Kids Not Listening? Give Instructions That Work

Instructions that work.jpg

Have you ever caught yourself using an expression with your children and seen the puzzled look on their faces?  Once children are about four or five years old they will ask us to explain what a word means.  However, there is the potential for miscommunication when we give young children instructions because they may not understand the word phrases we use.

Child caregivers are often faced with busy moments during the day.  During these moments it is sometimes easy to give directions or instructions without thinking carefully about the words used.

Directions such as, “be nice”, ‘share’, ‘calm down’, ‘focus’, ‘be patient’ are all abstract concepts that are hard to understand for children.

What exactly does, “be patient” mean to a three year old?  Does it mean don’t talk? Does it mean sit down?  Does it mean keep your whole body still?  Does it mean find an activity to keep yourself busy while you wait?  And what type of activity would qualify?  A book? A puzzle? A ball?

A child may believe they are being patient according to their understanding of the term.  The child may not know how long they are supposed to sit still.  Being patient may mean sit down for one minute or maybe until further instruction. When does the time start and finish?

Adult terms are full of fuzzy areas for most young children.  If you are currently struggling with a child understanding instructions, you might want to re-phrase your request using clear, concrete terminology.  Or you might want to give a visual example of what the term means.  The clearer you make the request, the higher the chances that the child will be able to understand the expectation.

For example, if you want a child to ‘be patient’ while you prepare lunch try explaining your own personal definition of being patient in this situation.  Make sure to give the child clear guidelines on what they CAN do while they are demonstrating patience and what they CAN NOT do.  Think about how you define patience in terms of body movements and verbal communication.

I’m sure with some extra guidance your child will soon come to understand your meaning behind your instructions.  Be patient. They are new at this. 🙂



  1. Great advice! I struggle with this, and luckily my daughter will remind me with a quizzical look when she has no idea what I mean.

  2. Great advice, thanks for linking up to our Parenting Pin-it Party.

  3. You are so, so, so right! What great advice.

    (And I love your site)