Tips to Get Toddlers to Follow Directions

July 3, 2023

Does your child often have difficulty following directions? It's a common problem and a source of frustration for many parents. For example, we might say, "Can you give your diaper that's over there on the floor next to the remote to Daddy? He's in your room." And then your toddler just stares at you.

It's essential to understand why children have difficulty listening and responding to instructions so that, as a parent, you can effectively address the problem. There are also some effective strategies you can use to help your little one develop the skill of listening and understanding what we expect from them. 

Mom playing with toddler son

Toddlers Often Have Trouble Taking in a Lot of Information at Once

As adults, we often give directions to children as we do to other adults.

However, toddlers often have trouble processing all that information at one time. Here are some reasons why this is the case:

  • They have a limited attention span and may become easily distracted or overstimulated. 
  • Toddlers are still developing their language skills and may not understand complex sentences or unfamiliar words. 
  • Cognitive skills are still being developed, including memory and problem-solving abilities. 

What To Expect

It’s helpful to know what is expected at your toddler’s age so that you have realistic expectations.

1-2 years

  • Follows 1-step directions with cues (gestures like pointing, etc)
  • By 18 months, toddlers can consistently understand/follow simple 1-step directions without cues, such as “give me the shovel” and “go get the ball”)--don’t confuse understanding with obeying! If your child looks at the shovel and back and you and then decides to run away with a smirk on their face…they’ve understood your direction.
  • Follows directions to find 2 familiar objects
  • Follows simple spatial directions, such as in and on
  • Understands the concept of another

2-3 years

  • By age 2, we see toddler’s consistently following 2-step directions such as “Go get your shoes and bring them to me”
  • Follows directions that include action + adverb (such as “walk slowly”) or action + adjective (such as “give me the blue cup”)
  • Can distinguish between in and under and one and many
  • Understands number concepts of one and two
  • Understands the difference between size concepts of big and little
  • Understands in, on, off, under, out of, together, away from
  • Begins to understand time concepts of soon, later, and wait 

Tips You Can Use

To help your toddler process information more effectively, here are some tips you can try:

  1. Use visual support like pictures  can help your toddler understand and remember the sequence of tasks more effectively (e.g., what happens first, next, and last).
  2. Break instructions or information down into smaller, more manageable parts to help your toddler process it more easily. Avoid giving too many directions at once.
  3. Pair your directions with gestures⁠ (point, act it out).
  4. Give your child more support when it's a new direction (show them how to do it)⁠.
  5. Emphasize important words in the direction⁠ ("put it on TOP").
  6. Repeating important information can help reinforce it in your toddler's memory.
  7. Create a routine around familiar directions so your child learns what to expect, for example, throwing their diaper away after a change, getting their shoes (that are always in the same spot) when it’s time to leave the house, putting their clothes in the hamper before a bath, etc.

So let's look at the first example given. Here are some ways to make it easier for your toddler to follow: *pointing to the diaper* "Get your diaper!" Then once they've picked it up, "give it to daddy," walking with them to the bedroom and pausing at the door while pointing to Daddy.

Continue Your Toddler’s Learning

Toddlers are undoubtedly inquisitive and eager learners. It is our duty as parents to help them understand instructions with guidance and love. From basic activities like learning to put away toys, cooperating at daycare, and eating properly, understanding instructions can help your child develop essential skills.

With the right strategies and support, parents and their toddlers can work together towards a better understanding of instructions. If you're looking for how you can further your toddler's learning experiences, attend my free online workshop designed specifically to offer assistance with these developmental stages. Join me and many other happy parents in reinforcing the extraordinary potential of your little one!

Happy Talking!

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