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Strategies For Giving Instructions

Strategies For Giving Instructions

It seems straight-forward enough: “Please go brush your teeth.” But 5-minutes later, you find your child playing in their room, their teeth unbrushed and still covered in the night’s dinner.

At first glance, it’s easy to assume that your child is purposely ignoring you or refusing your request. But, in many cases, the way a parent gives instructions can influence the way a child responds to your request. This week in Triple P, we look at common errors parents make when giving instructions.

Most people, children and adults, do not like being told what to do. Before you give instructions, think about what you would like your child to learn about cooperation, respect, and healthy relationships. Most of us respond better to a request rather than an order. What is your underlying lesson? What need are you trying to meet, what is your child’s need in the situation, and is there a way to get both your needs met?

Consider reframing telling your child what to do to making a request and getting their buy-in so that eventually they will not need to be reminded. Give a choice whenever possible.

Information overload

As an adult, if you’ve even been given a laundry list of instructions at rapid fire, you know how challenging it can be to remember each step and follow through with the task. Toddlers and young children especially struggle when given too many instructions. They may remember step 1 and 2, but get lost after that.


  • Provide simple instruction with minimal steps, for example, “Look under your bed for your shoes.
  • Make sure your instructions are clear, for example, “Please put the toothpaste away,” becomes, “The toothpaste lives on the shelf next to your toothbrush so we always know where to find it when we need it. Would you please put it there?

Too little information

Just like you can give your child too many instructions, it’s also possible to not provide enough information or instructions to your child. In some cases, it can seem as if a child is misbehaving when, in reality, they haven’t been a given clear, understandable limit. For example, if you’ve never taught your young child that it is not okay to climb up the bookcase, we can’t expect them to know. It is also our job as parents to recognize their need for practicing the skill of climbing, and provide the opportunity in a safe way.


  • Use a “show and tell” method for teaching your child a new skill, such as brushing their teeth, putting the spoons on the table, getting a glass of water. Do the task together several times, and then let them try it while you are watching and cheering them on before you expect them to do it on their own.
  • Be prepared to repeat yourself. Learning a new skill takes time and practice.

Too challenging

If your toddler is having a hard time putting away their toys, take a moment to consider whether what you are asking them to do is appropriate for their age. If the task is too big or it is unclear where toys go, a toddler may struggle to get their chore done. “Your blocks go in the bin. Let’s put them away together. Do you want to put in the red ones or the blue ones?” This is a more specific, clear request, and you have tucked in a choice to help get their cooperation.


  • Consider your child’s age and abilities when making requests.
  • Show your child how to do the task, then do the task together.
  • Make sure your child has what they need to complete the task or chore, such as a stool to reach the cupboard to get a cup.

Unclear instructions

As parents, we like to say things like “Don’t be silly!” or “Stop doing that!” In both cases, we aren’t clearly addressing the behavior we don’t want to see or how we would like our child to behave instead. Parents are also guilty of “asking” rather than telling our children what we would like them to do. As an example: “Would you like to go to bed now?” Or even, “Let’s go to bed now, ok?” Most children will give a resounding “no”—can we really blame them? If we give the child a yes or no choice, we give them the chance to say “no.


Use language that is clear. Rather than “Don’t be silly!” say, “It’s OK to giggle and laugh, but please use your inside voice.

When it comes to rules, tasks, or requests that are not optional, don’t state it as a question. Such as “For your safety, you must hold my hand when we cross the street,” rather than “Do you want to hold my hand as we cross the street?” It helps many children to give a choice, “Do you want to hold this hand or this hand?

Words versus body language

Have you ever laughed and smiled when your toddler used potty talk then followed up with “Don’t talk like that”? If so, you probably know that strategy tends to result in more potty talk words. Why? Because toddlers LOVE to make people smile and get a reaction from their parents. They are going to remember your smile, not so much your request. Sometimes our body language says something different than our words and children get confused when this happens.


  • Keep your reactions to a minimum when it comes to inappropriate behavior or language.
  • Be specific about the unacceptable behavior and what you would like them to do instead: “Layla, we do not use potty talk words. Please use your kind words instead.
  • When giving instructions, avoid shouting them from the other room or far away.
  • With many children, it helps to get their attention, get down on their level, make eye contact, make your request, and get an agreement.

Stay calm and instruct on

As children get older, they become more skilled in following directions. Be patient with toddlers and young children who need extra guidance. There is so much to learn about how the world works and how to function in it. With your help, you children will be respectful and cooperative!


This article is brought to you by Parenting Now Parenting Educators and authors Amanda Bedortha, Claire Davis and Lynne Swartz and consultant Jay Thompson (andupdatemywebsite.com).  Parenting Now is passionate about happy, healthy families. For more information about Parenting Now please visit their website (https://parentingnow.org/) or contact us at info@parentingnow.org


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