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Guest post by: Leanne Sherred, M.S. CCC-SLP
When children don’t follow directions, it can be frustrating, to say the least. As parents, we’ve all experienced this – especially now that many of us are spending more time with our children because of COVID-19.
When you ask your child to bring their dishes to the sink, what happens?
Do they refuse?
Start and then abandon the task?
Look away or zone out?
If your child doesn’t do what they’re asked once in a while, it’s to be expected. But when it happens routinely, there may be a larger issue at hand. It may seem like they’re lazy, or they don’t care, or they’re being disrespectful, but in reality, they may actually have difficulty doing what they’re asked.
As a speech-language pathologist, I see this all the time. This issue can commonly be due to language delays. A language delay is a relatively broad diagnosis that means children have difficulty understanding and processing language. It’s not that they don’t want to listen to you – in fact, it’s not a choice at all. They simply don’t understand what you’re telling them.
Overcoming language delays and helping early language learnings follow directions is vitally important. Not only is it essential for the development of their comprehension, but it helps them prepare for school readiness and set them up for future success.
Common tips and tricks to help your child follow directions:
Learning and comprehending new vocabulary is best supported by visual cues. When it comes to following directions, using gestures and other hand motions can help your child understand concepts and statements quicker.
Pointing is a common and consistent hand gesture that can be used with children as early as 1-years-old. If your direction includes an object, point to the object and say the word out loud. For example, “put your shoes on.”
You can also mime actions to help children follow along. For example, put your hands in the air and say, “time to wash our hands.” Or, wave your hand back and forth and say, “time to say goodbye.”
In some cases, your child might need extra support. One technique is to help them learn by physically walking them through a direction. For example, let’s say your child doesn’t understand a simple task like, “sit down at the table.” You can try to take them by the hand and guide them to the table, then help them take a seat. If you tell them to “brush their teeth,” walk them to the bathroom, take out their toothbrush, and squeeze some toothpaste onto it. When you use these supports, it’s always helpful to repeat the direction one or two times.
Repetition is Key
Speaking of repetition, this is critical. Children learn through repetition, so in addition to restating a direction as it’s being performed, consider practicing them across several days or weeks. Every night before bed, walk your child to the bathroom when it’s time to brush their teeth, and repeat the process. Over time, you can slowly pull back on the cues to check your child’s development and self-sufficiency. After a few weeks of practicing the direction “clean up,” while grabbing their toy bin, try announcing, “clean up” and then waiting to see what they do on their own.
Integrate Directions into Daily Routines
Directions are common throughout the day, and opportunities arise to practice them in nearly every daily routine. Try to use them as much as possible to provide a language-rich environment for your child. When leaving the house say, “go get your shoes.” When preparing dinner say, “give me the cup, please.” Before bedtime say, “grab your pajamas.”
Check for Understanding
If you’re child’s old enough, ask them to explain or repeat the directions back to you. This gives them a chance to process your instructions, practice their comprehension, and ask any questions or clarifications if needed.
Considerations When Giving Instructions
In addition to the tips and at-home exercises listed above, there are some best practices parents can take whenever giving instructions. This will ensure your directions are understood so that they resonate with your child.
- Reduce Distractions: Give your child 100% of your full attention – and make sure they do the same. They’re probably not going to listen if they’re playing a game, or watching television, or tapping on an iPad.
- Give Your Child Time to Respond: Next time you watch an educational children’s television show, you may notice a pause after someone says something or asks a question. This is called a “wait time,” and it’s used to help children process what is being said, formulate a response, and express their thoughts. After you ask a question, wait a few seconds to let it sink in. If they don’t follow the direction or respond, try repeating yourself.
- Keep Your Voice Calm and Steady: We all get frustrated on occasion and involuntarily raise our voice. However, this can be counterproductive. When children focus on your tone and volume, they’re not focusing on what you have to say. So do your best to remain calm and speak with a quiet and even voice.
- Be Clear: Children with language problems, or those that have difficulty with planning or organizations, may struggle with vague directions. Telling your child to simply, “clean up the blocks,” may not be clear. They may not know how to start or where the blocks go. Instead, give them very clear, step-by-step directions. You can even number the steps and put them in sequential order. For example, can you say, “first you’re going to pick up your blocks. Second, you’re going to put them in the toy bin. And third, you’re going to put the toy bin under the bed.”
Guest Post By
Leanne Sherred, M.S. CCC-SLP:
Leanne calls Austin, Texas home but studied Speech and Hearing Sciences at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and gained her Master’s in Speech-language pathology from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. She has worked in pediatric outpatient clinics, schools, early intervention, and home health. Leanne is currently the President and Founder of Expressable, an online speech therapy company that envisions a modern and affordable way for anyone who needs speech therapy to access these vital services.