How I’ve made Following Instructions work with toddlers

by | Mar 21, 2017 | Blogs, Following Instructions, Following Instructions, Posts, Others

How I’ve made Following Instructions work with toddlers

Do you ever feel like you are talking to an empty room when you ask your children to do something for you? A LOUD and MESSY empty room, that is. With a two-year-old and four-year-old at home all day with me, I know I have sometimes wondered if someone somehow put my voice on mute inside my kids’ heads.

Getting kids to listen and obey can be difficult. There are days where my son gets completely absorbed in epic battles being waged between his construction trucks and his jungle animals and he doesn’t have a clue that I’ve asked him repeatedly to clean up and come to the table. This used to drive me completely nuts!

However, as I’ve learned about the skill of Following Instructions, I’ve realized that whether or not my children respond positively to the requests I make of them is largely determined by my own actions. Truly, I am the one in control of the situation.

When I use the steps of Following Instructions, I am able to get my kids to respond and follow through on what I ask them to do. And that feels so good!


Here are the four steps to Following Instructions:

  1. Get your child’s attention
  2. Give a simple, clear, descriptive instruction
  3. Child says okay, and immediately follows instruction
  4. Child returns to the parent and reports when it is finished

Now, these steps are simple enough, and really helpful, but there are a few things I adapted with my toddler to make Following Instructions effective.

1. Get down on your child’s level

Toddlers are notoriously distractible. Squirrel! They get used to having big people mill about them all day long, and they learn to ignore a lot of the “grown up talk.” With my two-year-old, I have found it really helpful to not only get his attention by calling his name, but to kneel down next to him so I can look him in the eye. He knows that if I go to the effort to get down on his level and talk directly to him, I really need him to listen. I can call his name to get his attention, but getting on his level is what keeps his attention while I give him an instruction. As an added bonus, being in close quarters with my kids reminds me to be aware of the tone of voice I am using when I give them requests (i.e. – I am nicer).

2. Small jobs for small people

Make your request simple and specific. I cannot tell my toddler, “Clean up your toys, please.” That request is much too general and abstract for him to understand and complete. Instead, I give him a very specific task: “Please take this train track and put it in the box right there.” Sometimes, I have to push the toy into his hand, but he’ll usually put it away once he’s holding it.

With toddlers, cleaning has to micromanaged, but that’s okay with me. If I wanted the room cleaned, I could just do it myself much more quickly than my kids can. My goal isn’t cleaning the room; it’s teaching my kids a skill—following instructions. We start with small things, and over time, my son is learning to do more and more. I can now tell my four-year-old to clean up all the toys in a room, and he can do it. But we started when he was a toddler with requests to “throw all the blue legos in the bucket” or “drive the red car into the toy garage.”

3. Get a verbal confirmation

In our house, we use the phrase “got it” rather than “okay,” but the idea is the same. I might tell my son, “You have time to go down the slide one more time, and then we need to head to the car. Got it?” By doing so, I am giving him advance notice of what I need him to do, I’m giving him an opportunity to finish up his playing, and I am asking for confirmation that he heard and understands the request. This is really important with children of all ages. Once I hear “got it” I know my son heard me and he understands that I have an expectation that he will follow through.

4. Be prepared to stop what you’re doing and help your child follow your directions

We’re busy. I’m as guilty as the next mom of getting busy on the phone, or talking to a friend, or doing any of a million other things. Then, five minutes go by and I realize that I’ve given the same request three or four times to my child and not done anything about the fact that he hasn’t obeyed. Sometimes we just want to let it go. However, our toddlers learn quickly whether or not we’re going to enforce our expectations.

Especially with little ones, you may have to hold their hands and help them do the job. It takes some extra effort in the beginning, but it has paid big dividends for me with my four-year-old.

5. Effective Praise is effective!

The last step of Following Instructions is teaching your child to report back to you when the job is done. With my two-year-old, this step is one we are still developing. Most of the time, I’m right next to him while he does a job, so I know he did it. Still, I think teaching kids to take ownership of the job by reporting that they completed it does two important things. One, they develop self-confidence in their ability to do things (and two-year-olds are big on doing things themselves!) and pride in a job well done. Second, it gives you as the parent an opportunity to praise them. As we praise our children for the good things they do, they are more likely to want to make good choices in the future. (Learn more about Effective Praise here.)


Following Instructions is all about creating clear expectations for our children about what they need to do when we make a request of them. I’m not saying that my children always jump up and immediately do what I ask, but I feel like I am now seeing in my four-year-old the results of teaching him to follow instructions when he was younger. When we develop a consistent routine for making a request and expecting our children’s compliance, we’re much more likely to get positive results.

Learn more about Following Instructions here.


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