Effective Instructions


What are instructions?

Instructions are requests or commands from an adult to a child.  They are a natural, common aspect of adult-child interactions. Whenever an adult and a child interact, it’s very likely that the adult will have to provide instructions at some point to communicate a request, ensure safety/order, etc. This is particularly true when considering the relationship between a parent and their child.

Why is effective instruction important?

In general, our ability to give effective instructions has an impact on a child’s ability to follow through with those instructions. If children are not sure what the parent is asking of them, it’s difficult for them to follow through!  To optimize the child’s chances of success, it’s important that instructions are clear, concise, and well-timed.

Here are some things to consider when giving effective instructions:

What to focus onInstead of…How about…
Be Specific“Behave now!”“Sit down in your chair now.”
State an instruction in a positive manner
(Describe what you want to see, rather than what you don’t want to see)
“Stop grabbing things.”“Keep your hands next to your sides”
Make developmentally-appropriate requests
(Keep instructions brief for younger children)
“Get out of the bathroom, go change into pajamas, get your clothes out for school tomorrow, and get into bed”“Get out of the bathroom” (and wait before giving the next instructions)
If you want them to do it alone, state it in that wayLet’s put the dishes in the sink““Please put the dishes in the sink now”
If you want them to do it rather than giving them an option, state it that way“Can you please put the dishes in the sink?“
(phrased as question)
“Please put the dishes in the sink now”
(phrased as statement)
Get your child’s attentionYelling an instruction from across the roomGet to the child’s level and make eye contact
Reduce or remove distractionsGiving instructions while the child is watching TVAsk the child to pause the TV before giving instructions
Be sure your voice conveys that you want somethingBeing too soft-spoken, angry, or loudUse a firm but neutral voice
Ensure understandingAssuming your child heard and understood what you askedAsk your child to repeat what you asked them to do
Timing of when you make a requestAsking your child to end a fun activity abruptlyProvide a transition warning: ”In five minutes you will have to turn off the TV and start your homework”.
After the five minutes, state, “Five minutes are up, please turn the TV off and start your homework.
Be sure to praise the child for follow-through!
Pay attention to whether your child listens and does what you askGiving an instruction and walking awayWait to see if your child has followed though and provide praise when they do
Minimize amount of instructions and ensure follow-throughAsking a child to do something and then not checking up on task completion; repeating yourself; waiting for your child, but then doing the requested task yourselfProvide instructions that:
– You think are worth following up on, 
– You have time to follow up on, and 
– You are willing to provide consequences for

Between-Session Practice

When will you practice improving the instructions/requests/commands you give? (Remember to be specific!)

Tip: It’s often easier to pick a specific time of the day/activity/place to focus on the way you give instructions. This way, you can be intentional about practicing it, rather than trying to work on your instructions throughout the entire day from the get-go. It’s helpful to avoid times that are stressful or when you are in a time crunch. Quality is more important than quantity in the beginning. 


What are some ways you can remember to practice? Who can help support you and remind you to use more effective instructions?



Recording what you’re doing is a helpful way to know how things are going. Here is a table that can help you:

DateTime/activity when you used more effective instructionsHow well you did Your child’s response
😀 🙂 😐 🙁😀 🙂 😐 🙁
😀 🙂 😐 🙁😀 🙂 😐 🙁
😀 🙂 😐 🙁😀 🙂 😐 🙁
😀 🙂 😐 🙁😀 🙂 😐 🙁
😀 🙂 😐 🙁😀 🙂 😐 🙁
😀 🙂 😐 🙁😀 🙂 😐 🙁
😀 🙂 😐 🙁😀 🙂 😐 🙁