Ages & Stages: Learning to Follow Directions

An adult's loving support helps children feel good about cooperating.

  • Grades: Early Childhood, PreK–K

Stage by Stage

0 - 2

Responding to a newborn's cues and encouraging her to respond to yours lays the foundation for more satisfying and cooperative interactions.

Toddlers enjoy following simple requests, but their need to assert themselves makes their compliance unpredictable.

A toddler's awareness of adult expectations and need for approval will encourage cooperation.

3 - 4

Just as learning styles differ from child to child, so does a preschooler's ability to process directions. Children need time and positive reinforcement to accomplish individual tasks.

Preschoolers tend to respond best to simple choices rather than commands.

Even though preschoolers' vocabulary grows rapidly, they need opportunities to learn how to pay attention to what they hear.

5 - 6

At five and six, children have expanded listening skills and a more developed vocabulary, which makes understanding directions easier.

Kindergartners have an easier time following a three- or four-part direction when the steps are given in the proper sequence.

Children enjoy following adult instructions when they are delivered in a fun and playful manner.

0 to 2

"I Can Do That!"  by Carla Poole

"Wave bye-bye, Kate!" Kate's teacher enthusiastically calls to hey as the nine-month-old leaves the center with her mom. Kate looks pensive for a moment and then smiles proudly as she shakes her dimpled arm. Kate feels good about responding to one of her first direct requests. More importantly, her expectations of the world are beginning to take root. Cooperative and satisfying interactions are an important part of her daily life.

Jacob, a lively 12-month old, is eager for his teacher to continue playing Pat-a-Cake, so he reaches over and pushes her hands back together. Feeling quite masterful, he gurgles with delight as she follows his cue and keeps on clapping. Jacob is experiencing "being heard"-a necessary precursor for following directions from others.

Starting Simple

As the junior toddler turns 18 months, her thinking skills begin to change dramatically. She understands more words and can hold onto a mental image of something even when it is out of sight. Her capacity for deferred imitation, when she remembers how an event happened in the past and purposely repeats it, is growing stronger. As a result of this mental growth spurt, she will soon be able to follow simple directions. Nineteen-month-old Julie, for example, retrieves an object from another room when her teacher asks her to. Her teacher knows not to expect Julie to fetch her coat from the hallway, however, when she's in a rush to go out. Toddlers need to assert themselves while learning to be more independent. It takes time to build partnerships that include give and take.

By 24 months, most toddlers can follow two- and three-step directions. Ellen understands when her teacher says: "Please get the doll and blanket and put them in your cubby." In reality, however, it's best to expect toddlers to respond to your request only 50% of the time at most!

Encouraging Cooperation

Thankfully, toddlers possess some characteristics that encourage cooperation, including an awareness of adult expectations: "Uh-oh!" Julie might say when she spills her juice cup. Toddlers are attracted to the grown-up world and enjoy adult approval. They seek challenges but will nevertheless shy away from doing something that seems too difficult. Sometimes what appears to be unwillingness to comply is just a toddler feeling overwhelmed by a request that is too complicated. Your tone of voice influences how toddlers respond to you. Being enthusiastic and respectful when giving directions usually works best. If an honest explanation doesn't convince Jimmy that your request is important, you may have to gently guide him through certain steps. Then express your approval of his efforts. Taking a playful approach with toddlers will help them learn that doing things with you and for you feels good.

What You Can Do

  • Play simple games like How Big Is Baby? So Big! in which a one-year-old lifts her arms up. Such activities help Baby to begin connecting words with actions-the first step toward following directions.
  • Give positive feedback. Instead of always saying "No! "-the most common directive that he hears-be sure to let a toddler know what he can do.
  • Make directions meaningful. When you ask a toddler to help wash vegetables or set the table for lunch, it allows her to make meaningful contributions to the group-and this will boost her self-esteem.

3 to 4

Learning by Doing by Susan A. Miller, EdD

"Anna, please put your crayons in the box. Then put the box away on the art shelf." Anna's teacher speaks directly to her and makes her directions clear and easy for the three-year-old to understand. As a result, Anna responds by happily putting her materials away. Like Anna, most three-year-olds have no trouble following a two-part direction.

By age three, preschoolers have a receptive or understood vocabulary of a little over 1,000 words, to which they add at least 50 more words each month. But children this age are still learning how to listen and pay attention to what they hear. After Keith's teacher announces to the three-year-old group, "Get your coats and line up at the door," she is surprised when she sees Keith standing at the door-without his coat! Because Keith was not focused when she first started speaking, he didn't hear or understand the complete direction. All he heard was, "Line up at the door," which is exactly what he did!

Offering Choices

Threes respond best to simple choices rather than what they perceive as being commands. Scott likes it when Mrs. Keyes asks him, "Do you want to put the blocks on the cart or place the toy trucks in their garage?" Malin enjoys making a decision when her friend Tess wants to know, "Can you diaper our baby, or are you going to fry the pancakes for the daddy?"

Fours can respond to three-part directions if they are delivered in the proper sequence. Jamal yells excitedly to his firefighter friend Owen: "Quick! Grab a hose, put out the fire, and rescue the dog from the house!" Easily able to follow these instructions, four-year-old Owen eagerly seeks approval from his friend and teacher. "Look what I did! I saved the dog!"

Watching and Doing

Some preschoolers are considered to be "field sensitive." They need directions and like to be told exactly how to do something. For example, Andrea asks: "How do I make Liza a birthday card?" She is happy when her teacher demonstrates how to fold the paper while verbally explaining each step. After observing another friend fold her card, Andrea finally feels comfortable trying it on her own.

Other young children may be more "field independent." Carlos is thrilled when he sees small paper bags, yarn, paper scraps, scissors, and glue on the table. "Puppets," he says excitedly. "I can make lions and tigers for the jungle!" Then he sits down and immediately begins to glue some yarn. Field-independent Carlos doesn't need or want directions as he jumps right into activities and explores things his way.

Preschoolers' individual learning styles also influence how they receive, understand, and follow directions. Analytic children enjoy having directions broken down into small parts step-by-step; global learners need to see or understand the whole picture. A child who learns best visually says, "Let me see how to do it," while the auditory child says, "Tell me the way to do it," and the tactile child states, "Let me do it."

It's important to give children directions that relate to their learning styles and involve open-ended questions and two-way communication.

What You Can Do

  • Give positive, concrete suggestions. Let children know what to do rather than telling them what not to do. For example, instead of directing, "Don't run," state, "Walk."
  • Make sure directions are easy to understand. Repeat them slowly or rephrase them in new ways. Remove distractions such as background noise so children can focus their listening skills.
  • Model good listening skills. Spend time with individual children tuning in to what they have to say and talking about their ideas. Good listening is crucial to processing and following directions.
  • Share control. Ask children to help think of different ways to clean up or make transitions. They might come up with creative and unique directions for unexciting but necessary tasks.
  • Make following directions fun. Play games like Giant Steps to sharpen listening skills. Make transitions to new activities interesting by galloping like horses or picking up Legos with lobster claws.
  • Share books with predictable sequences. Stories like If You Give a Mouse a Cookie (HarperCollins, 1985; paper: HarperTrophy, 1997) can help children learn to anticipate the next suggestion in a sequence.

5 to 6

Practice, Practice, Practice!  by Ellen Booth Church

"Can you touch your nose, stick out your tongue, and turn around?" Ever playful Debbie is getting her friends to try different funny movements while they wait for the bus. As her teacher observes this spontaneous interplay, she notices the children who can do all three parts of Debbie's direction and those who get stuck on the first or second action. She notices, too, that some children can follow the directions after repeat tries. Best yet, they are all laughing and having fun-always good ingredients when learning new skills.

One Stop at a Time

Have you ever tried to sub your head and pat your stomach at the same time? That feeling of frustration that many of us get is akin to the experience young children have when they are learning to listen to, understand, and follow directions. It's almost as though there's a short circuit in the process that keeps them from absorbing all the information.

Happily, just like the Head-and-Stomach game, it is a skill that can be learned through conscious step-by-step practice. (Some children learn best through repetition.) And for fives and sixes, practicing steps for a new skill is fun. Children this age have learned the value of listening in life and are becoming good at it-even though it might not appear that way at times!

Learning to Listen

Gideon is calling over the immense block building he is creating with his friend Joya, who is looking slightly puzzled. "Didn't you hear what I just said?" Gideon asks. "Put the top block to the right of the cylinder and above the arch."

Listening is the core ingredient in a child's ability to follow directions. However there are many parts to the listening process. In this situation, Joya not only has to hear what is being said (auditory acuity and perception), she also has to understand the meaning of the sounds and words (auditory comprehension) and interpret them into a sequence of events she must then actuate. When looked at in this detail, it's no wonder that we have such a hard time getting children to follow our directions!

First Things First

"Don't forget to park the wagon after you pick up the toys and close the gate!" the teacher says to Matthew-who responds with a quizzical look. What do I do first? he wonders. Even though fives and sixes have developed a more sophisticated vocabulary and expanded listening skills, they still need to have the steps of a direction stated in a natural order. We cannot assume that children can transpose a direction into chronological order.

One way to be sure that children understand a direction is to ask them to recite the steps back to you in order. This not only helps them to hear the direction again, but it utilizes the skill of speaking to reinforce the process of listening and doing.

What You Can Do

  • Give directions in context. Directions are more meaningful when they're given while a child is trying to accomplish a task or learn a new skill. Offer instructions when he's climbing across a horizontal ladder or learning a new dance step.
  • Draw your directions. Instructions can be delivered visually as well as verbally. Create simple picture recipes by illustrating the steps for making butter or peanut butter "play dough" and have children follow them.
  • Offer movement games. Silly activities such as clothing relay games, clean-up time assembly lines, or silly songs with movements, such as "This Old Man," can make following directions fun. So can other movement games like Simon Says, Follow the Leader, and the ever popular Twister. Invite children to make up their own games using their suggestions for directions and rules.

This article originally appeared in the January, 2000 issue of Early Childhood Today.

  • Subjects:
    Cooperation and Teamwork, Child Development and Behavior, Following Directions
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