How to Help Your Kid Learn to Follow Directions

Dear Kid Whisperer,

My 4-year-old daughter’s teacher has been pulling me aside at pick-up time to tell me, “Your daughter did not listen today.”  All I know to do is tell the teacher, “Thank you for letting me know. I am working on this at home as well.” So, how should I work on this at home? -Anise,  Newark, New Jersey


It is so important for kids to be able to listen and follow directions. Unfortunately, lecturing about the importance of these skills doesn’t help. Do you remember ignoring your own parents’ and teachers’ pleas about following directions? I do too.

You made a good choice to not get angry in the moment and you told the teacher that you would be doing something about it later, even though you had absolutely no idea what you were going to do.

You are going to teach your daughter how to be a good listener without any anger, punishments, lectures, or threats. Since you will be calmly teaching instead of angrily punishing, you will be able to improve your relationship with your daughter instead of making your relationship worse.

When you are bad at something, you need to practice until you are good at it. It’s a fact of life. All you will have to do is have her practice listening and following directions. Here’s how I would do it the moment I got home from her school.

Kid Whisperer: Oh, man. I was sad to hear that you are not listening to directions at school. I guess that makes sense, since you have been struggling with listening to directions at home too. Ugh. It’s OK to struggle with things, and I’m not mad about it. I am just going to have you practice listening so that you can do it right at both home and school. We are going to start practicing listening to directions right now. I will tell you to do something, and then you will practice by doing it. Tonight you will practice listening to directions about doing just two things: folding the towels and drying all of the dishes after I wash them. Which would you like to start with?

Kid: Folding the towels?

Kid Whisperer: Alright (while taking out a load of towels from the dryer). Now listen to the directions: Fold each towel into a nice, neat rectangle like this (Kid Whisperer models folding a towel).

Kid reluctantly does what she is told.

Kid Whisperer: I notice you following directions!!!!

Kid: This is easy.

Kid Whisperer continues to give explicit instructions for how to best fold towels, while then noticing the positive behaviors. Kid Whisperer folds the towels with Kid. If Kid stops doing what she should be doing, the only words that Kid Whisperer says are “What should you do now?” while not looking up and while continuing with the towels.

Once the folding is done, Kid Whisperer gives Kid a huge, emotional hug, and they move on to the dishes, with Kid Whisperer washing and Kid drying. The same method is repeated. Kid Whisperer makes sure to keep noticing the positive behaviors. Once the dishes are done, Kid Whisperer speaks with great excitement and emotion:

Kid Whisperer: Are you an expert at listening now?

Kid: YES, I AM!

Kid Whisperer: I THINK YOU ARE TOO! I AM SO PROUD OF YOU!!!! Now, tomorrow and every day at school from now on will be a test to make sure that you learned how to listen. When I pick you up from school, I will ask your teacher if you listened. If you did, that will be great. If not, you can practice listening after school. Either way, I love you and am proud of you. Good luck tomorrow. Isn’t life exciting?

If she refuses, that’s great. Her non-school life will stop until she practices successfully. No activities will happen until she shows you that she is good at listening to directions. Your actions, not your words, have taught your daughter that listening and following directions leads to success!