Following instructions is a part of everyday life and something that’s typically taken for granted, but when you’re put in a situation or conflict where someone fails to do it, you see first hand the importance of learning this skill at an early age.
Children who struggle and fail to follow directions are highly likely to face issues and challenges when trying to socially adapt later in life. It could impact their ability to reach a desired ‘purpose’ or ‘outcome’ at school, at work or in a relationship, and thus will make completing tasks effectively and collaborating with others much harder. Empowering your child to take responsibility at an early age contributes to future success.
Does your child regularly need to redo their homework because they didn’t/couldn’t follow the directions given by their teacher? Do they often miss or misunderstand directional cues from other people? Do you see a blank face staring back at you when you ask your child to do something?
Here’s 6 ways to improve things for your child and your family:
• Eye contact
Get and hold your child’s visual attention before giving them an instruction.
• Single, simple and precise instructions
Give your child one clear instruction at a time.
Avoid multi-directional instructions: Instead of “Go and get your bag and go out to the car and get your books”, say “Get your bag.” When the child has followed that instruction, say “Now get your books from the car please”.
• Ask your child to repeat the instruction:
Repeating the instruction will ensure that they have understood what you’ve asked them to do. Try this by asking them “Could you please repeat back to me what have I asked you to do?”.
• Sequential directions (eg.”‘First this, then that”):
Use this concept to help communicate the order you want your child to complete tasks (eg. “First, get your bag from your room, then get your books from the car, please.”). It is also useful to create lists, this can reinforce the creation of habits and empower the child to be independently responsible.
• Clarify and reconfirm:
Encourage your child to ask for clarification if they don’t understand or forget part of the instruction. Encourage them to ask for it to be repeated or explained differently if they still don’t know what’s been asked or directed.
• Visual aids:
Gestures, body language, pictures and other visual aids and visual cues can be used to assist the child’s comprehension and recall of the instruction. You can physically point to the direction you want your child to go or to the item you want them to collect, or use your eyes to motion to the other side of the room or outside.
Important: These exercises and habits may occasionally feel laborious to you, but remember how helpful and important they’ll be for your children. Consistency is the key to forming healthy habits in children.
What not to do… Here are some mistakes to avoid when giving directions to your child:
• Avoid multiple or conflicting directions… Give one at a time.
Don’t give children more than one direction at a time. Kids may forget one or get confused, and therefore won’t complete the task as you desired. Instead of saying, “do your homework, put your toys away and then come to dinner,” ask them to do their homework, and then move towards the other instructions once completed.
• Provide clear, concise instructions.
Don’t say, “Did you do your homework?”, if you know they didn’t. This is a question and implies that they have the right to say yes/no to your command, and hence they may confuse the direction for a question and general conversation. Be direct (but polite) and say, “Please do your homework”. Or ask, “Do you want me to help you get started on your homework?”
• Context is king
Give directions in context. Instructions and directions are more meaningful when they're given to a child while they’re trying to accomplish a task or learn a new skill. Offer instructions and guidance when they’re doing their homework or practicing a sport, because this will be much easier to understand, learn and apply than before or after they’re done. This also applies in discipline situations because it is important to connect the behaviour to the specific situation.
• Be patient and be aware of pressure
Always remember your kids are learning… mistakes will happen, nobody is perfect and this is often where the greatest opportunity for learning can occur. If your child fails to follow some of your instructions, forgive them for that, try to understand why, and then teach them to execute those commands properly and appropriately next time. Practice, practice, practice!
How can you tell if a child has problems with following instructions?
• Need instructions to be given in a short and simple manner.
• Struggle with understanding longer instructions and/or ask for commands to be repeated.
• Regularly misinterpret information and/or do the wrong task.
• Appear or get distracted or non-compliant when you’re giving them directions.
• Look at you blankly when you give them an instruction.
• Avoid the task and try to distract others.
• Copy what others are doing, even if they’re doing it wrong.