Steps for Giving Directions

steps in giving directions

Giving good directions takes practice. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

Make sure your child hears and pays attention to your direction. This means that you will need to be close to your child and make eye contact. You may need to say your child’s name. It is sometimes helpful to bend over, squat, or sit next to your child so you are on the same level and face-to-face.

Tell your child exactly what you want him to do. Here are some tips for giving good directions.

Be sure the direction fits your child’s age.

Make sure your child is able to do what you have told him to do. For example, a 2-year-old can take your hand before crossing the street, but he can’t mop the floor. Remember that inability is not the same as disobeying.

Tell your child exactly what behavior you want to see.

A good direction will clearly tell your child what you expect. The direction is specific and not stated as a question. While using the words “No”, “Don’t,” Quit,” or “Stop” are an everyday part of parenting, the direction only tells the child what not to do. This may stop the misbehavior momentarily, but it does not tell the child what behaviors are expected. To give good directions:

  • Be specific.
    Avoid unclear directions like “be good” and “straighten up” because they can mean different things to different people. Let your child know exactly what behavior to do. If you are unsure what to say to stop a misbehavior, it may be helpful to think of the opposite of the misbehavior. Sometimes parents will just say the child’s name when giving a direction. For example, if your son, Jaden, is banging a toy on the table, you might say, “Jaden!” and expect him to stop banging and play with his toys nicely. To make this a good, specific direction, you might say, “Stop banging the table. Play nicely with your toy.”
  • Make it a statement.
    Tell your child what to do rather than asking if he wants to do the activity.  Questions give your child the option to say “yes” or “no”. If you want your direction followed avoid questions. For example, it is better to say “Put your toys away in the closet” than “Would you put your toys away in the closet?”                           
  • Give one direction at a time.
    Toddlers and preschoolers have a very short attention span. If you tell your child to do more than one thing, he may not be able to remember all of the instructions. By giving one direction at a time, your child is more likely to remember and follow the direction, and you can praise your child more often .
  • Give the direction in a neutral tone.
    If a child does not follow a direction immediately, parents will sometimes raise their voice and repeat the direction. This can send the message that the child does not need to follow the direction until the parent is yelling. To avoid this, provide directions in a neutral, firm voice with no yelling or pleading. If you consistently use a neutral tone and follow through with consequences when your child does not obey, your child will learn that you are serious the first time a direction is given.
  • Be polite and respectful.
    One way to help your child learn good manners is for you to model good behaviors like being polite and respectful when giving directions. For example, you can start directions with the word “please.” When used consistently, the word please can serve as a signal to your child that a direction is about to come. Eye contact and using a calm voice to give the direction are other ways to model good manners.
  • Use gestures.
    For toddlers and preschoolers, it is a good idea to use gestures along with directions so your child has a visual cue of what is expected. For example, if you say, “Please put the toys on the floor in your toy box,” you can point to the toys you want him to put away and then point to the toy box.
  • Choose your words carefully.
    How parents word directions can affect who your child thinks needs to act. For instance, only use the word “let’s” in your direction if you plan to help your child. If you say, “Let’s put your toys away,” you should plan to help your child put the toys away. If you want your child to do as you directed, you can just say, “Please put your toys away.”
  • Give your child choices when possible.
    Choices are a great way to develop your child’s independence and teach them decision-making skills. Directions with limited choices, like only two options, are best for young children. For example, if you want your daughter to get ready for school, you can give her a choice by saying “You can wear the yellow dress or the jogging suit. Please make a choice and put on your clothes now.” By offering choices, you are giving her the chance to make a decision about what she wants to wear, but you are still communicating that it is time to get dressed.
  • Provide carefully timed explanations.
    Your child may ask “why” out of simple curiosity or because they want to delay having to listen. One way to avoid this problem is to provide an explanation before giving the direction. For example, “It’s time for us to go to the store. Please put on your shoes.” If your child still asks why, he is probably trying to delay doing what you have told him to do. You should ignore his question and follow through with the consequence if he does not put on his shoes.

In this step, you will be checking to see whether your child complied, or did what you told him to do. Most children will respond within 5-10 seconds or within a short amount of time after you give the direction. If your child does what you told him to do, follow through with a positive consequence (see Step 4). If your child does not follow your direction within a short amount of time, remain calm, get the child’s attention, repeat the direction, check the child understands what you want him/her to do, and warn the child what consequence will follow if he/she does not do as told. If your child does not follow your direction within a short amount of time, remain calm and follow through with the negative consequence you warned him/her about (see Step 4). Determining if your child has followed your direction may not always be easy, even when directions are clear and fit the child’s age. Some examples are:

  • Doing something slightly different.
    • Sometimes children respond to directions in a slightly different way than was expected by the parent. For example, a parent might tell a child to put his crayons in the closet, but the child puts his blocks in the closet instead. This is considered not following directions as long as you are sure that your child knows the difference between the crayons and the blocks.
  • Dawdling or stalling.
    • Sometimes children do not immediately do what they are told. Instead they may say, “In a minute,” or they may tell you they are going to finish something else before following the direction. This type of behavior is referred to as dawdling and is an example of not following directions.
  • Pretending not to hear.
    • Many children ignore a parent’s directions in an attempt to delay or avoid having to do what the parent has said. As long as you get your child’s attention and are sure that your child heard your instructions, the direction should only be repeated once along with a warning of the negative consequence that will follow if the child does not do as told. If your child does not respond within a short amount of time, the behavior should be considered not following directions.
  • Following part of the direction.
    • Children sometimes follow through with part of a direction but not the entire direction. For example, you tell your child to put her toys away, and she puts her blocks away but leaves other toys out. If your child does only part of a direction, it is possible she needs to be taught what “put your toys away” means. In this example, you could say, “Good job of putting your blocks away. Now put the other toys away. Please put your puzzles in the toy box.” Continue in this way until the child understands that all of these things are toys.
  • Following directions with a bad attitude.
    • Children may sometimes follow the direction but with a bad attitude. For example, you tell your daughter to put her toys away. She was enjoying playing with her toys, so she stomps across the room, picks up her toys, throws them in the toy box, and whines “I don’t want to put my toys away.” Even though she is following directions with a bad attitude, she is still doing what you told her to do. In this case, you can ignore the bad attitude and let her know you like that she followed your direction. If having a good attitude is important to you, you can include that as part of the direction. For example, you could say, “Please put the toys away quietly.”
  • Undoing.
    • Children sometimes test the limits by initially doing what the parent tells them to do and then undoing it. For example, you tell your son to put his toys in the toy box. Your son puts the toys away but then decides to pull two trucks back out of the box. If you have a child who will test the limits by undoing, provide really specific directions. You might tell your son, “Put all of the toys in the toy box and leave them in the box.”

Always follow through with consequences if your child does not follow directions. Consequences can be positive or negative. Positive consequences let your child know you are happy with his behavior. Labeled praises, hugs, or high fives are examples of positive consequences. Negative consequences are things you do after your child’s behavior to show you are not happy with the behavior. Examples of negative consequences include delay of a privilege and time-out.

If your child does not follow your direction, you can give him one warning and tell him what to expect for not following your direction. For example, you might say, “Pick up your toys or you won’t be able to play with them tomorrow.” If he does not follow your direction, follow through with the consequence immediately (e.g., locking the toy box). As your directions get better and your child learns to follow your directions, use warnings less often. Warnings and repeating directions teach your child he does not have to listen the first time you give a direction. Click here for more information on using consequences for misbehaviors.

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Page last reviewed: November 5, 2019