“Pick up your toys!” (Tips for teaching kids to follow directions)

Not long ago, I wrote about teaching your child listening skills.  It’s a hurdle we all face with toddlers and preschoolers, as they are generally not known for their interest in listening.  I received a fair amount of email from parents frustrated with the fact that their preschoolers seem to be able to follow directions at school, but home is an entirely different story.  It’s an issue that I have counseled countless parents through over the years.  The fact is that school, even preschool, is hard work.  Kids instinctively know that they HAVE to follow a teacher’s directions (even though they will test the boundaries whenever possible).  They put their energy into listening, transitioning, and playing.  It’s tiring.  By the time they get home, they are exhausted, hungry, and ready for a break.  They are also at ease in the comfort of their own homes, which makes breaking the rules or ignoring instructions a little bit easier.  They feel so loved and relaxed that they save their most frustrating behaviors for you!  Riley would never dream of grabbing a toy from another kid anywhere else, but she’ll take a toy from Liam just for the sake of doing it.  Preschool programs tend to be very well structured and the rules are so well defined that there really isn’t much room for error.  If you run a similar program at home, you might find that positive behaviors will start to prevail.  In the meantime, below are some tips to help you help your child learn to follow directions:

It always helps to know the “Don’ts”:

1. Avoid reasoning: Children under the age of 6 have little understanding of abstract consequences.  Telling your daughter to put her toys away because she might trip and hurt herself has little meaning.  If it didn’t happen already, why would it?

2. Avoid yelling: Believe me, I know, sometimes this is easier said than done.  Parents can easily get caught up in a cycle of repeating the same command in a louder and louder voice until they find themselves having an adult temper tantrum.  Your child will quickly learn to wait to perform the task when the yelling starts.

3. Avoid saying, “don’t”: Negative instructions are likely to be ignored or misinterpreted, particularly if there is yelling involved.  Telling Liam not to walk inside in his muddy, wet shoes is akin to sending him a personalized invitation to do so.  It can be confusing.  Say what you mean in a positive way.

4. Avoid empty threats: Preschoolers have already figured out that you’re not likely to take away TV time unless it’s really bad.  A consequence should fit the crime.  Abstract consequences like, “being grounded” or “time out until I say so” are meaningless.  They are literal thinkers and need to know exactly what will happen.

And now for the “do’s”:

1. Have a plan: The time to talk about following directions is NOT when you’re in the heat of battle.  Have a family plan in place.  Whether you use a counting system (“I’m counting to 3 and…”) or just give your child two chances to listen and comply, make sure you go over the plan and possible consequences in a calm moment. Have a kid who doesn’t like to talk?  Channel your inner play therapist and use puppets, dolls, cars, or anything else your child likes to do the talking. Children learn through play.  Use it.

2. Be precise: As I’ve mentioned once or twice, toddlers and preschoolers tend to be very literal thinkers.  Tell them exactly what to do. Instead of “pick up your toys” (which can seem an overwhelming task at 5pm in my house), try “please put all of the balls in the ball basket”.  Specifics will get you everywhere with this crowd!

3. Get his attention: I addressed this in my listening skills article, but it’s worth repeating.  Toddlers and preschoolers are very busy and curious creatures.  They are not thinking about listening.  Barking out commands while your son is playing trains will not get your needs met.  Get down to his level, make eye contact, and get his attention first.

4. Teach the stoplight: Chances are that your kids spend a fair amount of time in the car and are well aware of how a stoplight works.  Use an analogy that preschoolers can really understand:  Red = STOP – listen to Mommy, yellow = THINK – consider what Mommy said and how to proceed, and green = GO – do what was asked.  Clearly, this needs to be taught in a calm moment in preschool language, and visual cues are ALWAYS helpful.  Once they get it you can use the verbal cue “stoplight” to get a break in the action and help your kids follow directions.

5. Pick your battles: Try to be realistic.  Does your house need to be spotless all day?  Are they really capable of picking up every single toy?  If you nag them all day, you’re less likely to have compliant children.  Give them a break, they’re only kids once.

6. Have a race: Need to get out the door in a hurry?  Kids love to race!  Say, “let’s race to the car” followed by what they need to do to get there (put on shoes and socks, grab a coat, get backpacks, etc.).  Do I need to say it?  Everybody wins!

7. Make it fun: Practice following directions throughout the day by making it fun.  Cooking is the ultimate example of following directions.  You have to put in the right ingredients to make the cake tasty.  Simon Says and obstacle course are always winners with preschoolers.  They have to listen to the directions to play the game or complete the course.  Scavenger hunt is a great game for following directions and using visual cues.  Make a list using clip art and send your kids around the house to find the items.  Twister is an old classic that teaches both following directions and left from right.

8. Use rewards: A simple reward system can go a long way to making your home a happy one.  Focus on one specific behavior at a time and provide frequent reminders.  Melissa & Doug make a fantastic Magnetic Responsibility Chart (http://www.melissaanddoug.com/magnetic-responsibility-learning-chart).  I daresay they’ve covered all of the bases in terms of specific behaviors to work on, but they’ve also left room for parental input.  My kids love earning their magnets!

Try to remain patient; learning to follow directions is not an easy task for little kids who would rather being doing just about anything else.  But if you keep your calm and try to make it fun you might find that your moments of frustration about this particular topic are a thing of the past.

How do you get your kids to follow directions?

About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)