Skills: How to Give Effective Instructions

Children will be more likely to understand and comply with your instructions if you follow these guidelines:

  • 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 your 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 he will understand. If your child is younger, keep things simple and use words you know he knows: “Please pick up the ball.” With older children, 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: “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 commands 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.