Getting Kids to Listen the First Time You Speak

Get kids to listen by giving effective instructions.

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Whether your child tunes you out when you tell him to pick up his toys or he keeps banging on the table when you tell him to stop, getting your child to listen can feel like an uphill battle sometimes.

In today's digital world, getting kids to listen can seem like an even tougher challenge than ever before. You're competing against TV, video games, and lots of other distractions to capture your child's attention.

Of course, electronics aren't the only reason kids don't follow directions. They also tend to have selective hearing.

But the good news is, a few simple changes to the way you give directions can be the key to getting your child to listen the first time you speak.

Get Rid of Distractions

Yelling instructions from across the house while your child plays video games or scrolls through social media isn't likely to be effective.

Get rid of any distractions before attempting to make a request or give directions. Start by saying, "Put down your phone, please," or "Pause your game for a minute so I can talk to you."

Once you have your child's full attention, give your instructions. If your child struggles to pause his show or put down his electronics, you may need to work on that behavior. Tell him you will take away his electronics privileges if he can't disengage when you tell him it's time to take a break.

When possible, establish eye contact just to make sure you have their full attention. For some kids, such as kids with ADHD, a hand on the shoulder can be an added way to ensure you have your child's full attention.

Tell, Don’t Ask

One of the most common mistakes parents make when giving directions, is to ask, not tell. When you ask your child to do something, you imply he has the option to say no.

If you ask, “Can you please pick up the toys?” even a mildly oppositional child will say “No!” Instead, say, “Please pick up the toys now.”

Give your child a five-minute warning whenever possible. Instead of saying, “Go clean your room right now,” when your child is in the middle of playing, say, “In five minutes it will be time to stop playing and clean your room.”

Then, when those five minutes have passed, say, “It is time to stop playing and clean your room now.” This is a respectful way to give your child time to prepare to switch activities.

Give One Instruction at a Time

Young children — and children with attention problems — don't respond well to multiple directions at once. Saying, “Put your backpack away, pick up your socks, and put your dirty jeans in the washing machine,” can cause your child to miss a step or two along the way.

Start with one instruction at a time. Wait until your child completes the first task before giving new instructions.

Some older kids and teenagers can handle a couple of directions at once and they should have the ability to work their way through a list. Say things like, “It is time to do your chore list,” and your child can accept responsibility for completing each task on the list.

Ask Your Child to Repeat Your Directions out Loud

After you give an instruction, ask your child to repeat back what he heard. This can ensure that he understands your expectations and it gives you an opportunity to clarify if there's any confusion.

You might find he needs an explanation about what to do. Or, you might discover that he sometimes says, "OK," but has no idea what you said. If he doesn't understand, repeat your instructions until he does.

Reinforce Positive Behavior

When your child follows your directions provide positive consequences to reinforce his good behavior. Praise his compliance by saying something like, “Great job cleaning your room right when I asked you to."

If your child has done a great job listening, give him a surprise reward every once in a while. Or, establish a formal reward system or token economy system to motivate him to keep up the good work.

Provide a Negative Consequence for Non-Compliance

If your child doesn't follow your instructions, provide a single if...then warning. Say, "If you don't clean your room right now, you'll lose electronics for the rest of the night."

If your child doesn't comply, follow through with a negative consequence. Take away a privilege, such as electronics, for up to 24 hours.

After you've given your child consequences for not following directions, he should learn that you mean business the first time you speak. Over time, he should become more compliant with your instructions.

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