12 Tips to Help Your Child Listen and Follow Directions

By Andrea Slagle-Abrams, LSCSW

1.  Get close to them and use their name to get their attention first.  It is not helpful to call from across the room.  For example, go up to your child and say, “Sally, I have something I need you to do.”

2.  Once you have their attention and eye contact, give them the direction in an age-appropriate manner.  A three year-old may not be able to do more than one step at a time.  You will likely be able to give your twelve-year-old 3 directions at a time.  For example, “Get dressed, eat breakfast, and go wait for the bus.”

3.  Give directions with a calm, but serious voice.  Yelling will likely escalate your child, and this will not help them to be cooperative.  But you also want them to know that you are not joking around.

4.  Give directions in a positive manner.  Tell them what TO DO, instead of what NOT to do.  For example, say, “Walk, please,” instead of “Don’t run.”  Also, be descriptive so that they know exactly what you expect.  Instead of saying, “Be good,” which is very vague, say something like, “Put your hands on your lap and sit on your bottom.”

5.  DO NOT ask a question when giving a direction.  Do NOT say, “Do you want to clean your room?” if this is not something that they can say no to.  Also, do NOT say, “It’s time to do your homework, okay?”  The okay and question at the end implies that it is up to them to decide.

6. Provide two acceptable choices, such as, “You can eat breakfast or get dressed.  Which would you like to do first?”  You can even start by saying, “You have a choice!”

7. Empathize with them if your child complains about what you asked them to do.  “I know you are having fun playing and don’t want to stop.”  “I understand that you don’t like cleaning your room.”

8.  Give them something to look forward to after completing the task.  “As soon as you are finished putting away the dishes, you can go outside and play.”

9.  Help them if the task is difficult, while still making sure they are doing their part.  “I will help you clean your room.  Would you like to put away your clothes or your toys?”  Then you can put away what they do not choose.

10.  If nothing is working, tell them about the consequence if they do not complete the task.  Try to make it a natural consequence.  A natural consequence is something that would happen naturally as a result.  It also helps to give them a time frame.  For example, “If you do not get dressed before we leave for school, you will go to school in your pajamas.”  “If you do not put on your coat, you will be cold.”  Or if there is no natural consequence, try to make it related to the task.  “If you do not clean your room before bed time, I will take away those toys that are not cleaned up.”

11.  Enforce the time limit and the consequence.  It is important that your child knows that you mean business when you tell them something.  If you give in or do not follow through, they will learn that they can test you because they do not always have to do what you tell them.

12.  Children behave best when they are feeling loved.  Make sure that you spend plenty of positive, fun time with them.