Giving Effective Instructions to ChildrenOne of the most common errors made by parents is in how they give instructions to their children. Typically, parents will issue an instruction and get no response. Then, apparently being ignored, they will repeat themselves in a variety of ways in order to get compliance. When the child continues to ignore them, the parent eventually becomes angry and raises their voice, which in turn negatively reinforces the behaviour. The child learns to only respond when their parent is angry and loud. This locks both parties into a negative escalation trap, explains Sydney’s leading Child Clinical Psychologist.

Parents who get into the habit of using requests or giving instructions to children worded in a question format (‘Can you say good bye now?’) are often frustrated and confused as to why their children don’t listen. This is essentially because such phrases are non-committal and the child interprets the directive as a choice, which can be accepted or rejected as they wish. This means that the request or instruction is on the child’s terms and when they don’t do as required we in turn get angry.

How to stop the escalation trap

To eliminate the escalation trap it is imperative that parents delete all requests and choice statements from their vocabulary when there is no choice to be made. For example, ‘Would you like to sit at the table now?’ is better expressed as ‘It’s time to come to the table now.’

Parents need to be in control and remain regulated. You have the right to expect certain instructions be followed and that your child does the deeds that need to be done in an appropriate and considerate manner. To do all this with conviction you need to maintain your role as the adult and your child’s role as the child. You need to listen to what your child says and make decisions that are fair and reasonable for your family, not decisions based on making the child happy. However, remember that children are more likely to accept a decision they do not like if they feel that you have listened and treated them fairly.

Elevating your child’s position to one that is level with yours may make them like you for a moment, but it does both of you no favours in the long run. Wishy-washy phrases are the ladder on which your children climb to get to your level. It is much better to let them grow into the job.

Instructions need to be direct and clear; they must state what is expected in a certain situation.

Rewarding cooperative behaviour

Rewarding cooperative behaviour with something enjoyable is effective, for example, ‘When you are finished putting your toys away, then we’ll…’  Alternatively you can offer a choice statement, such as, ‘Will we get the blocks or all of the books first?’ In so doing, parents give a children control in an appropriate way. Building fun into the instruction also helps with cooperation, such as, ‘Put all the animals into the box and let’s count how many animals we can pick up from the floor.’

Simple steps for effective instruction giving

  1. Use your proximity. Move closer and get to your child’s level. An arm’s length away is usually a good distance. It is also useful to use their name and make a connection with them.
  2. Make sure that the instruction is clear and brief so that it is understood. For some children it helps to ask them to repeat the instruction and to acknowledge that they have understood.
  3. If there is a list of instructions, break them down and give them one at a time.
  4. Make sure your instruction is the last thing that the child hears. If you need to explain anything, do this at the beginning; for example, ‘It’s time to go now. Stop playing and put your toys on the shelf now, thank you.’
  5. Always use positive language when giving instructions; for example, ‘Walk inside the house’ rather than ‘Don’t run inside’.
  6. Give your child time to cooperate (five seconds) and respond before you repeat the instruction.
  7. Avoid giving an instruction, leaving the room and then returning a period of time later to check.
  8. After giving an instruction stay focused on the task. Avoid distracting them from what you have asked them to do.
  9. Use labelled acknowledgement when your child follows an instruction. Describe exactly what they did well; for example, ‘I felt so pleased to see you listening and getting quickly into your car seat, thank you.’
  10. When instructions are not followed issue a choice statement and follow this by a logical consequence; for example, ‘You need to put your shoes on before you can go to the park.’


This article is an extract from Dr Anna Cohen’s book Parenting Made Easy- The Early Years.