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Teaching Children Responsibility: How You Child Can Learn To Follow Directions On Your First Request

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

            As a psychotherapist and licensed School Psychologist for over 30 years, I have heard one question over and over again from parents. "How can I get my child to listen." By "listen," the parent is referring to how to increase the frequency at which a child follows directions on the first request. Unless a child has a serious neurological or sensory disorder, most children who do not readily follow directions have learned, through time and experience, that it is not important to follow directions because my parents will always give me a second chance. When a parent tells a child something two or three times, the parent is teaching the child,  "It is not important to follow directions because I will always be given another chance." Your child will learn that the worst thing that will happen to him for not doing as he has been asked is that you, the parent, will get upset, but that nothing will happen to him.

           The first step in setting up any effective behavior management system within your home is to help your child learn that directions must be followed the first time they are presented. To accomplish that goal, it is important for you, the parent, to get into the habit of telling your child something only once. If the child does not follow directions as you requested, there must be an immediate consequence for his inaction. Preferably, the consequence should be related to whatever the child did that was inappropriate. For example, let's imagine that you have to ask your child to wash his hands and face for dinner and to be at the table in 10 minutes. After 20 minutes, your child still has not followed through on the task. Yelling at your child or repeating the directions would only serve to teach him that he really doesn't have to listen to you. At this point, you must calmly inform your child that he or she did not comply, and then announced to the child exactly what the consequence will be. In this example about coming to the dinner table, an obvious consequence could be that the child would miss evening activities, such as watching TV or using technology. Rather than feel guilty or sympathetic for your child, you would be better advised to tell yourself, "I'd rather see him be a little unhappy tonight and not have to argue with him or coax him for the next 10 years."

            When you do give a  direction to your child, to be fair, it is very important that your direction is very specific. A parent almost has to pretend that he or she is an attorney writing a contract whenever a direction is presented to the child. If the direction is vague, your child could develop some strategy for getting out of it. A clear example I remember is when my son was seven years old, I would ask them each night if he brushed his teeth. He would always respond in the affirmative. After a few days, the odor from his mouth made it obvious to me that he hadn't been brushing his teeth. When I confronted him with this, he pointed out to me that he was telling the truth because he had brushed his teeth, but he brushed it last week. The error that I made was that I did not ask him when he brushed his teeth. Because my question was not precise, my son's answer was honest and correct, and I could not give him a consequence. The lesson is that you must be very specific and exact in giving a direction. Also, it is helpful to make sure you have eye contact with the child when presenting a direction.

            When you try to teach her child to follow directions on the first request, it is important that you do not give your child any suggestions or hints, such as "Don't you remember the rule? Didn't I just tell you to do something? If you don't do it, you know what is going to happen." Statements such as these are the same as repeating directions a second time. Your child should be told something only once, after which either the child complies, and if he doesn’t, there is a consequence for non-compliance. Of course, positive behavior must be reinforced. When you ask a child to do something and he does follow directions, it is important that you recognize his compliance and praise the child. Your child needs to learn through experience that before he can participate in pleasurable activities, such as going out to play, he must first fulfill requirements such as homework, household chores or taking care of his pet. I call this grandma's rule: First you work, then you play.

            It is extremely important that you be consistent when you begin to teach your child to follow directions on the first request. If the child learns from experience that one out of five times the direction will be repeated to him, he will subconsciously know that he has a 20% chance of getting away with it, and he will continue not complying to beat the odds. Therefore, consistency in not repeating a direction to a child is extremely important. There is no way the child will learn to follow directions if you only occasionally enforce the requirement that he listen.

            As you work with your child to help him increase the frequency of following directions, it is important that you keep emotions out of any situation. If your child learns that by not "listening" to you, you will get upset or have an emotional reaction, your reaction may actually be strengthening his non-compliance. He might get some satisfaction out of seeing that he can control you by making you upset. You will only become upset if you convince yourself how awful it is that your child is not listening. Instead, take the attitude that if my child does not listen to me, it is his problem not mine. He takes the consequences-- not me.

            There many advantages to helping a child learn to follow directions. This can carry over to school, sports, and other responsibilities. So the next time your child is not "listen" to you, remember that he probably is not "listening" because he has learned over time that you will give him second or third chances. By requiring him to follow directions on the first request, you staying calm, and providing consequences for non-compliance, in a few weeks you could see a dramatic increase in the frequency your child follows directions. Don't get frustrated if he gets a little worse at first because he might be testing you. He might think that you, the parent, will give up on this consequence if  he doesn’t go along with it.




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