There are so many factors to take into consideration when we work out how many instructions to give our children; these include age, language, concentration/attention, hearing, context and working memory (Perth Children’s OT, 2020).
Working memory is the ability to keep information active in your brain for short periods (such as 2-3 seconds) and using this information while you carry out at a task. For example, remembering how many spaces you need to move forward in a board game (Kid Sense, 2022).
- 1 – 2 years of age: Can follow simple 1 step instructions (e.g. “Give the cup to Mum”).
- 2 – 3 years of age: Can follow 2 step instructions (e.g. “Go to your room and get your jacket”).
- 3 – 4 years of age: Can follow 3 step instructions (e.g. “Point to the cat, dog and monkey”).
(Kid Sense, 2022)
Generally speaking, when giving instructions to school aged children, it is safer to stick with 2-3 instructions at a time, which makes things less stressful for everyone.
Tips to keep in mind when giving instructions:
- The language we use is important. You will notice from the examples above that they are simple with less words, clear and concise. It is easy for our meaning and the steps to get lost if we use too many words (e.g. “please go and get your hat from your bedroom, and meet me at the back entrance of the house).
- Make sure they are listening first. Tap them on the arm or bring them to the side if it’s a busy room. You can’t expect successful follow through if you’re calling from across the room.
- Encourage eye contact. If they are in the next room watching TV, their attention is not on you. Even if they say “yes”, this does not mean that they have actually heard what you have said.
- If they are frequently missing part of the instruction, you can break these down and simplify them. “Get your water bottle”. After they have completed this successfully, “Get your hat.” And then once this one is completed, “Now you can go outside.”
- Have them repeat the instructions back to you. For example, “Get your hat and drink bottle. What did I ask you to do?”
- Use language of first/then. Simplify your instructions by using first… then… For example, “First your hat, then play outside.”
- Support your child to feel comfortable to ask for the instruction to be repeated if necessary.
- Using visual cues and physical prompts can help to encourage their understanding, such as pictures or gestures (as long as it makes sense to them).
- Play games to help build their understanding and working memory. For example, ‘Simon Says’ is great practice for following different instructions, and can be made more challenging by making it multi-step (e.g. “first touch your nose, then your knee”) .
(Kids Sense 2022, Perth Children’s OT 2020)
For some children, following instructions can be incredibly challenging. If you are needing some further support with following instructions – the therapists at Kids that Go may just be the answer you are looking for. Feel free to contact us on 07 3087 1904.
NICOLE NIJSKENS (Occupational Therapist).