Does it sometimes feel like your child isn’t the greatest at following directions? Or the older they get, the more they want to do everything their way, regardless of the instructions given to them?
Before you start thinking you’re doing something wrong, it’s important to know that you’re not alone. The truth is sometimes our kids are not the most cooperative, and following our instructions isn’t always high on their priority list.
In this article, we’ve compiled a list of effective strategies you can try at home to help them follow directions. Let’s get started!
Why Is Following Directions Important?
The ability to follow directions is a basic life skill that will serve your child well both now and in the future.
When you look at the various aspects of our everyday lives and daily interactions with others (like following the user manual’s instructions for a new gadget), you realize how this skill actually allows us to accomplish so much.
For kids, in particular, there are a couple of key benefits to following directions.
Children Can Function In Different Environments
As much as we’d like to keep them all to ourselves, our children aren’t going to stay at home for the rest of their lives.
They are going to go to school, take tests, participate in sports, go to camps, visit a friend’s house, etc. Learning to follow directions will help them function effectively across these different environments.
It Keeps Kids Safe
You never know when an emergency can occur. Whether at home, school, or the local park, the skill of following directions may save your child’s life one day.
In addition to the above, helping your child learn how to follow directions can:
- Maintain order at home
- Impact their ability to complete tasks and reach the desired purpose
- Learn new skills
- Keep them calm and feeling secure as they know what comes next
With these examples, we hope you understand that following directions is a beneficial skill your child can use in various aspects of life.
The Age Factor
Before discussing the different strategies you can try at home, it’s important to mention the role age plays in our children’s ability to follow directions.
0 – 24 Months
Trying to get a newborn to follow directions is unrealistic. However, as you respond to their cues (like hungry and tired cries) and they respond to yours, it helps lay a solid foundation for cooperative interactions.
As children enter the toddler stage, they are usually able to begin following simple, one-step instructions, such as, “Wave bye-bye to Laura!” or, “Give mommy the book.” Keep in mind that attention spans at this age are super short, so be clear and make eye contact with your child.
Children seek lots of adult approval at this stage, and making your tone of voice enthusiastic and appreciative can help influence how your toddler responds.
Giving positive feedback is also a great way to encourage them. So, if they don’t do as you say, instead of responding negatively, focus on what they should be doing.
2 – 4 Years
At the preschool level, most children can understand and follow two-step instructions. For example, “Put your toys in the box, then place the box in the corner.”
If your child hasn’t yet developed this ability, don’t worry. At this stage, kids are still learning the valuable skill of listening and paying attention to the details in the information given.
To help your child process information and instructions, you can continue to give them lots of positive reinforcement.
In addition, remember to also give them simple choices. For example, “Get your green shirt out of the bottom drawer” is more challenging than pointing to a visible shirt and asking them to get it.
4 – 6 Years
At this stage, your child’s vocabulary and listening skills have improved. This can make following directions a bit easier.
Most kindergarteners can follow three- or four-step instructions. They may also ask questions to seek clarification.
To help your child continue to improve this skill, you can:
- Break complicated directions into smaller steps
- Give instructions in context (for example, if your child is learning to draw, give instructions while they are busy with the activity)
- Keep a fun and playful tone while giving directions to help motivate them
Following directions is a skill that your child will use for the rest of their life. So, here are seven strategies to help them improve.
Tips To Encourage Following Directions
1) Get Your Child’s Attention
Before giving your child directions, it’s essential that you have their full attention. Otherwise, the activity will feel impossible for both you and them.
You can gain their attention by simply asking for it — e.g., “Look toward me now. I need to tell you something.” Getting down to your child’s level can also help.
2) Be Clear
One of the key components for helping your child learn to follow directions is being clear on what you need them to do. To achieve this, be direct and use simple language.
For instance, “It’s time to jump into bed” is much better than “You need to sleep early. We have a long day ahead tomorrow, and it would be great for you to get enough rest.”
You might assume that the latter will help a child become more understanding. However, giving too many details may lead to a child getting “lost” in the information you’re giving them. It’s best to say what’s necessary and leave the rest out.
3) Allow Your Child To Process The Information
Do you know how you sometimes have to pause and think through information you’ve just read or heard? Kids need that, too, especially when they’re learning to follow directions.
After giving them instructions, allow a few seconds to pass, which may help the information sink in.
Doing this may also help your child learn to listen the first time, rather than requiring you to repeat yourself. However, if they don’t do as you say or seem confused, it’s OK to repeat the instructions.
4) Minimize Distractions
Children have short attention spans. That’s why it’s essential to keep their attention when you have it.
If the TV is on in the background or they’re busy playing games, it’s going to be challenging for them to follow through on any of your instructions. Turn the TV off. Have them put their game or anything else they’re busy with down and give you their full attention.
Another essential component is to give your child your full attention as well. This may help them realize that the information is important.
5) Focus On Tone Of Voice
You know the phrase, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it”? Different people can recite the same words, but the differences in tone, volume, pace, and pitch can completely change the message.
When it comes to helping children follow directions, it’s much more effective to speak in a calm, clear, and even tone. Remember that you want your child to focus only on the instructions and not the volume or tone.
6) Don’t Ask, Tell
Sometimes children are in the mood for a power struggle and phrasing the directions in a way that it seems like there’s room for negotiation will not help you.
If you give directions such as, “Would you pick up your toys, please?” It may give your child the impression that they don’t have to do it.
Instead, change the wording to, “Pick up your toys, please,” as this makes it clear that they don’t have a choice.
7) Offer Praise
Positive reinforcement is a great way to help your child feel good about following your instructions. So, clap your hands, cheer them on, give them a high five, or pat them on the back to show that you’re happy about what they’ve just done.
The more they realize how happy you are, the better they’ll feel about listening to your instructions and the easier it will be for them to continue following your directions in the future.
Activities To Help With Following Directions
Plenty of games and activities can help you encourage your child to get into the habit of following directions. These include:
- Follow The Leader
- Simon Says
- I Spy
One of our favorite activities to help develop this skill is what we call the “playful instructions game.” This is where you give children instructions by adding playful elements.
For example, ask your child to jump as high as possible and then make a silly face. For older kids, you can even add more playful instructions (stick your tongue out, wiggle your nose, etc.).
This game can be incorporated into your regular routines — jump out of bed, tiptoe to the bathroom, and grab a toothbrush. Adding a playful element can make mundane routines much more fun.
Practice Makes Progress
With the strategies above, we hope you realize that, while it can be challenging to get children to follow our instructions, it’s not impossible. Sometimes simplicity, clarity, and a little fun are all you need.
Check out HOMER Learn & Play app for more playful and interactive ways to give your growing child the skills they need to thrive in life!