Giving Instructions to Children

Parents often want to know how they can get their child to listen and follow instructions without having to constantly repeat themselves over and over again!

Whenever we give instructions to children, it is important to consider first, is my child being disobedient or is it the way we’re giving the instruction that is influencing the way they respond.

Whenever we give an instruction it poses an opportunity for misbehaviour to occur, some common problems may include:

  • Giving too many instructions: Children may have trouble remembering what to do and which instructions they need to prioritise.
  • Too quick: Children need time to process the information given to them and work out how to respond. Remember a child’s brain can work up to sixteen times slower than an adults!
  • Too hard: For example expecting a young child to tidy a very messy bedroom all at once.
  • Poorly timed: You are less likely to get co-operation whilst your child is watching they favourite TV show of engrossed in a game! Is the instruction something that can wait?
  • Not understood: Sometimes the instructions we give can be too vague – ‘Dinner’s ready’, ‘come on we’re leaving’ , ‘don’t be silly’– In these examples a child is not being told what to stop doing and what to do instead and can easily be misunderstood.
  • Given as questions: Try to avoid, ‘Can you? , Could you?, Would you?’ This implies there is a choice, be prepared in this case for a ‘no’.
  • Body language: If we’re telling a child to stop doing something and laughing whilst we are doing it, this conveys a different message and can be very confusing for children.
  • Long distance: These simply do not work, if you’re not within an arm’s length of your child you will rarely get compliance.

It is important to give instructions that are clear and direct.  Here’s how:

  • Where possible let your child finish a task or activity.
  • Gain your child’s attention: The best way to do this is say their name, make eye contact and get down to their level.
  • Tell your child exactly what you want them to do e.g. ‘Pick your toys up off the floor and put them in your toy box’. (It’s important that we are clear and specific ‘tidy up now’ can be too vague).
  • Give your child time to co-operate – 10 to 20 seconds should be enough. (Stay present)
  • Praise your child for doing as you are asked. (This will increase the likelihood of them co-operating again!)
  • Repeat your instruction one more time for a ‘start instruction’ such as getting ready to go out. Only give an instruction once if you have asked your child to stop doing something. (Remember if you are asking a child to stop doing something, you must also tell them what they should be doing instead).

In turn parents will be less likely to get angry from constantly repeating themselves and children will begin to learn after the second time of asking to expect a consequence.

Be prepared to back up your instruction if your child does not do as you ask with an appropriate consequence.

Consequences are used to help your child to learn what they have done wrong and what they should be doing instead.  Encourage your child to ‘show you’ the correct way to behave.

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