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The Keys to Giving Good Directions

Updated: Aug 14, 2020

Normally we would never strive for Cs, but for this, hear me out. It’s pretty common as a parent and as a therapist I find myself repeating requests, directions, commands, etc. There’s a multitude of reasons this may take place. For example, someone is not listening, not paying attention, does not understand, or doesn’t want to follow through. We could spend time focusing on all those different examples but that seems overwhelming. Why not focus on one change YOU can do?

It’s mostly common knowledge that children need directions given to them in short and one step increments. Yet I know it’s true of myself that at times I’ll overload the directions with a lot of steps and details. When that’s the case it’s almost inevitable that the tasks do not get completed and I find myself repeating directions…a lot. It’s so easy to say, “They aren’t listening.” Or “They aren’t following directions.” It is not out of the ordinary to label kids as distracted, forgetful, or defiant.

Let’s flip the script. Let’s say it’s “us” and not “them.” What can I do differently to improve the likelihood that kids will follow through? What would happen if I changed how directions, request, etc. are delivered? How would I do that? Let’s try the “3 Cs” and see what happens.

Directions should be:

Clear: This means that they should be easy to perceive, understand, and interpret. They should be free from yelling, assumptions, and implications. They should be delivered in a language, tone, and context that both parties understand. They should be void of distractions, yours and theirs. No yelling them out from the other room, as you walk by, or while they are playing video games. Make eye contact.

Concise: Directions should be short and to the point. Brief but comprehensive. With children, they should come one step at a time. They should be direct.

Complete: Directions should have all the necessary and appropriate parts. They should be specific in their details so that all expectations are known.

A bad example: “Clean your room.” It’s not clear, not concise, not complete. There is a lot of information missing. Clean your room to one may mean something different to another. Are we talking about dusting and vacuuming or just putting toys away? We need to make that clear. A good example: “Put your blue t-shirt on the white hanger.” They, and you, know exactly what needs to be done. Ask questions to see if they received the message. Avoid unrealistic expectations for yourself and for them. Set yourself and your children up for success. As they grow and improve you can slowly add steps. And as the behaviors have been repeated and learned then more vague directions can be made. For example, once all the steps and expectations have been identified and learned (e.g. vacuuming, putting toys away, putting clothes away, etc.) then you can start to say “clean your room” because everyone knows what that means.

If you’re finding that this isn’t working maybe talking to a professional would help. There are many reasons people, especially children, struggle. There are also different groups, classes for parents, and individual services available to those in need.

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