Younger children often struggle with following directions. Sometimes they don’t understand. Sometimes they ignore you. And sometimes they say “no”. As a result, parents can become upset that the directions are not being followed. It is important to remember that when parents become frustrated, get angry, or start yelling this situation quickly changes into a power struggle. Power struggles don’t get the job done and they only add to frustration and upset for both children and parents. Instead, it is important that parents think carefully about how they state directions to promote their child’s understanding and cooperation.
Make requests fun. Use your imagination and make simple things such as going to the bathroom or picking up toys an adventure. The easiest way to have a child complete a task is to have the child not realize that it is a task! For example ask if your child can “throw all the dirty clothes into the washing machine like a basket ball player”.
- Keep instructions simple. Children around the age of 2-3 can really only follow one-step commands such as “go get a paper towel please”. Children around the age of 3-5 can handle two-step commands such as “Please get a paper towel and wipe up the milk”.
- Explain everything. As adults we know what it means to “pick up the toys”, but to a child that expression doesn’t mean much. Be specific about what you want and how a child can complete the task. If “pick up the toys” means that all of the toys are in the toy box then change “pick up the toys” to “please put all of your toys in the toy bin”. That way there isn’t any confusion about the instructions.
- Be specific about your directions. Even when a child wishes to be helpful he may not know how to organize a set of tasks. A direction, such as “Clean your room” may be overwhelming for a child. And these are opportunities for parents to teach children to break large tasks into smaller ones to make them more possible. So Clean your room can become a series of directions, like “Put all the books on the shelf;” “Make all the dolls go into the crib”; “Let’s get all the Legos into the box.”