Following Instructions

photo of three children putting blocks away

Following instructions is important in helping children learn new skills and function well in different environments. Instructions can teach children new skills step by step, or let them know what to do next.

Instructions can have different levels of difficulty. A one-step instruction such as “Get your shoes,” has only one piece of information that needs to be followed. A two-step instruction such as “Get your shoes and put them on,” has two pieces of information or steps that need to be followed.

As a parent, teacher or early childhood professional, you can help your child learn to follow instructions by considering her developmental level and the difficulty of the instruction. You may need to simplify or break down the instruction to ensure success.

Breaking down the Task

Though some children quickly learn skills through watching and following others, many children need the new skill to be broken down into smaller steps and to be allowed time to master each step in the sequence. The breaking down of complex skills into smaller parts is called task analysis. Anything we do can be broken down into smaller steps.

For example:

Asha has difficulty with following the instructions to tidy up her toys. When asked to tidy up, Asha continues to play. When asked a second time, she throws a toy. Asha is using problem behaviour to tell us, “I don’t want to tidy up – I want to keep playing!” To teach Asha to follow the instruction to tidy up, we will first have to break down the steps for her:

  1. Select which items Asha will need to put away.
  2. Teach Asha to pick up one item at a time.
  3. Encourage Asha to put the items in the appropriate spot (e.g. container, basket, shelf, etc.).
  4. If possible, continue until all the items that need to be put away are cleared.

Teaching the New Skill

Teaching a new skill involves preparation – whether it is means setting aside a specific time to teach the skill or collecting materials. When you are teaching a new skill, consider using visuals, such as photos or picture symbols that represent each step. In some instances, visual aides support your child in understanding what is expected of her.

In order for your child to learn the steps to a new skill, you could provide assistance or “prompt” along the way. A prompt is a cue or hint meant to help your child perform a desired behaviour or part of a skill.

Let’s take a look at how we can help Asha follow through with each step:

  • Give Asha a verbal warning that play time is almost finished. You could say, “Two more minutes then tidy up!”
  • Prior to the actual tidy up time, you could remove any excess items from Asha’s play area so as to avoid overwhelming her.
  • Once the two-minute warning to tidy up has come, sing the “Tidy Up” song for Asha to hear.
  • One of the prompts Asha may need is gentle hand-over-hand assistance to place one item in the basket. Select the item that is closest to Asha and if necessary, bring the container closer to her.
  • As soon as Asha completes the tidy-up instruction, we can direct her to the next activity.

When teaching a new skill such as “tidying up,” we should only expect Asha to tidy up one item initially. Once Asha becomes familiar with the new expectation and routine, we can reduce the amount of physical prompting from hand-over-hand to a gentle tap on the elbow or shoulder, model the behaviour and so on. The goal is to eventually fade out the amount of support we are providing to Asha, so she can tidy up on her own. As Asha requires less help, we can gradually increase the number of items from one to two, three and four she will be expected to pick up.

Remember just as following instructions are an important skill for children to learn, how you give instructions is equally important as well.

Here are a few tips to follow, when giving your child an instruction:

  • Make sure the instruction you give is clear as well as developmental or age appropriate.
  • See that you have your child’s attention, when you give the instruction. This may involve calling her by name and or giving a gentle touch.
  • Use visual prompts to help your child understand your request.
  • Remember to give your child enough time to respond to your request. Say the instruction then WAIT for a response.
  • Model the appropriate response for your child to follow, when necessary.

Giving Reinforcement

Reinforcement is anything that motivates or encourages your child. It is any environmental event that maintains or strengthens an action or behaviour. Reinforcers may involve offering a verbal praise, a special activity, music or song, and toys. Reinforcement is a reward that occurs or is given after a desired behaviour.

It is important to motivate and reward your child when she is learning a new skill. It helps her stay on track and provides a better understanding of what is required or expected of her. By rewarding your child for participating in the routine and learning the required steps to the task, you are helping to shape the behaviour or outcome.

In our example, we will provide verbal praise for Asha’s efforts in tidying up and following the instructions. We can say, “You put the toy in the basket; great tidying up!”

Both parents and teachers could also carry mini daily schedules with them throughout the day. Asha can be shown the picture of the upcoming activity (which is highly preferred) to help her understand what the reward for tidying up will be. We can also say, “First tidy up, then snack time” while showing her the picture of snack time. Once Asha has tidied up, she can hold the picture as a transition helper while walking to the next activity.

Generalizing the New Skill

A new skill can be applied in different environments, with other people, under various conditions. For some children, learning to tidy up at the child care centre or at home does not necessarily mean that they are going to perform this skill elsewhere, or with anyone other than the person who taught them.

In our example, we help Asha generalize this skill by:

  • Having everyone involved teach the same skill by using the same techniques.
  • Teaching the skill in several different locations around the classroom or home (e.g. during indoor and outdoor free play time, cubby area, lunch time and during the washroom routine).

Remember, teaching your child to follow directions will take time and patience. Keep practicing and it will get easier.

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