How to Give Clear Directions

January 2nd, 2019

by Katrina Brooke

“Why do I have to repeat myself time and again?” “Why
won’t she listen to me?” Listening and following directions
are important skills young children must learn. There are
many reasons why children do not follow directions.
„ The child does not hear the direction. Parents
often give directions from a distance or in passing.
“Lauren, get your shoes on.” Did your child actually
hear what you said? Just as adults often don’t hear
what their partner has said to them because they are
focused on reading, email or talking on the phone,
children too often don’t hear what a parent has said
because they are focused on a task such as building a
tower or drawing a picture.
„ The parent gives too many directions at one time.
When you give your child too many directions at
one time, it reduces the chance that she will follow
the directions and increases the chance that she
will be confused. “Lauren, please go upstairs, brush
your teeth and pick up your blocks while I finish the
dishes.” This multi-step direction is too long and
complicated for your child to easily understand.
Instead, try giving one direction at a time.
„ The child doesn’t understand the direction or
the direction is too vague. Directions such as
“Settle down,” “stop,” or “be nice” might be too
vague and difficult for your child to understand. If she
is throwing toys out of the bathtub and you simply
say, “Lauren,” you have not actually told her what you
want her to do. If you say, “stop it,” it may temporarily
stop the behavior, but she still may not know what
you want her to do. If what you mean is, “Lauren, toys
stay in the tub,” then you need to explicitly tell her so.
„ The direction does not tell the child what to do.
Parents often tell children what not to do, rather
than what they should do. It is important to state
directions positively in order to teach your child the
expectation. Instead of saying, “Stop running!”, state
the direction positively by saying, “Use walking feet.”
„ The direction sounds like a suggestion or question.
Daily conversation is filled with questions, suggestions
and directions. When you say, “Will you put your shoes
away?” you are not giving your child a direction—you
are asking her a question. When you give your child
a direction that needs to be followed, it is essential
that you tell your child what to do rather than ask. For
example, “Lauren, put your shoes by the door.”
Try This at Home
„ It is important to follow through when you give your
child a direction. A technique you can use to make sure
you do follow through when your child has difficulty
complying, or following directions is Do-WAWP.
» Do—State the “do” direction.
» W—Wait for compliance (silently count to 5).
» A—Ask the child to restate the direction.
» W—Wait for compliance (silently count to 5).
» P—Provide encouragement or help (helping will
ensure success).

Make sure that you have your child’s attention. Eye
contact is a great indicator!
When you state the “do” direction you
are teaching your child the desired behavior. For
instance, “Lauren, go brush your teeth.” When you
count to five, you are giving her the opportunity to
hear and process the direction. Parents often repeat
the same direction over and over in that five second
period. When you repeat the same direction to your
child time and again, it teaches her that she does not
have to follow the direction the first time. Instead,
state the direction once and then have your child
restate the direction back to you. This way you can
confirm that she heard you and understood what
you were saying. Finally, offering help may simply
mean that you take her hand and lead her to the
bathroom. Don’t forget to encourage your child by
saying something like, “Wow, Lauren, what great
listening ears! Thank you for brushing your teeth.”
Practice at School
In addition to verbal instructions, teachers use many
methods to give directions and help children understand
expectations. These methods may include using
symbols or pictures, sign language or gestures, songs,
puppets, instruments, sand timers, or other tools. The
more opportunities children are given to see or hear
the instructions, the more likely they are to complete
the task. For example, when teachers need to tell the
class that it is time to go inside from the playground, in
addition to words they may use a sound (e.g., ring a bell)
to alert the children about this event. Children know that
the sound means that it is time to line up at the door,
even if they do not hear the verbal instructions. When
teachers pair words with other signals, they help children
to confidently and successfully participate in activities.
The Bottom Line
Listening and following directions are skills that
children learn through their daily interactions. When
children do not follow directions, for any reason, it can
be extremely frustrating for parents. You can increase
the chances that your child will listen and successfully
follow your directions when you make sure that your
direction is clearly stated and you follow through.
An important consideration for parents when teaching
their child to follow directions is to “pick your battles”. You
want to avoid insisting that your child follow directions that
are not important or can escalate to a major struggle when
the direction is not critical. Pick a few, very important
directions that you will follow-through with your child.

Brooke Brogle, Alyson Jiron & Jill Giacomini

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