#53: The importance of Following Instructions

by | Dec 23, 2019 | ADHD, ADHD Podcasts, Following Instructions, Podcasts

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The importance of Following Instructions can not be stressed enough. The ability to Follow Instructions is something that every person needs to know how to do if they want to be successful in life.

The behavior skill of Following Instructions found on SmarterParenting.com shows parents and children how to be successful in following instructions they receive.

When parents teach Following Instructions they need to be aware of their expectations. When expectations aren’t matched to our child’s ability, it leads to frustration for all.

Our expectations should be different for a five-year-old and a fifteen-year-old. Meeting them at their ability level sets them up for greater success.

The four steps of Following Instructions are:

First, get the child’s attention

Second, give a clear, detailed, descriptive instruction

Third, the child says, “Okay” and immediately does it

Fourth, child returns and reports when the task is finished

Four simple steps. There is excellent power if learning how to do them. 

When learning the skill of Following Instructions, we recommend doing the following.

First, incorporate Role-plays and reverse Role-plays. Role-plays allow your child to get a sense of what it is you’re asking them to do by having them giving and following instructions. Role-plays are what make any skill successful as it’s in the practicing that children understand and learn the skill.

Second, break down your expectations into clear instructions. If you want your child to clean their room, break it down into all the tasks you want accomplished. The more detailed you’re able to be in your instructions, the better your child can accomplish the task. If you want your child to pick up their dirty clothes, put them in their hamper, and bring their hamper to the laundry room, that’s what you need to tell them to do. If you tell them, “pick up your clothes,” don’t be surprised if that’s all they do even though your expectations were for them to bring it to the laundry room.

Third, praise them when they do it. Praise is a great motivator and will encourage them to continue doing the task. 

Every child can find success with Following Instructions!

Watch the behavior skill video on SmarterParenting.com to see how the behavior skill works. https://www.smarterparenting.com/skills/following-instructions/

For full podcast transcript and show notes visit: https://www.smarterparenting.com/adhd-parenting-podcast/

Sign-up for a free 15-minute ADHD Smarter Parenting Coaching mini-session: https://www.smarterparenting.com/adhd-parenting-podcast/Help the ADHD Smarter Parenting Podcast continue. Donate today! https://www.smarterparenting.com/donate-now/

Episode Transcript

This is episode 53. Let’s get started.

Smarter Parenting welcomes you to our podcast series, The Parenting Coach for ADHD. Here to heal and elevate lives is your Parenting Coach, Siope Kinikini.

Hello, my friends. I hope everybody’s doing well. I am super excited to talk about Following Instructions. This is a skill from the Teaching-Family Model, and it’s a very specific way that we teach children how to Follow Instructions effectively. I am way excited to talk about this because this is actually a very fundamental skill and one that all children need to learn how to do. How to Follow Instructions.

During this time, I want to talk about a few things. First, I want to talk about parent expectations, and actually adjusting those expectations to what is appropriate for your child in Following Instructions. I want to talk about why Following Instructions is important. I also want to go through each of the steps of Following Instructions, and then delve deeper into how to implement those and teach them effectively. So, during this time we’re going to be covering a lot of things.

I also want to talk about what you can do to make it more effective for older children in Following Instructions. A lot to cover. It’s weird, I got a message and people are like, “You talk kind of fast”, and I’m sorry. But, actually, you can slow down my speech if you want to, or you can speed it up, because I actually like to listen to things a little bit faster. Thank you, ADHD. That’s just kind of the way my brain works. It’s kind of all over the place, but I’m trying to keep everything super focused.

So, anyways let’s start on parent expectations. So, parent expectations on Following Instructions. A lot of parents, at least the parents that I’ve worked with over the last decade-plus, have this idea that they can give their child an instruction, or to do something, and that their child is supposed to know how to do it, and how to do it well. That’s just the expectation. So, I’ve often heard a mom say, “Yeah, well I told him to go clean his room, and it’s still not clean.”

Again, we’re dealing with children. Children are concrete thinkers, and they need some specifics. They need things broken down, so they can understand them. When we say clean your room, that’s pretty broad, right? My mom told me to clean my room when I was a teenager, and I did clean it. However, when my mom walked in and looked at the room, it wasn’t clean to her, right? That’s because her idea of clean and my idea of clean were different things. They were completely different things. So, I have learned over time how to make that adjustment with the expectations my mom has, and with the instruction, she’s giving and my reality, because my thing is like errh.

Parent expectations need to match what the child is capable of understanding, and what they’re capable of doing. So, you want to be able to gauge that. Now, you’re the expert on your own child. You know how much information they can understand, gather, grasp, and actually follow through with. You’re going to have to really think about this, “Is my child able to do multiple tasks? Do I need to really break things down, make them very specific, so my child can do them, right?” You’re going to have to be able to that out, because you’re the one that’s there, and you know your child better than anyone else.

The reason I’m bringing this up is so we can as parents take the time to really evaluate whether what we’re asking our children is realistic or not. Because, if we ask something that’s too big, or too difficult for them to do, your child will either have a meltdown and a tantrum, or they will absolutely refuse, and it ends up being a battle. So, you guys are just arguing about it.

We want to avoid both of those things by being sure that our expectations are equal, and that they’re even. It kind of makes me laugh about my mom’s expectations because sometimes she’d give me a chore and she’d say like, “Go wash the walls.” I’d wash the walls, and I’d be like, “Okay, I’m done.” And then, my mom would come, and she’s like, “Hmm, no. You’re not done. We need to do this, and that.” It was just this idea that she had this concept of what it needed to be, and I had this concept of what it needed to be. So, what we’re doing by meeting expectations, at least your expectations, is being sure that your child understands exactly what you mean when you say what you say.

Now, we’re going to jump into now why it’s important for your child to learn Following Instructions. This is an obvious reason. Your child is going to be Following Instructions through their entire life, just like we do. As an adult, we sometimes have to follow instructions, from police officers, sometimes from. You’re on a flight, the flight crew, the flight attendant will ask you to do something. We have to be able to accept instruction, and then follow it, right?

Your children, especially young children, need to learn the skill early, and they need to know how to do it appropriately. It’s one of those skills that you’re going to have throughout your life. Your child is going to start off with you as parents, Following Instructions. They’re going to go to school. They’re going to have to Follow Instructions from a teacher, from a principal, from a coach. They move on to, you know, after high school, they go to college, they get a job, they’re going to Follow Instructions from a boss, from a professor. Then, they get a job. It just never ends.

Even now, as I think about it, I’m still Following Instructions for my wife. So, my wife gives me an instruction, I follow it. That’s just kind of one of those things that we consistently do throughout our lives. It’s one of those things that if you don’t learn how to grasp and master, you actually end up crashing and burning in the long run. It can be pretty ugly for people who don’t know how to Follow Instructions. In using the Teaching-Family Model, and Following Instructions, we actually are teaching our children how to do it in some very concrete and very specific ways. So, it’s super important.

I do want to state that the Teaching-Family Model, which is where we get this skill, and the steps to the skill, is being used around the world with families, with home-based workers, who are teaching these skills to parents, and in group homes, in settings where children have been removed from their homes for misbehavior. This is one of the very first skills that they learn, is Following Instructions. The reason that they learn this skill is because treatment for them requires them to be able to follow instructions, especially in restrictive settings. Absolutely essential skills.

I’ve seen children as young as four learn this skill, all the way up until 18, 19 years old. It runs the gamut. You have to learn this skill. You can learn it early, and make your life easier, and make your life as a parent easier. Or, your child can learn it later in life when it’s a little bit more challenging. Either way, you’re going to learn it. Might as well start now, regardless of the age of your child. I will say though that with a group, home children who are usually the age group that I worked with, they were roughly around 12 to 18, once they learned the skill, and they were able to do it, they actually were super effective at doing it. They embraced it, and they were like, “Okay, I can do this.”

It was giving them very specific steps, and expectations in the Following Instructions, that made them successful. So, can an older child learn it? Absolutely. Actually, sometimes it’s easier for them to do, okay? So, don’t lose hope. Don’t lose hope. Now, I’m going to go through the steps of Following Instructions, so you know what they are. And then, we’ll talk a little bit more in-depth about each of the steps.

The first step is to get your child’s attention. Be sure they’re paying attention to what it is you will be telling them to do. The second one is to give a simple, clear, descriptive instruction. Step number three is that the child says, “Okay”, and then they immediately do what you asked them to do. Step number four is that they return to you after they’ve completed it, and they report that it’s done.

Four steps. Get your child’s attention. Be sure that there’s communication there. Give a simple, clear, descriptive instruction. Child says, “Okay”, they immediately go do it, and fourth, they return, and they report. One, two, three, four. Get your child’s attention, step one. Step two, give a simple, clear, descriptive instruction. Step three, child says, “Okay”, and immediately does it. Step four, the child returns and reports to the parent when they’re finished.

Now, I’ve repeated that multiple times, because it’s super, super important. Now that we’re going to actually jump in, and discuss each of these steps more in-depth to help you grasp, and understand just how important it is to have each of these steps. Now, if you’re not using all four of these steps, then you’re not using the skill of Following Instructions from the Teaching-Family Model, which is okay because you’re giving an instruction. However, if you’re doing all four of these, this actually is more powerful, because it is really a structure your children can follow. It’s one that you set up expectations. It gives them a roadmap for what you want them to do, and how you want them to do things.

So, let’s talk about each of these steps to the skill. The first one is to get your child’s attention. That’s an obvious one. If your child is distracted, unable to pay attention to you, then it’s not the right time to give them an instruction. They need to be able to look at you, I mean you’re paying attention to each other, and they know that what you’re talking about is something important that they should do, okay? So, get the child’s attention. However culturally you do that, in your culture, it may vary, but be sure your child is paying attention to what you have to say.

So first, get your child’s attention. Number two, give a simple, clear, descriptive instruction. Pay attention to those words. Simple, clear, descriptive. In the example I gave earlier of cleaning a room, a parent may actually go, and tell their child’s to clean a room. That actually is super broad. Clean a room, what does that mean exactly to a child, and specifically to younger children? It doesn’t really tell them much, except for the room. It’s a place, and then clean it. What does it mean to clean? Does it mean to wash something? Does it mean to put something away?

So, you’re going to give a simple, clear, descriptive instruction. This also goes back to what we talked about earlier where I was discussing parent expectations, and children and their expectations. We want to be able to give them instructions that they can completely understand, that are simple for them to understand, and that were descriptive in describing it.

Working with a mother and her child, she used to complain about her telling her child to go clean the room. We talked about it, and I observed this from her interaction with her child, and I noticed that when she said, “Go clean your room,” it was just too broad. That was way too broad. So what we did, is we broke down what cleaning your room is in very specific ways. The very first thing we began with was, okay, get your child’s attention. Then step two, give simple, clear, descriptive instructions. The instruction that she gave her child was, “You need to go pick up the clothes from the floor, and put them inside the hamper.” Okay, very, very specific. Pick up the clothes from off the floor, and put them inside the hamper.

This was something that the child could absolutely do. It wasn’t in this realm of clean the room. It was, “Okay, I know exactly what I’m supposed to do. Pick up the clothes, put them in the hamper.” Can you see how that’s simple? It’s clear, it’s descriptive. For younger children, the more simple, the more clear, and the more descriptive you can be, the better. Because, again, sometimes we speak in generalities as parents, and we think children get it, but they don’t. Make it as simple as possible for your child to understand. We’re communicating with them on their level, not on our level, expecting them to come up, but on their level, expecting them to learn, and then eventually moving them up along the way.

What I found with this parent also, is that this child did not avoid, because again, there are two options for a child who receives instructions that they don’t get. They can either reject it and ignore you, which leads usually to a fight, or they can throw a tantrum. So, when mom used to say, “Go clean your room,” the child would throw a tantrum. Now the child’s like, “Oh, okay. This is what she wants me to do. It’s broken down, it’s simple, it’s clear. I can do this, it doesn’t take much time.” Boom, she did it and the mom was like, “Ah, that’s great.” Praise, relationship was strengthened. There was a bond there. It was happy. The child felt accomplished because the child did exactly what the parent wanted. The parent was happy, child was happy. I mean, it was magic. It was magical.

Second step, give a simple, clear, descriptive instruction. Step number three, child says, “Okay,” and they immediately do it. I know that there’s a lot of parents that’s like, “Excuse me, my child will not say okay, and they will not immediately do it.” Let me tell you where the power in them learning how to do this step comes from. The power comes from them practicing in Role-playing this with you. Don’t roll your eyes. I know Role-playing, you’re like, “Ah, he always talks about Role-playing.” But remember, the power in Role-playing is that it incorporates all of this into your child’s being. They hear it, they see it, they get a sense for it. They get a sense of time for it.

So, when you’re Role-playing something with your child, you’re actually helping them ingrain what you’re Role-playing into their brain, into their body, into their muscle memory. Just like any muscle, the more you Role-play it, the stronger it becomes. When you are teaching Following Instructions, and this step of say “Okay,” and do it immediately, what you’re doing is you’re incorporating this new muscle memory technique that you want your child to adopt, and the power will come in your ability to Role-play it.

My recommendation, always for parents, is to Role-play something that they can do with their child, and to reverse Role-play it first. That means that you’re going to sit down with your child. You’re going to say, “Okay.” Get their attention, you are going to say, “Okay, I’m going to teach you the skill of Following Instructions. To Follow Instructions, here are the steps, and you describe the steps. I’m going to get your attention. I’m going to give you a clear, simple, descriptive instruction. You’re going to say, ‘okay’, then you’re going to immediately do it. And then, the fourth one is you’re going to come back and tell me.” Okay, but you’re explaining this to your child. Then you say, “But let’s practice it, but I’m going to switch it. So now, I’m going to be you, you be me. You’re going to be the parent. I’m going to be the child, and you’re going to give me the instruction of picking up the clothes from off the floor, and putting it in the hamper, okay?”

Believe me, your child is going to be like, “Absolutely, I want to be the parent.” Okay, young children love that. They love that reverse Role-play. Then, the child gives the instruction, “Okay, go pick up the clothes from off the floor, and put them in the hamper.” You as a parent at this moment, this is where the real, real power comes in. It’s because you are going to physically do exactly what the instruction is. The reason it’s important for you to do exactly what the instruction is, is because it allows your child to visually see, and have a sense of time for the task that they are going to do.

So, it’s not going to be this, “Oh, we’re just going to pretend. You’re going to tell me, and I’m going to say ‘Okay’. Then, I’m going to pretend to go do it. Then, I’m going to come back.” No, don’t do that. Do not pretend, when you’re Role-playing this skill. You have to do exactly what the instruction is. When you do that, your child can visually see you doing it. They can get a sense for the time it takes to do that. They can see your attitude in the way that you’re doing it. They can see how long it takes, from saying okay to actually doing it.

When they’re able to experience this, it becomes more ingrained in them that this is what they need to do. So, after you do this reverse Role-play, where you as a parent are the child and the child is the parent, you’re going to have the child do this now and say, “Okay, now I did it. You saw me do it. Now I’m going to have you do it, and you’re going to do the exact same thing, okay.” So, take the clothes out of the hamper, and then you’re going to say, “Okay, here I go. I’m going to give you an instruction. You need to go pick up the clothes from off the floor, and put them in the hamper.” So then the child, because they’ve seen it, they know it, they’ve experienced it, they know that it’s something that’s very comforting, comfortable for them to do. They’re able to go, and they’re able to do it.

After they do it, they come back, you praise the heck out of them. You’re just like, “Good job. That was wonderful. You did exactly what I asked you to do. You picked up clothes from off to hamper, you put them in there.” The reason that’s important, is because, “Hey, when you’re able to do that, shows me that you’re responsible and that you can take care of your things. It makes me want to give you more things.”

So, praise them. You want to praise them whenever they’re able to follow an instruction because the praise will reinforce it. So on this step, which is say okay and immediately follow the instruction, if you don’t believe your child can do this step, it’s because you just need to do it first. You need to show your child how to do it first. Once you do it first, it becomes normal and natural for them to do. One recommendation, and this is a huge recommendation, is that if you’re teaching your children how to do this, be sure you’re doing a task that they can do, right? Or, stay away from huge, huge, huge tasks that take a long, long time to do. Break it down, break down the steps.

So for example, there’s a father, he wanted his son to wash the car, following his instructions. That was what they were struggling with. His dad would say, “You need to go wash the car.” The son would just be like, “Whatever”, and just sit there. We focused in on not doing washing the car, because it was too big for the kid. He’s like, “Argh”, he’s overwhelmed by it. We all get overwhelmed when the task seems too big. So, I had the dad break it down, “Okay, you need to go wash the windows of the car.” We started off with something simple. When we Role-played it, that was a lot easier for the dad to do, because the dad was the child. He went, and he cleaned the windows. Okay. Then, he came back and he reported. His son, being able to observe that, actually it became, “Oh okay. I get that. I can do that. I can do the windows. Yeah. Okay.”

We switched the reverse Role-play. We had the son do it, and he’s like, “Okay, I get a feel for this.” The dad was super motivated by that, because he’s like, “Okay, it wasn’t washing the car, but man, I got him to at least do something.” And then, after following that instruction, he could actually add on additional tasks. But, he broke them down into things that his son could manage. Be aware of that. You don’t have to give these huge tasks that are overwhelming. Break them up, break them up into smaller pieces that are easier for your child to follow through with.

The important thing that we’re trying to do, is just integrate this into their being, into a new way of behaving and interacting with you. This is why I love the Teaching-Family Model, is because it really does give us some concrete steps to follow, and to help our children.

Now the fourth step, and this is the last one. It’s also very important, is that your child finishes the task, and he immediately comes back and reports that they are finished. The reason that that is important, is because it allows your child to take ownership for the work that they’ve done. That ownership. Think about it, when you complete something that you’ve been working on, there’s a sense of pride in that. It also gives you the opportunity to not have to hound, and nag and, whatever. It gives them the opportunity to come and report, and if you know that they haven’t come back and report, then you can go back and double-check.

But, having them come and report to you actually gives them more responsibility over their behavior, and what they’re doing. It also gives you an opportunity to say, “Okay, I’m going to trust that they’re going to do this.” Then, when they do it and you check it, praise the heck out of them. You’re going to praise them a ton, okay? Child needs to return and report, return and report. This also allows your child to report if something happened. With the case of the father and the son who were cleaning the car, washing the car, he actually scratched the side of the car while he was wiping the car, while he was cleaning it. So, he came back and reported it. But, he also reported that this happened.

That actually provided better communication between the two to talk about, “Okay, okay. Now I know, okay, we can talk about this. Let’s work it out.” Again, it’s a wonderful opportunity, and it actually ties everything up into a nice ribbon. Think about it. I remember when I was in a group home watching some of the other workers do this, they felt like it was great because after they gave the instruction and the child said, “Okay”, it was no longer the parent’s thing to hold. It was the child’s ability to complete the task, and then to come back and report.

So, a lot of the workers would be like, “Okay, I gave them the task. I’m going to move on to something else, and I can direct my focus somewhere else”, which was great. And then, the kid came back, and it was tied in a nice bookend skill, where they started here and it ended here. So they loved it, they loved it. It will work the same for you as a parent. Once you give the task, and your child says, “Okay”, and they go do it, you can actually say, “Okay, I’m going to shift my focus to something else for now.” Because, now it is their responsibility to come back, and report. Praise. Praise. Praise.

So, those are the four steps. I repeated them a ton before, but I’m going to go through them one more time because repetition is the best way of learning. First, you need to get your child’s attention. Second, you need to give a simple, clear, descriptive instruction based on where your child is, not where you are, but based on where your child is. Number three, your child is going to say, “Okay”, and immediately do what you ask them to do. Immediately. They’re going to learn that by seeing you do it first. So be sure you do that. And then number four, your child’s going to come back and report that they’re finished. Simple as that. Four steps.

It sounds easier than most people think. They’re like, “Oh, there should be more to this.” There isn’t. There really isn’t. If your child can do all four of these, they’re going to be able to follow instructions effectively, whenever you give them an instruction. With my child, we started off when she was super young and now that she’s 16, I do give her instruction still, “You need to go do your laundry, and clear out the laundry room because I need to go do my laundry.”

In giving her instructions, there are more distractions now that she’s a teenager, even though I can give broader instructions that are a little more complex than say picking up clothes and putting in the hamper. Because there are distractions there, sometimes she doesn’t do it immediately. So, what do I do? I don’t lose faith in the skill, because the skill still works. What I do do, is I remind her that I have given her an instruction, and that seems to trigger all of the teaching that she received earlier. So it’s like, “Hey, well I’ve given you an instruction. You need to finish this.” Then, when she hears Following Instructions, for some reason it clicks in her head. She’s like, “Wait, I did this before.” She says, “Okay”, and then she does it.

Your child’s going to need reminders. They’re going to need adjustments. As they grow older, you’re going to need to adjust things. You’re going to give more complex tasks for them to do. That’s okay. You’re going to adjust, and remember they’re still developing. Their brain’s not going to be fully formed until their mid-twenties. So, it’s going to be one of those things that you’re going to be doing as they grow, but you’ll find that the sooner you implement it, the easier it’s going to be to just refocus them on what they need to do.

With children with ADHD, the recommendation to break it down into smaller pieces is essential. You want to break it down into pieces, things that they can do. Because, if they can do something, they’re going to start to feel more accomplished, and they’re going to be able to have more ability to do smaller tasks. Sometimes, I feel like the tasks given to children who struggle with ADHD, is they’re just too broad, too big, and too general, that it doesn’t give them enough focus. This is what I absolutely know though, is that children with ADHD, they can pay attention if they’re interested.

So, chores, and tasks, and instructions may not be interesting. But, if you can break them down, and they can feel a sense of accomplishment, it actually helps boost their self-esteem, and it boosts yours too, because you can praise your child for the positive things they are doing helps strengthens your relationship as a family, and the possibilities are endless. This is a basic skill that is taught in group homes, in home-based treatment, foster homes, in detention centers. This is a skill from the Teaching-Family Model, that is used widely, and it’s one of the foundational skills that children learn.

It’s one that will be super beneficial for you as a parent in teaching, and helping your children. Now, if you have not signed up for a mini-session, feel free to sign-up. It’s a free 15-minute mini-session, where I will coach you through different parenting things that you may be struggling with, answer any questions that you may have. You can sign up for it over on the Smarter Parenting website. You can also find this skill on the Smarter Parenting website. It’s taught by Chiao-ih, who’s a mother. She explains the skill, and how to use it in video format. And then, in the video, there are two examples, one with a younger child, and then one with an older teenage child, and how parents are teaching their children how to follow instructions.

This is one of those skills I recommend every parent teach their child, and that they practice over, and over again because it saves a lot of headache in the long run. It decreases meltdowns and tantrums. It actually gives your child a sense of accomplishment when they’re able to follow through, and it also gives you an opportunity as a parent to focus on the positive. Because your children are able to follow smaller instructions, you can praise them for that. That’s wonderful, right? We all want children who are happy, healthy adults. Following instructions.

Again, sign up for a mini session on the Smarter Parenting website. I would absolutely love to communicate with you about issues that are happening in your family, and then to give you some suggestions on things you can do to improve. That’s it from me, and I will see you again next week. All right, bye.


Behavior skills of the Teaching-Family Model

Behavior skill: Following Instructions

Steps of Following Instructions

Blog post: How I made Following Instructions work with toddlers

Blog post: Using games and activities to teach Following Instructions

Blog post: How to teach your children Following Instructions

Blog post: Tips for making Following Instructions stick

Blog post: Getting ADHD children to Follow Instructions


Behavior skill: Preventive Teaching

Behavior skill: Effective Praise

Behavior skill: ABC’s of Behavior

Behavior skill: Effective Communication

Behavior skill: Role-playing

Behavior skill: Observe and Describe

Behavior skill: Correcting Behaviors

The Teaching-Family Model


Ep #46: Understanding the ABC’s of Behavior

Ep #47: Mastering Observe and Describe

Ep #48: What it takes to change behavior

Ep #49: Compound effect of Effective Communication

Ep #50: Changing behavior through praise

Ep #51: Finding Success with Preventive Teaching

Ep #52: How to fix negative behaviors


Free 15-minute ADHD coaching mini-session

Podcast sponsor Utah Youth Village

Support the ADHD Smarter Parenting Podcast. Donate.


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Specific DiagnosisADHD#53: The importance of Following Instructions