How to Increase Your Child’s Skill in Following Directions

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Whether your child ignores your directions completely, or dawdles for what seems like endless amounts of time before eventually complying, parents are often frustrated when children don’t follow instructions. You may wind up nagging or yelling in attempts to move forward with what may feel like simple requests. Many parents resort to doing the task themselves to save time and aggravation.

If you are having troubling getting your child to follow your instructions the first time, you may not be providing clear and effective directions. The following tips can increase the chances that your child will listen:

Reduce the number of commands.

Children hear many commands throughout the day. It is critical to try to provide commands only for things that are important or necessary. Moreover, children who are challenging, likely receive many more commands than other children. Children who struggle with compliance may do better with a reduced number of commands that increase over successful follow through over time.

Offer more choices.

Although many things may feel important, parents often instruct children on their preferences (e.g., wearing certain clothing, coloring inside the lines, building Legos in a certain way). Greater autonomy and fewer commands will increase the likelihood that your child will comply when it is important to do so. You can even “hide” your command in a choice (e.g., “Do you want to eat your broccoli on the red or blue plate?”)

Provide clear, simple instructions.

Providing clear and effective commands is essential when trying to increase compliance. Many parents provide commands in the form of questions (e.g., “Will you come brush your teeth?”). Other times, parents don’t make it clear that the child is expected to comply (e.g., “Let’s clean up the toys.”) In both scenarios, compliance seems optional. Providing clear, polite commands can increase compliance (e.g., “Please clean up your toys now.”).

Give an explanation.

For children with more verbal skills, give explanations first. Many times parents get caught in negotiations or answering why their child must follow the given directions. Explanations can increase compliance, and “Because I said so,” doesn’t always fly. The trick is to provide the explanation before placing the effective command. (e.g., “You need to be well rested for school tomorrow, so please go brush your teeth now.”). Providing explanations after the command can imply that your instructions are open to negotiation. Be fair in your explanations, but clear in your expectations.

Provide commands once.

Repeating instructions or nagging only supports the idea that your child does not have to follow your instructions the first time. Moreover, if nagging leads to frustration and yelling, children can learn to only comply when mom or dad “really means it.” Rather than repeating commands, setting up a system of consequences and rewards for compliance can reduce stress and provide a clear structure for children to be successful.

Follow through with consequences.

Loss of privileges or other consequences can be very effective in increasing compliance, as long as consequences are consistently implemented. Fair, and related consequences are also helpful. For example, when a child does not listen to turn off the television or video games after the first instruction, losing access to this preferred activity the following day can be very effective. For earlier learners, an effective consequence to not listening to an instruction could be as simple as helping them do the task after a few seconds of avoidance without providing extra attention.

Reward Success.

Most importantly, reward when an instruction is quickly and correctly followed. It is important to remember to praise your child when he or she follows directions. Positive reinforcement and praise are shown to increase behaviors. Want to provide effective praise? Make it specific! We often provide praise that is vague or unclear. For example, telling your child, “Good job!” does not effectively communicate what was done well. Rather, telling your child, “Great job brushing your teeth the first time I asked you!” explains which behavior made you happy, and emphasizes your child’s quick compliance. Spend most of your energy providing praise, and less of your energy repeating yourself!

2 replies
  1. Tex Hooper
    Tex Hooper says:

    I wasn’t aware that autistic children have a hard time following directions. My nephew has autism and is really struggling. My sister should probably get him a therapist of some kind to help with his needs.


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