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Teaching Toddlers to Follow Instructions and Rules

Written by: Kokotree

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teach toddlers follow instructions rules

Are you struggling to make your toddlers follow instructions and rules? Don’t worry. You are not alone. 

Teaching toddlers to follow instructions and rules can be challenging, but it’s also critical in helping them develop essential social and cognitive skills. 

It needs great patience to raise a child from the ages of one through three.

According to this Healthline report, the average attention span of a toddler is 2 to 5 minutes. Given that, with consistency and some creativity, you can help your little ones learn to listen and follow directions, setting them up for success in the years to come.

This blog shares a detailed step-by-step guide to teaching toddlers how to follow instructions and rules.

Why is it important to teach toddlers to follow instructions and rules?

Following instructions and rules are essential and must-have skills for toddlers — It makes them able to understand and adjust to different environments. 

For instance, at schools, other people’s places, public places, etc. If the toddler doesn’t follow instructions or struggles to follow, it might impact their learning and social abilities. 

Why do toddlers tend not to follow instructions and rules?

Many parents conclude that their toddlers are difficult, lazy, or misbehave when they don’t follow instructions properly. But that’s not the case in reality.

Toddlers tend not to follow instructions and rules because of one or all of these reasons-

  • They were not paying attention when you said something, not knowing they were told to do something.
  • They got distracted while you were giving instructions, resulting in not following instructions properly.
  • They couldn’t comprehend what you said.
  • They forgot the next instruction while performing one in case of multiple instructions.
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How to teach toddlers to follow instructions and rules?

Teaching toddlers to follow instructions and rules is a skill in itself that parents need to develop. Most of the time, it doesn’t come naturally; they learn it slowly and gradually. Some parents might take up more time to learn this and make things challenging for toddlers and themselves.

So, here is a very well-explained guide that will make teaching toddlers easy in straightforward steps.

Let them make an eye-contact.

The first step to teaching your toddler to follow instructions and rules is to let them make eye contact with you first. By making eye contact with your toddler, you are ensuring that you have their full attention.

Before giving them instructions, you can say, “Hey, look at me. I have something to tell you.” or “Hey, please let me have your attention.” It works better if you close the distance between you and your toddler and move near to them.

Clear up any distractions.

The next step is to clear any distractions your toddler might be having while you speak, and it makes sure that they are focusing on you only. For instance, if your toddler is playing with a toy, keep that aside first. Or, if s/he is watching the television, switch it off or stand in front of it before you even start saying anything. Don’t get aggressive in your tone.

This step is vital because toddlers get distracted easily as their attention span is short —  how will they follow instructions if they haven’t listened to them properly?

Use a soft tone.

Most parents think that if they speak in a loud or assertive voice, their toddlers will pay more attention to them. But, in reality, it’s quite the opposite. Toddlers listen more attentively when you speak with them in a soft, gentle, and calm voice.

This is because now they don’t have to pay attention or process the tone of your voice, and they can focus on words.

Tell them in a specific and transparent manner.

Whenever you tell your toddler to follow instructions, make sure you are telling them in a specific and transparent manner. For instance, instead of saying, “Don’t go,” say ‘Hey, do not go towards that table’ or instead of ‘Let’s go,’ state ‘Hey, come here, we are going.’ Don’t leave your toddler with vague and unclear sentences; try to mention every little detail. This way, their mind catches your words and does not wander. Hence, they follow precisely that.

Use short and simple sentences.

While giving instructions to your toddler, always speak to them with short and simple sentences. Avoid using long and complicated‘Don’t run barefoot on the floor because it’s slippery and you might fall, so sentences like wear your shoes. 

Your toddler might need help processing what you are saying and end up not following the instructions. 

So, instead, say, “Don’t run. Go and wear your shoes. The floor is slippery, and you might fall.” Always tell them what you want them to do first because even if they can’t process the latter sentences, they will still follow the main instructions. Like in the above case, they will stop running and hopefully wear the shoes too.

Give instructions one by one.

Toddlers follow instructions and rules more easily when you tell them individually. For instance, when you say, “Please, go to the washroom, wash your hands, and come here to have lunch,” your toddler might get stuck after following the first or second instruction. They also might get distracted in between and start doing something else. So, first, tell them to switch off the television, then wash their hands, and finally, when they wash their hands, ask them to come and have lunch. 

Once the toddlers follow instructions this way, they try to club the instructions into one simple step-by-step sentence. For example, “Go wash your hands in the washroom for lunch.”

Make use of numbers.

Another way to teach your toddler to follow instructions and rules is to use numbers. For instance, say, ‘Hey, you have to do three things. First, wear your coat. Second, wear your socks. Third, wear your shoes.’ This way, they have a clear guide of what to do first and after that. Also, they will have the sense that they are asked to do several tasks and not just one. But please remember not to give them too many tasks together.

Don’t give instructions with reasoning or warning.

A common mistake parents make while instructing their toddlers is to give them reasoning or warning. For instance, they say, ‘Wear your coat, or else you will catch a cold’ or ‘Finish your meal, or else you will not get to watch television.’ 

These kinds of things generally need to be clarified for toddlers. They cannot understand the consequences of catching a cold or don’t care much about watching the television, which might result in not following instructions.


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Wait for their response.

Toddlers generally take time to respond because they need to process the words. It is called ‘wait time,’ from three to seven seconds. So, after you say something to your toddler, wait 3 – 7 seconds to let the words sink into their mind. Don’t repeat or say anything else while they take their time. If they still don’t respond after 7-8 seconds, you can repeat.

This technique also helps them to be excellent and attentive listeners in the future – an essential soft skill to have. Moreover, this also prevents them from thinking it is okay not to pay attention in the first go as you will repeat it anyway. 

Ask them to repeat.

After the toddlers give their response to your instructions, ask them to repeat what they are supposed to do. Ask them things like ‘Now, what will you do?’ or  ‘Please repeat what I said?’ etc.

Also, encourage them to ask for clarification or to repeat if they don’t get the instructions on the first go. You can say, ‘Do you want me to repeat’? Or ‘Do you need me to explain’? Or ‘You can always ask again.’

This way, instead of panicking and not following the instructions, they get clarity and confidence to follow the instructions.

Reframe your instructions.

If your toddler doesn’t get the instruction after repeating it once or twice, don’t stick to it. Try to reframe your instructions, i.e., using different wording or trimming off some words. For instance, instead of repeatedly saying, ‘Come here, we are heading out,’ try, ‘Hey, let’s go.’

Tell them and not ask them.

Another mistake many parents make while giving instructions to their toddlers is to ask them. For instance, they ask their toddler, ‘Would you please clean up your toys’ or ‘Would you please come here’? This way, the toddlers might think they have the choice to do it or not and might end up not doing the task. 

So, instead of this, say, ‘Hey, please clean up your toys’ or ‘Please come to mommy.’ Tell them clearly what they are expected to do. Please do not ask or give choices to them unless you want them to ask or have the option to do the task. 

Give choices.

And this brings us to the next step, i.e., giving your toddlers choices. For instance, ask them, ‘Do you want to take a bath first or brush your teeth first?’ This way, toddlers actively engage with you while making them follow instructions. 

It makes them feel they are doing things willingly and thus following the instructions more efficiently. They also start developing an essential skill of decision-making at an early age. But make sure that you give only a few choices, as it might confuse and overwhelm them. Start with only two options and might add another after some time.

Use your body’s actions.

Whenever you give instructions to your toddlers, try to use your body actions and visual cues to clarify things. For instance, when you say, ‘Stand up and wash your hands,’ stand up and point towards the place using your finger where they are supposed to wash their hands. This visualizes the instructions in toddlers’ heads and keeps their attention intact on the task. Thus, making them clearly understand what you are telling them to do.

Be involved with them.

Most of the time, toddlers do what they see. Doing things with them is the most effective technique to make them follow instructions. For instance, if you ask your toddler to read their book, pick a book and start reading with them. You can use sentences like ‘Let’s read a book together’ or ‘Hey, come. Let’s clean up your toys’. 

They are not doing the task but sharing and spending time with you. As a result, they perform the job in the best possible manner.

Use of games.

Many games help toddlers to improve their skills to follow instructions and rules. One of the games is ‘Simon says’ in which you are Simon and give instructions like ‘Simon says close your eyes, and your toddler has to close their eyes. Another is the ‘Scavenger hunt’ in which you ask your toddler to get you something pink or square or ask them questions like ‘Which one is black?’ by showing two or three objects. Another fun game is “Hide & Seek,” in which you ask your toddler to hide, and you will find them or vice versa.

Have patience.

Lastly, always have patience and keep calm with your toddlers. Do not yell at them even if they do not follow the instructions. Constant yelling at them might give them the impression that it’s okay not to do the task if there is no yelling, or they will start following instructions only after yelling. 

Instead, take your time, talk to them after a few minutes, and appreciate them whenever they complete their task.

Final words.

Toddlers are like blank pages; they get what they comprehend from your words and actions. Teaching them to follow instructions and rules can be simple. First, understand your toddlers, their needs, and their level of understanding, and then, based on that, give them instructions. If you practice and follow the above guide regularly, you will master it in no time. 

Happy parenting!

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