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How to Give Effective Instructions

The first step to harmony is teaching your child to listen and follow directions

en Español

One of the most important keys to minimizing problem behavior is making sure that kids are getting the message you’re trying to send. When it comes to parenting, sometimes the way instructions are given can be just as important as what you’re trying to communicate.

Here are ways to present information to your children to make it more likely that they’ll hear you, and comply:

  • Be direct. Make statements rather than asking questions: “Please sit down,” as opposed to “Are you ready to get out your homework?”
  • Be close. Give instructions when you are near the child, rather than calling out from across the room.
  • Use clear and specific commands. Instead of “Go ahead,” say, “Please go start your reading assignment.”
  • Give age-appropriate instructions. Speak to your child at a level they will understand. If your child is younger, keep things simple and use words you know they know: “Please pick up the ball.” With older children, who are so often keenly aware of not being “babies anymore” it’s important to be clear without being patronizing.
  • Give instructions one at a time. Especially for kids who have attention challenges, try to avoid giving a series of instructions, like: “Please put on your sneakers, get your lunch off the kitchen counter, and meet me in the front hall.”
  • Keep explanations simple. Giving a rationale can increase the likelihood children will listen to a command, but not if the command gets lost in it. For instance: “Go get your coat on because it’s raining and I don’t want you to catch a cold.” Instead, try: “It’s raining and I don’t want you to catch a cold. Go get your coat on.”
  • Give kids time to process. After you give an instruction, wait a few seconds, without repeating what you said. Children then learn to listen to calm instructions given once rather than learning that they don’t need to listen because the instructions will be repeated. Watching and waiting also helps keep us adults from doing what we’ve requested of our kids for them.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you get a child to listen and follow direction?

You get a child to listen and follow direction by giving instructions one at a time, using clear and specific commands, and keeping explanations simple. After giving instructions, give kids time to process before repeating what you said.

This article was last reviewed or updated on October 30, 2023.