Learning

Attention, please

The ability to pay attention affects a child’s daily life, especially at school, where being able to sit still, listen and follow instruction is paramount. At home, unquestioning obedience can be a matter of life and death when it comes to road safety and other high-risk situations. And longer-term, the ability to follow instructions helps children to learn self-control and other positive behaviours needed in adulthood.

Published

...most children under seven years old are not capable of fully understanding why instructions need to be followed.

Ages and stages

Children develop at their own pace, so there’s no right time to introduce the concept of following instructions. But it’s a good idea to begin in the first year, so that babies can get used to the idea of ‘No’ and ‘Yes’ for safety reasons, for instance ‘No, don’t touch the fire!’

At two years old, you could issue simple instructions such as ‘Sit down, please’ and gradually build up to more complex requests. Toddlers learn by repetition, so be consistent.

With pre-schoolers, you could try including two components, such as ‘Please bring me the blue cup and put it on the table.’ At this age, you can also employ the tactic of delaying rewards as in ‘You can watch Peppa Pig once you’ve got dressed’. Stick to your guns and don’t make empty threats.

As children develop and learn more about co-operation, you can offer more explanations for your instructions. You might also introduce an element of choice, for instance: ‘Would you like to wear the red or the blue hat?’

Safety first

According to renowned psychologist Dr Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, most children under seven years old are not capable of fully understanding why instructions need to be followed.

This impacts on how you present small children with important demands which need to be complied with immediately. ‘Please’ and ‘thank you’ are two of the most important words your children will ever learn. But an emphasis on good manners can undermine you when you need your child to respond to instructions quickly and without a fuss. If your child is running into the road, you might say ‘Stop’ or ‘Don’t run’, not ‘Please don’t run into the road’.

Sometimes parents even hesitate to ask children to do anything without wordy negotiation and polite explanation, but this may not be especially helpful with very small children. Children from 7 to 11 years are capable of logical thinking and therefore more open to negotiation and explanation.

Steps to success

  • Make a decision – is this an instruction or a question? Avoid instructions disguised as questions, such as ‘Shall we..?’ or ‘Could you..?’ They give children a get-out clause (‘No!’).
  • Practice telling, rather than asking, with a friend or partner. It can feel impolite to use instructing instead of questioning vocabulary. Starting sentences with ‘Can you?’ is a very hard habit to break, but it’s the right approach in some situations with children.
  • Never issue long-distance instructions – they lose their power. Go right up (about arm’s length), get down on their level, establish eye contact, say their name, and only then issue a polite instruction, using words like ‘please’ or ‘thank you’. For example: ‘Ben, put your coat on, please’.
  • Maintain focus while talking to your child. After all, we can’t expect to capture a child’s attention if we’re not giving them ours!
  • Keep it simple. Instructions should be brief and clear, without long-winded explanation. Tell your child what he should do, not what he shouldn't. Say ‘Please put the bowl down’ instead of ‘Stop playing with that bowl’. Remember to stay with the child until the task is completed.
  • TV and other screen games can be a huge distraction to getting children to do what you ask. It can be especially problematic in the mornings when many parents feel like they’re already battling against the clock.
  • Relax your sense of timing unless things really need to be done immediately. Most of the time younger children genuinely don’t understand urgency.
  • Be generous and consistent with praise. When children co-operate, lavish them with praise. Make sure there’s no sting in the tail, though. Praise such as ‘Well done for making your bed – it’s a shame you don’t do it every morning’ isn’t helpful!
  • Turn instructions into songs. Try a ‘Get dressed!’ jingle.
  • Hide a favourite toy and tell your child how to find it using very simple instructions.
  • Library storytime sessions are a great opportunity to practice co-operating with another adult while sitting down together and listening.

We all promise ourselves that we won’t use those annoying phrases that our parents did, but despite our best efforts, most of us have blurted out ‘Because I say so!’ or ‘Do as I say’ at some point when the going gets tough.

Setting the tone

Parents and children’s professionals alike agree that the tone of voice you use is critical. A positive, calm tone is far more likely to be met with co-operation. It can be useful to calmly ask your child to repeat the instruction back to you. It puts paid to any tearful protests of ‘I didn't understand!’ or ‘I didn’t hear you!’ later on.

Make it fun

As with so many things in life, it helps if you can make it fun. Try these fun ways of getting children to do as they are asked:

  • Play a game of Simon Says. ‘Simon says please touch your toes. Simon says please pick up Teddy’ . . . . .
  • Hold competitions, such as ‘Who can do up their buttons the fastest?’
  • Emphasise teamwork and success with praise like ‘We did that really well!’

Because I say so

We all promise ourselves that we won’t use those annoying phrases that our parents did, but despite our best efforts, most of us have blurted out ‘Because I say so!’ or ‘Do as I say’ at some point when the going gets tough. Clearly, this approach is not very effective when it comes to securing the daily co-operation of your little ones! There are certain occasions, though, when it’s completely forgivable, like road safety or accident prevention. In high-risk situations parents will – quite rightly – say just about anything to avoid a potential catastrophe.

Daydreaming

Most of us spend at least a third of our waking hours daydreaming. Not always relevant to your current situation, daydreams are often spontaneous thoughts, creations or recollections of past experiences.

In the 1960s, US psychologist Dr Jerome L Singer discovered that children’s daydreaming ‘network’ starts at around two years of age and becomes firmly established during the early school years. Often regarded as a sign of laziness or time-wasting, daydreaming is in fact necessary for healthy brain development – just like sleeping.

Although little daydreamers can find it harder to pay attention to instructions, it’s not all bad news. A substantial body of research links daydreaming with creativity, healthy social development and strong academic performance.

All children daydream and ignore some requests. Excessive daydreaming can be a sign of other problems if children retreat into a fantasy world, use it as a defence mechanism or have an attention deficit disorder. If you’re worried about your child's daydreaming, talk to their teacher.

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