The Ins and Outs of Getting Your Child to Follow Directions

Fisher-Price Smilestones Preschooler Milestones Tips for Parents

July 21, 2023

Are you frustrated because your preschooler isn’t following directions?

It may feel intentional and personal but, as a child development expert, I’m here to assure you that’s often not the case.

It helps to remember that following directions isn’t as natural for preschoolers as it is for grown-ups. Following directions requires little minds to take several big steps: They need to understand what is being asked, remember it, and then figure out how to follow through on it. There are so many big and small directions given to them throughout a day… it can get overwhelming!

This is where you can help them. Remember that following directions is just one more building block of your child’s overall development. With a little time, simple strategies (and lots of practice) they’ll be following along before you know it!


No time to read? Watch this video (if you want to).

Why is following directions so important?

We all follow directions every day. It’s how we stay safe, learn new things, and go about our day-to-day activities. Here are some ways that following directions can be relevant for a preschooler:

Staying Safe
Following directions helps children stay safe by keeping them out of harm’s way, such as in a parking lot, around a swimming pool, in a store, etc.

School Readiness
Schools are filled with new expectations for little ones that might be different from what they’re used to at home. “What do you mean we have to wait for lunch to eat our snacks?!”

Self-Confidence & Independence
Following directions can help build self-confidence and independence as your child starts to remember the directions on their own and starts trying things by themselves, like brushing their teeth, getting dressed, etc.

How to get your preschooler on the path to following directions: the basics

Here are some simple tips to set your child up for success:

1. Get on their level.

Get down to your child’s eye level and try to limit competing distractions, like holding the toy they are playing with until you’re done giving directions. Ask them to do something silly first, like, “Rub your tummy if you can hear me!” and then follow up with, “Great! Now let’s wash our hands to get rid of our germs from playing before snack.”

2. Give specific, bite-sized directions.

“Go clean your room” can be vague and overwhelming. Be specific; break things down: “Put the blocks in the purple bin.” This makes larger tasks feel more manageable and gives you a chance to acknowledge your child’s listening skills more often.

3. Take things slow.

Give directions slowly so your kiddo has a chance to process what is being asked, and then give them time to follow those directions. Resist the urge to jump in and do things for them or repeat yourself a bunch. Try to plan extra time for them to do things so you aren’t stressed waiting for them to find that coat.

4. Acknowledge when they follow directions (and when they don’t).

Preschoolers love praise! When they follow directions say, “I see how quickly you put your toys away and washed your hands! Now you’re ready for dinner!” If your kiddo isn’t listening, try explaining why the direction they are being given is important, such as how getting germs off your hands before eating keeps you healthy.

Surprising tips on how to get your child to follow directions

Here are some different strategies to use:

1. Make a game out of it!

Invite your child to participate in the activity you are directing them towards by turning it into a fun game! Prompt, “I wonder how fast you can get dressed today? 1, 2, 3…”

2. Make it clear when there is no choice…

When you ask, “Are you ready to get into the car?” your child hears they have a choice, when you’re really trying to tell them it’s time to get into the car. A child can get confused when their choice isn’t honored and could then be less motivated by choices in the future. When there is no choice, just tell them, “Let’s get into the car now.”

3. However, try to empower your child when you can.

When possible, sneak in a choice to empower your child. Using the above example, give them a choice of which toy they can bring or what song they get to listen to once they get into the car. You are telling them what to do but also helping them feel like they’re in control (when really, you’re calling the shots all along).

Parent check-in

How is it going?

I know it’s hard when you feel like your preschooler isn’t listening to you. Take a deep breath. Odds are your child is not intentionally trying to hurt you. Remember that so much is happening inside their brains at this age. They could be distracted, tired, or hungry; maybe the sky is just too blue today! We all have those tough days. Preschoolers also have such a limited perception of time. Something that seems urgent to you doesn’t necessarily feel the same for them. Just try to keep things in perspective and not take it too personally. Keep your cool and stay consistent. Eventually they’ll get it!

Gentle reminder: If you ever have concerns about your child’s development, trust your gut and reach out to your pediatrician.”

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