Teaching Young Children to Follow Directions


By Diane Braun, Project Manager – August 12, 2021 –

Many parents struggle with getting their young child’s attention and teaching them to follow simple directions such as picking up toys, throwing away a napkin, or going to bed. What’s the secret to getting them to listen?

It starts with making the direction as simple as possible. There might be a long list of things to do before bedtime, but most children aged three to five have trouble devoting attention to more than one task at a time.

Saying something like, “Please pick up your toys, brush your teeth, and get your pajamas on,” will probably result in no action by the child at all. These are called “chain directions,” which are usually more appropriate for older children. Breaking the chain down to one link or task at a time will result in better understanding.

Vague directions can also be a problem. Saying “Behave yourself!” or “Be careful!” are not specific directions. Instead, explain how you expect your child to behave. Telling them directly what you expect helps them understand your expectations. Phrases like, “I expect you to sit quietly while we watch the movie” are much more effective.

Notice that directions should not be presented as a question. “Would you like to pick up your toys now?” is a question that most children would say no to. “It’s time to pick up your toys” is a direct statement of expectation. Keeping the direction short and to the point makes the task seem more doable to a child.

Tone of voice is also important when giving directions. Many parents have “THAT VOICE” they use when they want to get a child’s attention. Most children recognize when they are being told to do something with no room for negotiation.

When a small child begins learning to follow directions, you may have to say it a few times before they comply. Once they start listening and following through, remember to recognize that they’ve listened and done what was asked.

Rewards for good behavior don’t have to cost money—a high five, happy dance, or an extra ten minutes of television before bedtime are all exciting for small children. Use these incentives to encourage positive behavior in the future.