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Giving Good Instructions to Children

Child putting dishes in dish washer

​​​​​​​​​​​This information is included in our Guide to Communication Skills. Click here to see the rest of the guide.

Does getting your child to do something feel like an impossible task? One of the reasons may be the way in which you are asking. Children are not necessarily receptive to the types of verbal instruction that we use with our spouse, colleagues or other adults. Instructions for children must be given in a way that they understand. Below are some helpful hints on how to give kids instructions that will make both you and your child more successful.

Get your child's attention - Make sure that you have your child's attention before you give a direction. You should be within three feet of your child so you can talk in a normal or calm voice. This helps your child know that you are talking to him/her. You can get your child's attention by calling his/her name, making eye contact, or turning off the lights.

  • Be clear and concise - Instructions should be short and to the point. The fewer words the better. A good guide is one word per year of life. (ex. Instruction for a two-year-old might be "shoes on"; where a five-year-old might be "go get your shoes on"). If there are too many words, it becomes more difficult for the child to know what is expected. The instruction should also be free of vague words.
  • Give one instruction at a time - Do not give your child a long list of instructions. When you give more than one instruction at one time, your child may forget, not understand, or feel overwhelmed. 
  • Be realistic - Give your child instructions that you know he/she can follow. For example, do not expect a 3-year-old to get completely dressed by him/herself. 
  • Be positive - Let your child know what you want them to do rather than not to do. When we only describe the negative behavior "don't run" we still leave many other options available (skipping, hopping, etc.). Telling the child what we want them to do "walk, please." Does not allow for any other options. 
  • Don't ask, tell - Do not ask your child to do something. Instead, tell your child in a firm but pleasant voice what you want them to do. Do not say "will you go brush your teeth?" To the child this implies that they have a choice. Instead, say "go brush your teeth." 
  • Reward compliance - let your child know that he/she did a good job following the instruction. Praise your child. The more you praise your child the better the chances that he/she will follow directions in the future.

Examples of Good Instructions: 

  • John, give me the truck.
  • Lindsey, go wash your hands. 
  • Dylan, look at the book. 
  • Taylor, put three blocks in the bucket. 
  • Jessie, walk next to me.
Examples of Bad Instructions:Why it's a bad instruction:
Be carefulToo vague.
Can you put your toys away?Don't ask, tell.
Go upstairs, wash your face, brush your teeth and go to bed.Too many instructions.
Okay, I think it is time for you to go to bedToo many words
Don't run in here.Negative and too vague
Stop horsing around!Negative and too vague
Can you give the toy to your sister?Don't ask, tell
It is time for you to go upstairs to go to sleep.Too many words