The Power of Personal Presentation: Teaching Cleanliness and Hygiene in Special Education - Stanfield


The Power of Personal Presentation: Teaching Cleanliness and Hygiene in Special Education

Cleanliness and hygiene are so much more than just keeping germs at bay. They’re fundamental aspects of living that affect self-perception, social acceptance, and even mental well-being. 

For special education teachers, imparting these life skills to your students goes beyond the curriculum – it’s about enriching their lives for the better.

However, the road is often paved with unique challenges. Sensory issues, cognitive impairments, or physical disabilities can make teaching – and learning – cleanliness and hygiene an uphill task, even for the most dedicated students and their teachers. 

Don’t give up hope. There are things you can do to make these lessons a little easier – and a lot more powerful. Let’s take a closer look. 

The Impact of Personal Presentation on Special Education Students

student washing their hands at a sink

Why is it so vital for us to focus on personal hygiene in schools? Let us paint a picture for you.

Imagine a young student – let’s call him Jamie. Jamie struggles with fine motor skills due to his disability. Simple tasks like brushing his teeth or washing his hands are challenging for him, making him dependent on others and often leading to the neglect of his personal hygiene. 

Ultimately, this isn’t just about Jamie keeping clean; it’s about how he views himself and how he’s perceived by peers, employers, and more. So you set out on a mission.

But as Jamie learns to manage his personal hygiene, with your support, his confidence soars. He’s happier to interact with classmates and take part in group activities. He doesn’t shy away from showing his smile – and that smile can light up a room. 

Teaching Jamie about hygiene i’s about giving Jamie that inch of independence that propels him towards being healthy, both physically and socially. 

When students like Jamie can tend to their own grooming, they feel a sense of achievement. This boosts their confidence and contributes to better self-esteem.

Good personal hygiene is a precursor to positive social interactions. It eliminates barriers, making it easier for students to form and maintain relationships.

And it goes without saying, cleanliness leads to improved health. Less sickness means more days at school learning and growing.

Now that you know some of the benefits, how do you get started? Let’s dive in. 

12 Strategies for Teaching Cleanliness and Hygiene

teaching hygiene to a student with a retainer

Teaching cleanliness and personal hygiene to students with special needs is crucial for several reasons. Many special education students struggle with sensory processing, executive functioning, and motor skills. 

These difficulties can significantly impact their ability to maintain proper hygiene, leading to social and health-related challenges. 

Recognizing these issues, and addressing them in tailored and compassionate ways, is the first step toward a more inclusive and effective hygiene education program.

1. Visual Cues and Reminders

Visual learners often respond well to images and spatial organization. Utilizing visual cues and reminders throughout the school environment can act as a constant prompt for hygiene practices. 

Simple signs with pictographs can be placed near sinks and bathrooms to remind students of the handwashing routine. Visual schedules can also be beneficial in mapping out the sequence of daily hygiene tasks, such as brushing teeth and taking a shower.

2. Social Stories and Role-Playing

By now, you’ve likely already reaped the many benefits of social stories in your classroom – but believe it or not, you can tap into them for hygiene and cleanliness lessons, too.

Creating social stories framed in the context of hygiene can help students understand the “whys” behind the practices. A social narrative can illustrate cause-and-effect scenarios, such as how not washing hands can lead to getting sick. 

And role-playing these stories can bring the learning to life, engaging students on an interactive and emotional level that encourages the remembering and implementation of hygiene practices.

3. Breaking Things Down Into Steps

For some students, the most daunting part of following a personal hygiene routine might be overwhelm. Although something like washing your hands might seem mundane to you, for a student with diverse needs, it might seem like a gargantuan task.

How much soap do I use? How long do I wash? What about my fingernails?

Break down the process into simple steps: wet, lather, scrub, rinse, and dry. 

Each step can be taught and practiced with visual aids, songs, or video modeling. Encouraging students to take their time and follow each step can ingrain the habit more effectively.

And if you think you’re breaking things down too much, break things down some more. It’s all about making the steps as clear as possible so there’s absolutely no question about what needs to be done or why.

4. Know What Skills to Teach 

This is where your understanding of each students’ unique needs is going to come into play. 

Some students may have hygiene goals specifically written out in their IEP plans – so that’s a great place to start. Others may not have any goals outlined yet, so you’ll need to write your own (or come up with your own action plan).

Some example of tasks and skills you may want to teach include:

  • Handwashing: Proper handwashing techniques, including thorough scrubbing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • Dental Care: Brushing teeth at least twice a day, flossing, and understanding the importance of oral hygiene.
  • Bathing/Showering: Techniques for bathing or showering, including the use of soap, shampoo, and proper rinsing.
  • Hair Care: Brushing, combing, washing, and grooming hair as needed.
  • Toileting: Proper use of the toilet, wiping techniques, and maintaining cleanliness in the bathroom.
  • Personal Grooming: Basic grooming skills such as nail care, shaving (if applicable), and skincare routines.
  • Dressing: Selecting and putting on clean clothes, understanding the importance of changing clothes regularly.
  • Menstrual Hygiene (for older students): Proper use and disposal of menstrual products, maintaining cleanliness during menstruation.
  • Using Deodorant: Understanding the purpose of deodorant and how to apply it for personal hygiene.
  • Environmental Hygiene: Keeping personal spaces, such as bedrooms and living areas, clean and organized.

Again, taking advantage of instructional videos and hands-on practice when appropriate and applicable can make these skills more accessible and engaging.

5. Use of Visual Schedules

The most important element of any new routine is consistency – and you can help build that consistency by using visual schedules.

It’s all about personalizing each student’s schedule and making sure it’s put up where they can easily see it, with clear illustrations showing the order of tasks. As time goes on, seeing this visual schedule over and over can really help students become more independent in their hygiene habits.

6. Multi-Sensory Approaches

Engaging multiple senses during hygiene activities can make the learning experience more immersive and enjoyable. 

For instance, scented soaps and lotions can introduce students to new sensory experiences and can be linked to positive associations with hygiene practices. This can be particularly beneficial to students with sensory processing disorders.

Just remember to keep sensitivities and allergies in mind when you’re planning out these lessons. 

7. Collaborative Learning

When it makes sense for your classroom and your students, group activities centered around hygiene can create a sense of community and shared responsibility. 

For example, students can work together to create a hygiene display for an open house event. 

These kinds of collaborative projects reinforce the importance of hygiene and provide opportunities for social interaction and skill building.

8. Reinforcement and Rewards

Using positive reinforcement can be a game-changer in any classroom, especially when it comes to students with special needs. When we give them rewards for showing good hygiene habits, it can really motivate them to keep it up and make healthy choices. 

The key is making sure the rewards are super meaningful to each student. Maybe it’s something awesome like a bit of extra recess time or the cool privilege of picking the next day’s classroom activity. These little incentives can go a long way in encouraging positive habits!

9. Modeling and Demonstration

Teachers, classroom aides, and anyone else who’s involved in a student’s education can serve as great examples of proper hygiene practices. 

Modeling these behaviors regularly and providing live demonstrations during instruction can reinforce learning. Plus, students demonstrating good hygiene practices can also be role models for their peers, creating a positive social dynamic within the classroom.

10. Peer Buddies and Mentorship

Teaming up your students as peer buddies can give them an extra boost of support. The buddy can help show and remind the student about good hygiene practices. 

And it’s not just about hygiene. This kind of setup can create a super supportive and inclusive vibe in the classroom where everyone feels important and able to shine.

11. Environmental Adaptations

A big part of teaching personal hygiene and cleanliness may come down to providing the proper accommodations

You might need to do things like installing handrails in the bathroom or choosing hand dryers with adjustable settings to make hygiene routines accessible for al of your students. Read your students’ IEPs to find out what sorts of accommodations they may need.

12. Community Partnerships

Finally, engaging with any and all community resources can help to provide a broader understanding and application of hygiene practices. 

Local dental clinics, hospitals, or health organizations may offer educational sessions or field trips focused on hygiene. These partnerships can enhance classroom lessons with real-world knowledge and experiences, plus provide your students with helpful connections to the resources that are available to them out in the “real world.” 

Addressing Challenges and Individual Needs

toothbrushes on counter for students to use

When it comes to teaching personal hygiene strategies, one of the most important principles to remember is that not all strategies are one-size-fits-all. Each student has unique abilities, challenges, and sensitivities that must be considered. 

Understanding and effectively addressing these individual needs can make a significant difference in the success of personal hygiene education. 

While every single student will be different in this regard, here are a few key things to keep in mind.

Sensory Sensitivities

Lots of students with special needs have sensory sensitivities that can make using hygiene products a bit tricky. Some might not vibe with certain textures, scents, or sensations commonly found in these products. 

As educators, it’s crucial for us to be aware of these sensitivities and work with students and their caregivers to find suitable alternatives. 

Whether it’s switching to hypoallergenic products, trying out different textures, or going fragrance-free, accommodating these sensitivities is key to creating a comfortable and beneficial learning environment. 

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

Teaming up with other pros, like occupational therapists, physical therapists, or healthcare providers, can bring worlds of expertise to the table when it comes to developing personalized hygiene strategies. 

These folks can share specialized knowledge about specific disabilities, sensory needs, and motor skills, which can help us tailor our approach to each student’s unique challenges.

Let’s Talk

Good communication with students and their caregivers is absolutely crucial to understanding their preferences, challenges, and comfort levels with personal hygiene activities. 

We need to keep those lines of communication wide open to address any concerns, preferences, or specific needs. And remember – getting informed consent from students and their caregivers means that the strategies we put in place align with their goals and comfort levels, too. 

Go, Independence!

While we’re here to provide support and accommodations, we also want to encourage independence and self-care skills among our students. 

Giving them the tools to take charge of their personal hygiene routines helps build confidence, autonomy, and a real sense of agency in their daily lives.

Final Thoughts

empowering a student to learn hygiene tasks like handwashing

Remember Jamie, our friend from the beginning of this post? Jamie – and students just like Jamie – are just one of the many kids whose lives you’ll touch with these lessons. As a teacher, you’re bridging the gap between disability and the chance for students to present their very best selves.

Embrace the value of teaching cleanliness and hygiene. It will likely be one of the most lasting lessons you ever impart. The work you do is more than important—it’s life-changing.

After all, every child, every student, every Jamie deserves that from us. Let’s keep breaking through barriers…one soap bubble at a time.


The Stanfield Way

The child who is ‘left behind’ most is the one who leaves school without transition readiness.

Dr. James Stanfield, Ed.D.

Stanfield Special Education Curriculum

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