Giving Instructions Kids Can Follow 

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Helping Kids Listen: Giving Instructions Kids Can Follow

Why can’t he just do what I ask the first time?

I’m so tired of repeating myself.

She ignores me until I lose my cool and yell, then she finally listens!

We have the same routine every night…why is it so hard? 

Did he even hear me?


It’s a familiar parenting scene – a simple request somehow leads to delaying, arguing, nagging, and negotiating. Before you know it, you’re mid-battle and exhausted…and your child still hasn’t done what you asked.

Following directions is an important skill for little people, and it takes lots of practice! It’s normal for kids to forget, to need reminders, or to prefer to keep playing. The best directions are short and simple.


Tips for giving clear directions:

  • Start on your child’s eye level – be close enough to touch.
  • Turn off any distracting sights and sounds (radio, TV, or devices playing).
  • Make eye contact and/or say your child’s name first.
  • Keep it simple – give only one single sentence or step at a time. Even the most basic tasks may actually have several steps!
  • Repeat the request in 10-20 seconds if needed.
  • Try to name exactly what you’d like your child to do (“please put all the puzzle pieces back in the box” instead of “clean your room”)
  • Use action words as much as possible! 
  • Use a neutral tone of voice and a warning about what consequence will follow next.
  • Be ready to follow through immediately with the consequence (for example, the loss of that toy for the next day). 
  • Give choices whenever possible, but avoid phrasing the request as a question unless it is optional. For example, asking “Can you put your shoes on your feet?” implies that not doing _____ is a choice. 
  • Give some happy praise and a big high five after every small step!


Avoid extra information and explaining “why” when possible. Kids may only remember the last part of what they hear. If you do need to explain, make sure the direction is the very last thing you say. 

Teaching kids to listen and follow directions is hard work, but a few small changes can have big payoffs!


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