's about finding out what they really like. 

  • Praise – ‘well done!’ ‘You did it!’ 

  • Cheering - ‘hooray!’

  • Giving a thumbs-up

  • Smiling and laughing

  • High-fiving

  • Showing a picture of a special interest 

You might try some of these things during the activity itself. In addition, you might think about your relative having or doing something they enjoy at the natural end of an activity. This can be really motivating. 

Looking after you

In addition to encouragement for when things are going well, people need patience from others when they are finding things harder, or seem less able or willing to do what you are hoping for.  ​


This is not always an easy thing to do. It can be very frustrating when your relative seems to be stuck. Sometimes it can feel as if they are being deliberately difficult or lazy and you might be worried about them and upset with yourself in lots of other ways too.  


Thoughts and emotions like this are quite common for carers at times like these, but are not an indication that you are doing everything wrong or are not up to the job of supporting your relative. 

Exploring the ‘Looking after you’ section might be helpful for supporting your own wellbeing if you find yourself feeling like this.   

You may also wish to view the range helpful resources and information sheets developed by the Challenging Behaviour Foundation, available here.

Video: "Skills and activities if you have little time"

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