When it comes to children not following directions, it typically boils down to one of two reasons:
1) I know you want me to do something but I don’t understand what it is. (discussed in this post)
2) I know what you want me to do but I’m not going to do it.
Let’s chat about what to do when the reason is option #2. In this situation, noncompliance comes from a conscious choice on the child’s part. This can be really frustrating and managing it takes a lot of patience.
Before grad school and all my special education training, I was really scared and uncertain about what to do if a child didn’t follow a direction. I thought that I’d need to negotiate to get a desired behavior. So silly and naive of me…
Rule #1 is that you don’t negotiate with toddlers and preschoolers. You are in control of the situation and you are the authority. Children need to have consistent and loving parent/authority figures in their lives. It helps them to know what is expected and feel secure.
With that “You are the parent/teacher and are in control of the situation” pep talk, let’s do a quick review of why behaviors happen.
Why Do Undesired Behaviors Happen?
Undesired and inappropriate behaviors typically result from 1) trying to get attention/accessing something 2) escaping/avoiding something & 3) a sensory experience. (The reason for a behavior is called “the function.”) When your child is intentionally not following your directions, it could because they’re trying to get attention or they’re trying to escape. Sometimes it’s both and sometimes it’s just one.
Keeping the functions of the behavior in mind, let’s move to how you’re going to get your child to follow directions.
5 Tips for Following Directions
- Give simple directions in a firm voice.
- Your child’s language skills are still developing so you want to stick with very clear and easy to understand language.
- To keep it easy to understand don’t use: not, don’t & no. These negative words are tough for children to understand. State the direction as what you want your child to do. Say “We’re walking” instead of “Don’t run.” Say it how you want it to happen.
- Use your Jedi voice. Jedi’s don’t make suggestions, sound uncertain or hesitate when they are giving a command. A Jedi is in control, calm, and firm.
- Find your Jedi voice by making your voice go lower and be nearly monotone. Jedi’s aren’t sing-songy and light-hearted when they’re giving a command.
- Give Warnings
- Give simple warnings to prepare your child to follow a direction like “Clean up your toys” or “Go put on your PJ’s.” Give a 5-minute and 1-minute warning if you know it’s tough for your child. State your warnings by first getting your child’s attention and saying “We’re cleaning up in one minute.”
- Giving these warnings helps a child prepare the direction and begin to accept the transition between activities before it even happens.
- Offer Two Pre-Selected Choices
- As part of giving a direction, you can allow your child a level of control by offering two choices that you have pre-selected.
- For example, “It’s time to put away the toys. Do you want to put away the trains or blocks first?” The two choices don’t change on the outcome of the direction, they just give the child a little wiggle room within it.
- Another example is, “You need to eat your veggies. Do you want carrots or broccoli?” Either way your child’s going to keep a vegetable so it’s fine to give this choice.
- Don’t offers choices that you don’t want to follow through with! Like “You need to eat breakfast. Do you want oatmeal or the whole package or Oreos”…….. (face palm)
- Directions Aren’t Questions
- If you want to set your child up for a tantrum, always start a direction with “Can you/Do you/Will you?” Really?? You’re saying to a two-year old, “Do you want to go to bed?” You just made going to bed optional, directions are not optional! When your child responds “No!” really they’re just responding appropriately because you asked a question. By saying “Can you…?” you made bedtime optional. You dug your own grave there, mate.
- Directions need to be stated as, “It’s time to….” “You need to… “We are…..”
- Always Follow Through with Directions
- You’re the parent, right? Therefore you are in charge of the situation and it’s your responsibility to provide your child with a consistent, structured, and predictable environment. If your child asks for milk and one time you give it to them and the next time you scream, then how is that outcome predictable or consistent
- When you give a direction, you must set the expectation the it will be completed. With directions, there’s no picking your battles. You chose that this was something worth “battling” when you gave the direction. Always make your child follow through with the direction.
- If you’re child doesn’t immediately follow your direction, count to 5 and then say in a firmer voice “I need you to ____.” Count to 5 again, if they still don’t comply say “You can ___ by yourself or I will help you.” Count to 5, if they still don’t comply say “You chose for me to help you.” Then you guide your (most likely tantruming) child to complete your direction. Stay calm, don’t talk, and help your child to complete the direction.
When you think about it, all these tips to get your child to follow directions feel intuitive. You’re also probably getting the inkling that if all you ever do is give firm directions, that you’ll start to make your child feel suppressed. No one wants to feel that they are suppressed and constantly bossed around.
Praise your child for completing directions and make sure that you’re having a lot of fun and positive interactions with your child. While children do need boundaries and to comply with directions, they also to need opportunities to be creative, explore, and have fun with you.
Want more info on behavior management? Check out this post.