A Teacher Mama Answers: How to Get Your Child to Listen to Instructions

Getting your child to listen to instruction has to be one of the hardest and most frustrating things about parenting. Here you are, about to be late (very late) for dropping the kids to school and your offspring is running all over the house screaming "MacQueen! MacQueen!" (mine is addicted to the "Cars" franchise). "Come and put on your T-shirt!" you say, in your authoritative - but nice - voice. The screaming intensifies and so does your anger. But, you try (really hard) to keep it in check. "PLEASE come and put on your T-shirt!" you command, this time with a bit more force. The race car stops for a second to check the severity of the situation. After a brief second... Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrm!! It's back speeding through the house. And then...

At this point in the game, only you know what follows. At my house, there have been a few screaming matches, I confess. I'm not proud of them... but I was at my wit's end about what to do. In the heat of the moment.

I have lived similar moments in the classroom though - compounded by ten. Or more. Screaming kids, that is. Well, I exaggerate a bit. There are always a few quiet ones.

Over the years, I have picked up a few strategies for getting a child to listen to instructions. Some I have discovered myself. Others have come from other moms - and other teachers. I know that they work.

But there are two caveats here:

Caveat Number 1

- you have to take into account the age of the youngster. For some 4 y.o.'s, listening to instructions is downright impossible. Or impossible at certain times of the day, when they are very tired or hungry, for example. As they grow and mature, expectations change, of course. But they need to adapt to each individual child. When in doubt, think it through when you are not in a hot spot.

Caveat Number 2

- while all of these strategies are good parenting strategies and work, they will not work all the time. Why? Because children are human beings and not machines. When they are sick, tired, hungry, thirsty or upset with their best friend, they don't care much about anything else. Sometimes they just need a break. Be a kind parent and give them said break, if they need it.

A Teacher Mama Answers how to get your child to listen to instructions article

Parenting Strategies: How to Get Your Child to Listen to Instructions

  1. Make sure you have your child's attention. If he or she is playing, was just watching a movie / playing a game / reading a book, chances are their mind is still there. Give them plenty of nudges - and time to "come down to Earth".
  2. Give them ONE instruction at a time. Don't assume that because they are bright they can remember things such as "to do lists", even if they only have two items on them. It is best to go through one thing at a time, accomplish it and then move on to the next. For example, don't say "You need to put on your shoes and your jacket and your hat!". Instead, start with "Put on your shoes!" and then the jacket and then the hat. The younger the child, the more this applies. Obviously, older children can handle more than one thing at a time but if you have problems getting them to listen, stick to the "one thing at a time" strategy.
  3. Be direct and clear. Sometimes adults don't realize that what is obvious to them is not obvious at all to a child. Click To Tweet In other words, if you say "We need to catch the train in ten minutes!", you might be tempted to think that your child knows that this means he or she needs to put on street clothes and shoes. After all, you have done it only about three hundred times. Well, think again... and check your assumptions! Children's worlds are highly fluid and things aren't nearly as fixed as in most adults' worlds. The other day, for example, my (almost) 5 y.o. asked me, during breakfast, why we were in a hurry. I said "Because we need to go!" - to which he replied, completely innocently, "Where?" I was dumbfounded but I realized that "going to school every day" is really not a routine to him, even after two years of it. So if you need to catch the train, just say what you want your child to do! Shoes? Coat? Umbrella? Backpack? Be clear and direct.

These are the three basic steps. However, sometimes they do not work. For those circumstances, I have two more troubleshooting strategies you can try.

Troubleshooting Strategies for How to Get Your Child to Listen to Instructions

  1. Cover the basics. Like I said before, if your child is hungry, thirsty, tired or upset by something, that may be enough to distract him or her from anything else. For good reason. They don't have the impulse control that adults have. Going hungry is the end of the world. It is a revolutionary response, after all: if they don't eat, they don't grow! The same for all the others. So make sure they are fed and in good working condition before you ask them to do something.
  2. Check for age-related behavior. They call them the terrible twos because they are: kids at that age are defiant and love getting in trouble. It is part of exploring the world. Testing limits. Testing their own power. But there should also be "the terrible fours" and "the terrible sixes" and "the terrible x" - because it can strike at any age: that rebellious, defiant streak. Don't take it personally - like I said, it's just part of their development. So don't get into power struggles with them. Instead, give them an explanation. In other words, don't say "Put on your rain boots" - implying "because I said so!". It's amazing what you can get them to do if you take twenty seconds to explain: "Look at those thick, grey clouds! It is going to rain!" You will also discover that this is an amazing conversation starter and vocabulary builder! Your kid will feel really important too - and will happily comply. Try it!

Last but not least, I have one more tip: it would be great to practice giving instructions to your child in a relaxed situation, just to get him or her used to it. For example, I often ask my 4 y.o. to help me with getting various things. For example, if I am giving a bath to his baby sister, I always make sure that he gets "instructions practice" with at least one item, like this: "Could you please get me the pink blanket?". The conversation then goes like this:

N: "What blanket?"

Me: "The pink blanket that is next to the brown sweater."

N (looks around the room): "Where is the brown sweater?"

Me: "On the bed. (repeat, repeat) The pink blanket on the bed, next to the brown sweater."

Depending on the day and his mood, this can take a while. But I can honestly say that, in time, this has improved his ability to follow instructions immensely.

In the beginning, when I first started doing this with him, this kind of exercise made me realize another thing: many times he was not following instructions because he simply did not understand them, however simple or basic they were. It was a sort of circuit type that his brain had no developed. Now that he has done many, many of these exercises, he has a much easier time - including in stressful situations.

Another activity you can try that lends itself beautifully to following instructions is doing crafts. When you first start, do the activities with your child, going through the (very) simple instructions one by one. Then, as you both get more experience, you can sit back and just tell your kiddo what to do and watch them doing it beautifully!

 You might like this: Paper Crafts Patterns

One last thought: for when you have the time, this is a great book on parenting - because educating yourself is always a great idea!


Download my FREE PDF: “8 Teacher Tips for How to Discipline a Child”

8 teacher tips for how to discipline a child slide 5

Maria Ellis

Maria Ellis writes and illustrates books for children of all ages. She has a boy and a girl who keep her busy, inspired and incredibly happy. A former English teacher, she now writes, illustrates and runs Choupicos Press, whenever her kids are a) asleep, b) at school, c) otherwise occupied. She blogs about parenting, education and being a mom over 40.

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