How to teach your children Following Instructions
As parents it is easy to identify what behaviors we would like our children to change but we often don’t know how to encourage that change. If we focus on correcting each individual behavior, such as your daughter continuing to play when you’ve asked her to put the toys away; your son not getting out of bed; the milk being left out on the counter again; your teenager coming home an hour past curfew, it can get overwhelming. However, all of these behaviors can be addressed with the same skill. If we spend more time teaching our children to follow instructions rather than correcting our children when we see poor behavior we will see the behaviors change faster. The good thing is, every parent already has the ability to teach effectively and you are probably doing it on a daily basis. These are simple interactions such as teaching your child to brush their teeth or how to fold the laundry. To illustrate this in more detail I’ll use the example of teaching a child to tie a shoe. When he is ready to learn how to tie a shoe we set aside time to teach him, we don’t attempt to teach while heading out the door. Then, whether using the “circle” or the “bunny ears” technique, there are specific steps to follow to achieve the goal. At first, the child watches as you talk through the process of tying their shoe.Then you repeat the steps aloud as they try to tie the shoe themselves. It often takes several times to succeed, but when they do there is a celebration with many “good jobs”, high-fives and squeals of excitement from the child. The learning isn’t completely over yet; we may have to repeat the steps again for several days each time they put on their shoes until they can do it themselves without help.
We should use the same tool of teaching to help our children learn basic social skills. One of those basic skills is called Following Instructions. Regardless of age or the severity of their negative behaviors, the skill of Following Instructions can be taught and applied at home, during school, while running errands, or anywhere. Using the same pattern as teaching a child how to tie a shoe, first establish a neutral time to teach the child how to follow instructions. “Neutral” means that the skill should not be taught during a moment when the skill should be used and especially not while giving a consequence. Some families have weekly or monthly family meetings which is a great place to introduce new skills. Establishing a reward the child can earn for participating, especially if they are older or resistant to learning the skill, can help to improve their attention.
The 4 steps of Following Instructions look like:
1. Get the child’s attention.
2. Give a simple, clear, descriptive instruction.
3. Child says, “ok,” and immediately does the task.
4. Child returns and reports when finished.
The first two steps are what the parent does while the last two are what the child does.
Next, show them how to use the skill before having them practice on their own. Ask the child to give you an instruction and show them each step of Following Instructions. Then have them practice it alone, at least 3 times, giving feedback on forgotten steps and remembering to acknowledge what they have done well. Show excitement when they use the skill correctly. With this foundation you can prompt your child to use the skill whenever an instruction is given. At first, you’ll have to remind the child frequently to use the steps, until eventually it becomes second nature.
Once the skill is learned you can now address many negative behaviors with the same skill. Just like there are different types of shoes, the method to tie them are the same. Likewise, the steps of Following Instructions can be applied in any situation, such as sharing toys at home or school, and for different behaviors like waking up on time or helping with family chores.
Here are a few tips to set your child up for success in using the skill of Following Instructions:
● Make the teaching interaction fun. Ask them to practice the skill by giving a silly instruction like jumping on one foot or spinning in a circle. The more fun and positive the teaching interaction is, the more likely they’ll be to use the skill.
● Display the steps on the fridge or where your child will see it often. For younger children that cannot read, you may need to include pictures next to each step.
● When first learning and applying this skill, clearly indicate to the child that you are about to give them an instruction. Review the steps if necessary and then have them complete the instruction using all the steps.
● Remember to be patient. Change takes time. It takes time to remember to use the steps in all types of situations, and there may be some initial resistance until the child learns that you expect them to use all the steps.
● And finally, as with any new behavioral skill, reinforce your teaching with effective consequences. Setting up a marble jar or reward chart will provide a reminder to use the skill and allow the child to receive a lot of positive attention for using Following Instructions.
After using Following Instructions for a prolonged period of time, the steps will become natural and require little prompting. After teaching this skill to children, the feedback often given by parents is how their children listen better and now complete tasks independently. The children talked about their parents nagging them less and completing tasks faster. You’ll be surprised how many situations can be resolved by using Following Instructions, and once your child can apply this simple skill, then you’ll be able to focus on teaching skills for more troublesome behaviors.