Learning to Follow Directions

Teach your child to follow directions with these various techniques for newborns to six-year-olds.

0 to 2 Years Old

Responding to a newborn’s cues and encouraging his or her to respond to yours lays the foundation for more satisfying and cooperative interactions. Toddlers enjoy following simple requests, but their need to assert themselves makes their compliance unpredictable. A toddler’s awareness of adult expectations and need for approval will encourage cooperation.

What You Can Do

Play simple games like How Big Is Baby? So Big! in which a 1-year-old lifts up his or her arms. Such activities help baby to begin connecting words with actions—the first step toward following directions.

Give positive feedback. Instead of always saying “No!”—the most common directive that he or she hears—be sure to let a toddler know what he or she can do.

Make directions meaningful. When you ask a toddler to help wash vegetables or set the table for lunch, it allows him or her to make meaningful contributions to the group, and this will boost his or her self-esteem.

3 to 4 Years Old

Just as learning styles differ from child to child, so does a preschooler’s ability to process directions. Children need time and positive reinforcement to accomplish individual tasks.

Preschoolers tend to respond best to simple choices rather than commands.

Even though preschoolers’ vocabularies grow rapidly, they need opportunities to learn how to pay attention to what they hear.

What You Can Do

Give positive, concrete suggestions. Let children know what to do rather than telling them what not to do. For example, instead of “Don’t run,” say, “Walk.”

Make sure directions are easy to understand. Repeat them slowly or rephrase them in new ways. Remove distractions such as background noise so children can focus their listening skills.

Model good listening skills. Spend time with individual children tuning into what they have to say and talking about their ideas. Good listening is crucial to processing and following directions.

Share control. Ask children to help think of different ways to clean up or make transitions. They might come up with creative and unique directions for unexciting but necessary tasks.

Make following directions fun. Play games to sharpen listening skills. Make transitions to new activities interesting by galloping like horses or picking up Legos with lobster claws.

Share books with predictable sequences. Stories such as If You Give a Mouse a Cookie (HarperCollins, 1985; paper: HarperTrophy, 1997) can help children learn to anticipate the next suggestion in a sequence.

5 to 6 Years Old

At ages 5 and 6, children have expanded listening skills and more developed vocabularies, which makes understanding directions easier.

Kindergartners have an easier time following three- or four-part directions when the steps are given in the proper sequence.

Children enjoy following adult instructions when they are delivered in a fun and playful manner.

What You Can Do

Give directions in context. Directions are more meaningful when they’re given while a child is trying to accomplish a task or learn a new skill.

Offer instructions when he or she is climbing across a horizontal ladder or learning a new dance step.

Draw your directions. Instructions can be delivered visually as well as verbally. Create simple picture recipes by illustrating the steps for making butter or peanut butter “play dough” and have children follow them.

Offer movement games. Silly activities such as clothing-relay games, clean-up time assembly lines, or songs with movements, such as “This Old Man,” can make following directions fun. So can other movement games like Simon Says, Follow the Leader, and the ever popular Twister. Invite children to make up their own games using their suggestions for directions and rules.