A Simple Way to Help Preschoolers Follow Directions

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine

When I spend time with preschool-aged children, I am overjoyed by their interest in the world and their eagerness to share their experiences. Young children tend to have an intense focus that I wish I could recapture.

It is usually refreshing to be in the presence of such focus, but there is a downside. Preschool-aged children often do not follow directions the first time they are given, either because they are absorbed in their own activities or for other reasons. This can be frustrating for caregivers who find themselves endlessly repeating requests or raising their voices. Yet even when caregivers ask many times or yell, young children often continue to be less cooperative than we would wish. Fortunately, there is another way!

Education and psychology researchers have developed a strategy called “three-step prompting” or “Tell them — Show them — Help them.” This approach has been shown to help typically developing children and those with developmental disabilities learn to cooperate with directions. Although the strategy requires some extra effort from the parent or caregiver in the beginning, with practice children learn to follow directions the first time they are given.

Here is how to use this strategy:

Tell them

* Give your child a direction and wait about 10 seconds.

* If your child cooperates with the direction, show your appreciation!

* If your child does not follow the direction, move to Step 2.

Show them

* Go to your child and bend down on his/her level. Repeat the direction and show your child what you want him/her to do.

* Demonstrate how to follow the direction, even if you are sure your child knows. Approaching your child and demonstrating the task shows your child that you care enough about this direction to take action.

* If your child follows the direction this time, thank him or her.

* If your child still does not follow the direction, move to Step 3.

Help them

* Gently move your child’s body to follow the direction.

* If your child resists, remain gentle but firm; physically guide your child to do as you asked.

* Once the task is done, thank your child.

An example of Three-Step Prompting in action:

Mom: “Jack, put on your coat!” [Jack continues playing with his toys. Mom walks over to Jack and kneels down in front of him.]

Mom: “Put on your coat like this.” [Mom picks up Jack’s coat and mimes putting an arm in a sleeve.] “Now you do it.” [Jack does not put on his coat. Mom takes Jack’s hand and physically guides him to pick up the coat. She physically guides Jack to place one arm in each sleeve.]

Mom: “Thank you for putting on your coat.”

With this approach, children learn that cooperation is expected each time a caregiver gives a direction. Ignoring the direction or arguing does not win the child more time playing, nor does it allow the child to avoid a disliked activity. Plus, many children are motivated to do things independently; they will begin to follow directions quickly if they experience that stalling results in adult guidance.

Your child will need to experience this approach a few times before you can expect to see a change in behavior. Stick with it for a few weeks, implementing the approach any time your child does not follow a direction. The effort is well worth the improvement in cooperation!

Kelsey Ruppel is a board certified behavior analyst with 10 years’ experience working with children and families. She is currently the associate director of the Life Skills Clinic at Western New England University, where she is pursuing her Ph.D. in Behavior Analysis. Life Skills Clinic staff conduct child-centered research and currently have openings for participants in a home-based program for children with autism. The purpose of the study is to better understand how professionals can coach parents of young children with autism to teach their children communication, play, and cooperation skills. If you live in the greater Springfield or Worcester areas, your child is between the ages of 3 and 6 and has been diagnosed with autism, and you would be willing to participate in research on a parent-delivered teaching program, contact the clinic at (413) 796-2509 or kelsey.ruppel@wne.edu.