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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Kaminski, Ph.D., BCBA-D, LBA(VA)

7 Simple Tips to Better Instruction-Following

After your child has learned a skill, why is it sometimes really hard to get them to do it when asked? You have spent a lot of time teaching your child how to put on their shoes. Now, you just need to get out of the door. And those little feet are still shoe-less. What's going on??

One reason might be because there is a difference between knowing how to do something and being able to do it when asked. When the problem stems from difficulties with instruction-following in general, the solution can lie in changing how we ask (and, because I know that you are already thinking it, yes, there are other reasons, too). Luckily, there are some strategies for how to give kids instructions that they are more likely to be able to follow.

#1. Make sure that you have your child’s attention BEFORE you ask them to do something

Your child will definitely not follow your instructions if they haven’t heard them. Make sure that your child listened to the instructions. Try having them repeat the instruction back to you.

#2. Make sure that they understand what you have asked them to do. Use fewer, simpler words.

Using too many “filler” words or complicated words makes it less likely they will be able to pay attention to the important information in your instruction. If you have ever tried to put together IKEA furniture, then you know how frustrating it can be to follow instructions that are confusing. And while we want our kids to learn new and more complicated words and phrases, there are better times to help them learn new language than when you are also asking them to complete some task you have given them.

#3. Make sure that they are able to follow the number of steps required in what you have asked. Give fewer directions at a time.

Some children need instructions broken into smaller steps. If your child refuses to do follow instructions involving multiple steps, try asking them to complete fewer steps at a time. For example, instead of “scrape your plate into the trash and then put your plate in the sink” try” “walk to the trash can with your plate,” “scrape the extra food into the trash,” and “put your plate in the sink” with time between each instruction for your child to complete that step of the task.

#4. Make sure that you aren’t leaving “gaps” in the instructions.

The “broken down” instruction above, while relatively clear and detailed, still leaves out lots of smaller steps. For example, if your trash can has a lid, then there is at least one more step between “walk to the trash can with your plate” and “scrape the extra food into the trash.” Leaving it out could lead to food scraps in a messy pile on top of your trash can. I don’t know if you have ever seen any “peanut butter and jelly sandwich challenge” videos but in them kids tell their parents how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. And the parents follow the directions exactly. For example, an instruction such as “put the peanut butter on the bread” might lead to the parent putting the unopened peanut butter jar on top of an unopened loaf of bread. We might think the unspoken steps are obvious. But to our kids, they might not be.

#5. It is okay to tell your child: “first [what I ask], then [something good].”

Reminding your child that they need to complete some task in order to have access to something that they like isn’t the same as bribing. As long as you have told your child that from the beginning. Consider these two scenarios:

Scenario 1.

You: “It’s time to brush your teeth.”

Child: “No. No. No.”

You: “If you brush your teeth, I will let you watch one more video when you are done.”

Scenario 2:

You: “Tooth brushing time! When you are done you can watch one more video”

Child: “No. No. No.”

You: “Remember, first tooth brushing, then video.”

The first is bribing. The second is simply telling them the expectation and what they will get for completing it.

#6. Don’t forget to let your child know that you appreciate the instruction following with praise and/or access to the “then” i#1. tem/activity.

If they are expecting some “reward” then, be sure to provide it. Regardless, praise your child for following your direction. And I am just going to confront the most common objection head on. “I shouldn’t have to praise/reward a child for doing what is expected.” Autism makes some things that are easy for most kids much harder. Following instructions is one of those things, for reasons that differ from child to child but can include difficulty with understanding language, trouble focusing, and things that interfere with memory. They need to work extra hard to do what you are asking and that means that they need a little something extra to recognize that hard work.

#7. Don’t forget to consider what else is happening when you ask. Does doing what you asked require a transition? Interrupting something they like?

Sometimes the problem you are encountering has nothing to do with whether they can follow your instruction, as in the examples above, but whether they will follow the instruction. Transitions away from things they enjoy doing deserves a whole separate blog and we will tackle that next quarter!

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