Increasing Child’s Compliance: Effective Instruction Delivery

byRona Benhorin, Ph.D.

Children’s noncompliance with parents’ directions is a concern commonly expressed by parents of preschool and school age children. Teaching your child to comply with requests can be very helpful to you in managing your child’s behavior. Often times when parents are trying to increase their child’s compliance, they focus on consequences. However, it is important to take a step back and consider what you, as a parent or teacher, can do to set up your child to be more successful in following directions, rather than focusing solely on punishing your child once he does not comply. Below are some guidelines for delivering directions effectively. Please note that some of these guidelines may need to be modified for children with developmental delays/challenges and that you may want to consult with a therapist if your child exhibits severe behavioral challenges.

  • Set age appropriate expectations. Be mindful to have age appropriate expectations that you know your child is physically and developmentally capable of following.
  • Be sure to get your child’s attention before you provide an instruction. This often entails standing in close proximity to your child (rather than yelling from across the room), making eye contact with him and assuring that he has heard and understood the request. If you are unsure whether your child has heard you and/or understood the directive, have him repeat it back to you. Standing close to your child when delivering commands will also send your child the message that you are serious about him getting the task done. It would also allow you to provide your child with immediate praise following compliance or to follow through with a warning and a consequence if your child does not comply with your request.
  • It would help if you deliver commands in a statement form. (e.g., Please put your shoes by the door.”) Giving directives in the form of a question (e.g., Will you clean up your room already?”), might give your child the option of refusing to comply. Provide a choice when there is one, but do not give a choice when one does not exist.
  • Give your child simple, specific, and clear instructions (e.g. “Please put all the blocks in the bucket”; “Put your shoes on”.). Avoid vague commands that your child may find confusing or overwhelming or that contain too many step (e.g., “Behave!”; “Clean up this mess”; “Get ready for bed”).
  • Use a firm tone of voice when giving directives. Avoid sounding desperate, ambivalent, harsh, threatening, or anxious. Often times parents sound threatening or anxious because they anticipate that the child will not comply. By staying calm but firm when giving instructions, you are increasing the likelihood that your child would take you seriously and comply.
  • Avoid repeating directives multiple times. Parents often repeat directives so many times that by the end of the day they are tired of hearing their own voice (and their children learn to tune them out). Repeating directions allows your child to stall and in essence “buy time” or ultimately “escape” altogether from complying with the task. This, in turn, further reinforces stalling and noncompliance. Instead, if your child ignores you or refuses to comply with a directive, repeat the directive one more time, adding a gesture or pointing, and if necessary provide a warning. For example, tell your child, once again, in a calm but firm tone of voice: “Put the crayons in the box (while pointing to the crayons or the box). If you do not pick up the crayons, you will get a time out.” Follow through with an age-appropriate consequence if your child does not comply (e.g., gentle guidance, loss of privilege, time out).
  • Give your child time to comply with the directive. Generally speaking, parents should give their child 5-10 seconds to process the request and initiate compliance. The majority of parents do not give their children sufficient amount of time to respond to and comply with parental directions, and are quick to repeat their request. After delivering a directive, wait 5-10 seconds to allow your child time to initiate compliance. Only then, if your child shows no signs of beginning to act as requested, repeat the request (followed by a warning).
  • Be prepared to follow though. At times, parents engage in negotiations with their children when they feel that they can be flexible. However, it is important not to give a directive (which means clear cut direction with no negotiation) unless you are prepared, and able to, follow through with a consequence in case your child doesn’t obey. If you are too busy or tired and therefore are not going to follow through, skip the directive all together.
  • Make the result of following your instructions clear to your child. For example, “When you get your homework done, you may watch TV” is better than “Finish your homework.”
  • Be fair. Be aware of when you are asking your child to comply with certain requests and plan accordingly, when possible. For example, having your child clean up in the middle of her favorite TV show may not be perceived well by your child and may increase negative feelings and therefore noncompliance. However, allowing your child access to her favorite TV show following a clean up task or reminding your child that at the end of the show, it would be time to clean up, is more considerate and would increase the likelihood that your child would cooperate.
  • Remember to always praise your child following compliance and appropriate behavior! Your child would not only appreciate the positive attention, but would also be more likely to cooperate and comply in the future.