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Getting Kids to Do What They’re Told

Boy washing windows

​​By Dr. Robert Wingfield

For many child behavior experts, a common complaint from parents is that their children are unable or unwilling to follow instructions. It’s frustrating for the parent, whose temper can flare and escalate the situation, and it’s frustrating for the child, who may feel as if he/she can do nothing right.

Getting Kids to Follow Instructions

For a child to follow instructions or complete an assigned task, expectations must first be made clear to him/her. This is what we call effective instruction delivery, or EID. The key to EID is to be clear in your expectations of your child, who should also be taught early on ​how to properly follow instructions. Following the rules below may increase your child’s compliance rate:

  1. Eye Contact: Establishing eye contact with your child helps ensure that he/she is not distracted by something else.
  2. Proximity: Standing within arm’s reach helps parents remember to monitor their child’s responsiveness to the instruction. Issuing a command from a different room of the house prevents the parent from monitoring whether the child initiates and completes the task.
  3. Clarity: Parents should give only one instruction at a time. Do not give instruction No. 2 until instruction No. 1 is completed.
  4. Give a Direct Statement (not a question): Saying, “Put your toys away,” is much stronger than saying, “Can you put your toys away?” The latter is passive and sounds optional. This can be confusing for many children.
  5. Frame the Instruction Positively: Saying, “Please walk down the hallway,” is a stronger command than saying, “Please don’t run.” Children usually respond better when they hear language describing what they should be doing instead of language that only focuses on what they should not be doing.
  6. Wait Five Seconds: Children should be given five seconds of grace time to show cooperation. The parent should count down in his/her head, not out loud. If the child does not show task initiation after five seconds, then he/she is considered to be noncompliant. Your therapist can provide strategies to address noncompliance.
  7. Praise: If cooperation does occur within five seconds, then the parent should provide enthusiastic praise to their child.

Dealing with Disobedience

If your child does not complete a task you’ve assigned, or if he/she disobeys you for any reason, then you should respond in the following ways:

  • Issue an appropriate penalty. This could be as simple as limiting television time or removing access to video games or other electronic devices for a set time.
  • Deal with disobedience dispassionately, like a police officer delivering a speeding ticket. In this way, you reduce the risk of escalating the situation.
  • Choose a penalty that is appropriate for the age of the child and that it is proportionate to the infraction committed. You needn’t ground a child from TV for a month for forgetting to brush his/her teeth, for instance.

Praise, Praise, Praise

More important than enforcing penalties, praising your child when he or she does something right goes a long way toward making good behavior automatic. We sometimes refer to this as “catching your child being good.” We say “catch” because it’s easy to ignore a child when he/she does what he/she is told. After all, that should be the norm, right?

Well, yes, but by praising them for positive behaviors, we can help reinforce those. And, if you diminish the praise over time, these behaviors become ingrained as normal, expected behaviors. (Diminish in this instance means that you don’t need to praise your child for brushing his teeth every single time he does it. After it becomes routine, the action no longer needs praise.)

In addition to praise, you may grant certain small rewards for compliance. For instance, you could say to your child, “I love the way that you took a shower the first time I asked. Because you did, you now have more time to play your Xbox or your PlayStation.”