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Teaching Special Needs Learners to Wash Their Hands

Jeannette Washington, M.Ed.


Here’s what I know, respiratory viruses like the novel coronavirus flu, the flu and the common cold can be spread by the hands. If I’m honest, I’ve never heard so many birthday songs being sung in light of a pandemic. Learners across every border and boundary are humming this celebratory tune with glee as school districts close. This song reminds me of the nearly 150 million learners with a disability worldwide. How will they be equipped with the resources to have a 20 second sudsy palm party?

As a speech language pathologist, educator and software developer, my passion for special needs learners has helped me ignite conversations across multiple dimensions of disability. More importantly, as a human being, the global impact of COVID-19 has made me consider how preventing the spread of any illness is all of our responsibility. With that in mind, here are some handy tips to teach special needs learners to wash their hands.

If a learner has some physical and/or intellectual limitations that prevent them from being independent with hand washing, it’s important to figure out ways to teach them. That’s exactly why the great aim of education is action. When teaching a special needs learner to wash their hands you must use the efficient and actionable multisensory instructional approach.

Multisensory instruction helps learners make connections and form memories. Confucius once said, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” Our brains perceive stimuli through the senses. So when a learner is involved in an activity, all the senses should be engaged. Here are 3 Multisensory instructional ideas to use when teaching special needs learners to wash their hands:

  1. Visual: This may include a visual schedule, and/or visual sequence cards that reinforce instruction and present the steps or items needed in order to wash hands. In addition, using apps like My Healthy Smile, Making Sequences, Hygiene HD can provide great pictorial cues.
  2. Auditory: This may include reading aloud a story about hygiene (i.e., Germs Are Not For Sharing, Wash, Wash, Wash! or No More Germs Please) or singing songs that guide the hand washing sequence (hand washing songs can be found on YouTube).
  3. Tactile: This may include games like hygiene bingo which offer a chance for incentivization and mock handwashing sessions which highlight the manipulation of the soap dispenser, faucet and hand drying equipment.

Now when it comes to accommodations, these can level the playing field for special needs learners. It’s important to acknowledge that no two sinks, soap dispensers or hand dryers will likely be the same (especially as it relates to residential and commercial bathrooms). Therefore here are 6 things to consider when teaching a special needs learner to wash their hands:

  1. The use of a step stool.
  2. Whether an automatic soap dispenser or manual dispenser is suitable.
  3. Which will meet their sensory preference – Gel soaps, bar soaps or foaming soaps.
  4. The use of a lowered towel (for easier reaching).
  5. Whether a dryer instead of towels will cause sensory concerns based on the noise.
  6. Will lower water temperature cause water temp sensory issues.

Handwashing is more than just getting your hands wet! The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends washing hands with soap and water as the top way to clean our hands. Our hands are the front lines in the war against Covid-19. So it’s imperative that special needs learners know how to wash them.