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Our Blog: August 9, 2016

Teaching Children to Follow Directions

shutterstock_270075104There are few things in a parent’s life more exasperating than when children ignore our instructions. Learning to follow directions is an important life skill and is vital for school success. And around 18 months, a toddler’s thinking skills begin to change dramatically.

She understands a wider variety of words and can hold onto a mental image of a thing even when it’s out of sight. As a result of this mental growth spurt, she can soon follow simple directions.

By 24 months, most toddlers can follow two- and three-step directions. Unfortunately, many methods parents typically use to get children to listen are often ineffective and can actually encourage defiance. These are some common mistakes to steer clear of:

  • Don’t say don’t! A positive instruction is more likely to be followed than a negative direction. Young children can easily misunderstand negative instructions.
  • Reasoning has no impact. Children under the age of 6 are not likely to grasp explanations of why things should be done. For example, “If you leave your toys lying around, you might step on them and hurt yourself.” Young children are not able to relate to future consequences, so they’ll probably not be motivated to complete the task.
  • Repetition does not help. When a child does not respond the first time, parents can lose their temper and start shouting. The message the parent sends to the child is they can ignore you until you’re yelling and they don’t actually need to listen until you’re yelling.
  • Avoid empty threats. Making impulsive threats, such as, “If you don’t clean up, you’re going to be grounded!” is another common mistake. Young children think literally and need to know exactly what will happen if they do not follow directions.

For children to consistently follow directions, parents need to consistently enforce the rules. Once a child knows they can wait until they’ve been asked to do something 15 times, they’ll do just that! By making minor changes, you can teach your child to regularly follow directions.

These suggestions can create an atmosphere that inspires children to be more willing to listen:

  • Give simple directions, with few words. After you’ve given them time to process the directions, have them repeat back to be sure they understand what they should be doing.
  • Be specific. Tell your child exactly what you expect them to do. Young children are literal and can become overwhelmed when given vague instructions such as “Clean up your room.” Instead, try “Please put all your toys in the toy box.”
  • Get their attention. Get down to their level and make eye contact. They are not thinking about listening when they are playing.
  • Pick your battles. Have realistic expectations. Does your house really need to be spotless all day? Continuously nagging children makes them less likely to follow directions.
  • Give choices. Asking your child, “Do you want to pick up your toys first or take a bath?” gives them a sense of accomplishment because they feel like they have a say. But just be careful not to use words that make it sound like they don’t have to do the task, such as, “Can you take care of your toys?”
  • Play games. Teach the stoplight. Most young children know how a stoplight works. Red=stop and listen, yellow=think about what the directions were, green=do what was asked. If you need your child to get ready in a hurry, challenge them to a race.
  • Acknowledge positive behavior. Let your child know that you noticed their effort.

It’s also important to remember your child is following directions all day at school. A major part of getting children to follow directions is learning how to talk so that they will listen. The way that you talk to your child teaches him how to talk to others.

To read more about these strategies, and how you can use them at home to teach your child how to follow directions, visit the following links.

About the Author

Dr. Susan Canizares

Dr. Susan Canizares is the Chief Academic Officer at Learning Care Group, responsible for leading all aspects of the educational mission. Dr. Canizares earned her Ph.D. in language and literacy development from Fordham University and a master’s degree in special education, specializing in Early Childhood, from New York University. She has authored more than 100 nonfiction photographic titles for beginning readers. Some of her published credits include Side by Side Series: Little Raccoon Catches a Cold and A Writer’s Garden.