by Heather Logan | Mar 02, 2017

Written By: Peter D., M.S., BCBA, Clinical Director, A is for Apple, Inc.

Every parent knows just what it means to ask their child this question. How do I give my child directions they will follow? Giving effective directions to your child, and getting them to follow them after, can sometimes seem like a monumental undertaking, and one most parents often dread.

But there is hope! And the solution is more simple than you might expect.

When we clinicians teach our families about the importance of direction giving, we generally start off by teaching the benefits of “getting close” and “gaining attention” before giving your instructions. This should make sense when you consider that anyone expected to follow a direction, should at least indicate they heard and understood that direction first. This can be especially true with children with special needs.

Let’s zoom in a little on “getting close”

1. Getting Close:

  • Before you give a request/command to your child, get within close physical proximity to your child. Depending on the situation and environment context, this can be face to face, or even leaning in to one side.
  • We generally recommend the “one arm’s distance” rule, (i.e., get within one arm’s distance of him or her.)
  • The goal is to set your child up for success (i.e., compliance to request) and young children tend to listen best when an adult is in close proximity.
  • Conversely, not being close to the child and failing to get their attention often leads to the child not following through with your instruction or direction.

See, not so bad so far, right? In a way, you should work for these basic steps to seem natural and almost “common sense”, though it never hurts to have it broken down into steps for you to consider.

So now that we are “in close” and presumably have our child’s attention, we set about the task of giving the direction. Here, too, we want to consider some of the most basic “pitfalls” most parents fall into when giving directions…often resulting in a breakdown of the instruction, and ultimately our child not following it.

During this portion of the process, it is important that we understand the difference between a clear and unclear command, as well as the difference between a direction and a choice-direction.

Take a look at these examples to get a sense of what this looks like:

  • “Please pick up your shoes” Versus “Can you pick up your shoes, how many times do I have to tell you?”
  • “You need to start your homework in 2 minutes” Versus “When the time is up, I expect you to be working on your homework.”
  • “Pick up all the dirty clothes on the floor and put them in the hamper.” Versus “Clean up before I get mad.”
  • “Put your glass in the sink please”, Versus “Would you like to put your glass in the sink”
  • “Give me the toy” Versus “Can I have the toy”

Each of these examples comes directly from parent trainings I’ve given, and the subtlety in distinction between “directions” and “choices” is nearly imperceptible at times. I’m reminded of this “language game” my mom would play with me whenever I asked her “Can I have a piece of gum?” to which she would always reply “I don’t know, can you?” Specificity in language is important to obtain the desired results.

So now, direct your attention to these general rules for direction giving:

2. How to Give a Direction:

  • Give directions that you mean to give.
  • Word directions as statements, not questions.
  • Give only one direction at a time.
  • Make sure you give the direction when you are close to your child.
  • Make sure you give the direction when you have your child’s attention.
  • If needed, have your child repeat the direction.
  • If needed, give a time limit for the direction.
  • Praise compliance for the direction as soon as possible.
  • Be prepared to implement appropriate consequence if your child does not comply.

Once these steps are internalized with the parent/caregiver, they begin to feel nearly automatic, and become easier to apply with each passing instruction. Once your child understands “you say what you mean and mean what you say”, you’re well on your way to gaining more and more instructional compliance with your child. In the end, these basic steps should create more and more opportunities for your child to earn reinforcement for listening and following instructions, and finally allow you to reduce the number of time you have to ask

Why won’t you just do what I say?