Parents frequently lament that they have so much trouble getting their children to follow oral directions at home.  You hear, “ I have to tell him 50 times” or “she just ignores me until I have to scream”.  This even has a fancy word – noncompliance.  Now, there are many reasons for a child to be non-compliant, but regardless of the motive, the following things YOU CAN DO will go a long way into making it better.  We often see a pattern like the following: 

  • You tell your child to do something
  • Nothing happens
  • You tell your child again with a louder voice
  • Nothing happens
  • Now you are mad and you scream at your child
  • If your child now complies – you have taught him that he can wait and delay until you scream and you feel horrible


  • You lose it and physically spank or drag your child to do it – now you are a mess


  • You say to yourself – “it’s not worth the aggravation” – I’ll just do it myself. – Now you have taught your child to wait it out and he/she will get out of doing it. 

It is important to break this cycle so let’s start with what you can do when first giving directions to lead to better compliance.  Experiment and see which techniques work best with your child.  You can even add a reinforcement plan for following a direction the first time it is given.

Following Directions:  Tips for Parents to Improve Children’s Listening and Compliance

  • Get your child’s attention directly before giving directions. This means face-to-face and direct eye contact (not just calling out what you expect your child to do).
  • You may need to walk over to touch or physically cue your child prior to giving directions.
  • Do not attempt to give directions or instructions if you are competing with the distraction of TV, music, and video games. First, turn those off to gain the child’s attention and focus.
  • Show your child what you want him or her to do. Model and walk through the steps.  Check that your child understands.
  • Depending on the developmental level of your child, one direction at a time is often all your son or daughter is capable of remembering and following-through on. Do not give a series of directions.
  • Provide multisensory instructions by using a visual chart of tasks or chores your child is expected to do.
  • A helpful technique for young children is to draw pictures on a chart hanging in the room that shows the sequence of morning or evening activities. For example: (1) clothing (to get dressed); (2) cereal bowl (to show eating breakfast); (3) hairbrush and toothbrush.  As your child completes the task, he or she moves a clothespin down the chart next to that corresponding picture.
  • Always check for understanding of directions. Have your child repeat or rephrase what you asked him or her to do.
  • Use color to get your child’s attention with anything you put in writing (key words, pictures, and so on).
  • Write down the task you want done (words or pictures) and give that written direction or task card to your child for easy reference.
  • Keep directions clear, brief, and to the point. Reduce unnecessary talking and elaboration.
  • Be sure to give frequent praise and positive feedback when your child follows directions and/or is making a good attempt to do so.
  • Provide follow-up when you give directions (inspect, check your child’s word, and praise a job well done).
  • Reward your child for following directions, as appropriate. For example:  “You did a great job straightening up your room.  You get to…(choose a game, have a snack).”
  • Try not to lose your temper when your child fails to follow directions. Remember that it is characteristic of children with ADHD to have difficulty:
    • Disengaging from activities (especially fun ones) that they are in the middle of and have not completed
    • Responding and following-through without structuring, adult prompting, and cueing
    • Utilizing recall/memory
  • Examine what you asked your son or daughter to do and see if you provided enough structure and assistance to enable him or her to follow-through with the directions given.
  • It is easy to forget that even though they are at an age when they should remember and be able to do a task independently, children/teens developmentally may not be able to do so, and thus need some of the supports that a younger child would normally require.
  • Provide support by working alongside your child on a task together.
  • Try turning unpleasant chores and tasks into more pleasant or motivating experiences by making a game of it whenever possible. For example, try “Beat the Clock” challenges, such as “Let’s see if you can finish putting all of your toys away while the commercials are still on (or before the alarm goes off, the song ends).”
  • Break down tasks into smaller steps that you want to get done. Give one step at a time.
  • Focus on the behavior you want started, rather than stopped. Before issuing a directive or command to your son or daughter, think in terms of what you want to see your child doing instead of what he or she is currently doing.
  • Use what is referred to as “alpha” commands, which are clear and well stated. Avoid “beta commands,” which are unclear and poorly stated.  What you may interpret as your child’s noncompliance may actually be the result of you not effectively communicating your directions.

Do’s and Don’ts

The following are some do’s and don’ts when giving directions/commands to children.  See the sources and resources for more information on this topic.

  • Do not give a direction or command until you know you have your child’s attention.
  • Do get your child’s direct attention by getting close and obtaining eye contact (even if it means gently turning his or her face to look at you).
  • Do not assume your child heard you.
  • Do ask your child to repeat the direction back to you.
  • Do not give a string or chain or multiple directions/commands.
  • Do give one direction at a time.
  • Do not use vague language that is open to interpretation and lacks enough precise information (“Clean your room.” “Get ready.”  “Be nice to your brother.”).
  • Do be precise in what you mean. For example, “Clean your room” means:
    • Clothes hung in closet or folded/placed in drawers
    • Bed made
    • Toys in storage bins
  • Do not continue to talk, explain, and elaborate after giving a direction or command.
  • Do state what you want and then stop talking and give your child the chance to comply without interruption.
  • Do not state your direction/command in the form of a question, such as:
    • “Would you get in your pajamas, please?”
    • “Isn’t it time to get busy on your homework?”
    • “Why don’t you leave your brother alone?”
    • “Are you ready to turn off the lights?”
  • Do give your direction/command as a direct statement and be specific. For example:
    • “Get in your pajamas now.”
    • “Lights off in 15 minutes.”
    • “Sit with your bottom in the chair.”
    • “Hang up the wet towel, please.”
  • Do not bark orders or use either an intimidating, wimpy, or emotional tone of voice.
  • Do use a firm, matter-of-fact, and neutral tone of voice.
  • Do not repeat, continue to verbalize, add new directions, or intervene in any manner without waiting a minimum of 5 seconds after issuing a directive/command. If your child does not comply with the direction the first time given, it is recommended (after the minimum of 5 seconds) to state the direction/command again.  This time use the words: “You need to …”  Praise/positively reinforce if your child follows the direction this time and provide a mild negative consequence (loss of privilege—e.g., TV time) if your child still does not comply.
  • Do wait a reasonable amount of time (depending on the situation) to enable your child to comply and follow your direction.
  • Do not let it go unnoticed or unappreciated when your child follows directions appropriately.
  • Do be sure to praise and positively reinforce immediately after your child follows the direction.

Points to Keep in Mind

  • Avoid threats, ultimatums, criticism of your child’s character/personality, sarcasm, and belittling.
  • Do not respond or give consequences when your emotions are in high gear. It is better to tell your child that you are angry/upset now and need to cool down first before addressing the situation.
  • Use questioning techniques that communicate your empathy and your desire to better understand your child (“This is a hard time for you, isn’t it?” “Help me understand why …”  “I’m guessing that ____.  Is this correct?”).
  • Use “what” questions such as “What should you be doing now?” “What are your choices?”  “What do you (or we) need to do to solve the problem?”  “What do you need from me in order to help you?”

Adapted from-The ADHD Book of Lists by Sandra Rief, 2003