Helping the Preschool Child Understand and Follow Spoken Directions

I was pleased when asked for a guest-blog submission in conjunction with Citra, developer of a communication tool for iOS and Android tablet users.  The post is full of ideas to share with parents, families, caregivers and early educators.  While the post is no longer available on their site, you can read it below.


The requested action is nothing unusual… a seemingly normal part of your routine; something you do every day… but somewhere, there’s a breakdown.

“It’s time to go!  Put your blanket on the bed and go put on your shoes,” you say.

Your child immediately goes to put on his or her shoes, but that first part, about the blanket?  It is as if you never said it.

“Push your chairs under the table, put your art on the drying rack, and line up at the door,” you say.

That one child always pauses just a moment, and looks around at her classmates in action, then begins doing what she sees them doing.

“Go get the red shirt with the dog on it,” you say.

Your child brings you a shirt, but it’s not red, and it certainly does not have a dog on it.  Or perhaps he just brings you his stuffed dog, but no shirt.

What is happening?  Is that child not paying attention?  So you tell him or her again, with similar results or a complete look of confusion.

Somewhere, the full message is not processed, details are forgotten, or missed.  For the preschool child, there are any number of reasons why the follow-through of a spoken directive is not successful.  Often, it is a simple matter of attention.  He or she may be distracted with a toy or another activity and is not fully listening.  Does the child even hear you?

For very young preschoolers, longer strings of words with descriptors and multiple steps are naturally difficult because of the many components of language and memory involved, and they just have not fully developed an understanding of the concepts or the skill of remembering multiple steps.

Other times, simple adjustments such as verifying attention or understanding developmental norms is not enough.  There are many preschoolers who truly struggle to make sense of verbal language and have difficulty responding appropriately to it.  They may have developmental delays that impede their ability to process language and follow through with directions.  Perhaps they are second-language learners with weaknesses in vocabulary knowledge.

Whatever the reason for the breakdown, there are some useful, “go-to” strategies that aid in holding a preschooler’s attention to, and processing of, verbal directives.  Keeping these strategies in mind and providing opportunities to practice will further develop their skills.

  1. Make sure you have their attention. Say their name, tap them on the arm, move yourself so that you are in their line of sight; but make sure you have their attention before giving the direction.
  1. Be brief.  Particularly for younger preschoolers, less is more.  Use short and concise directions.  Use simple sentences and fewer words.  Be aware of how many steps you provide and how many details/descriptors you use.  Some very general guidelines for typical language development with regard to multiple-step directions and the understanding/use of modifiers (descriptive words) include:
Age: Steps: Modifiers/Descriptors:
1 Year Beginning to understand and respond to simple 1-step directions (e.g., Come here, Stop, Put it down) n/a
2 Years 1-step directions (e.g., Put the crayon on the table, throw the trash away, clap your hands) minimal, but simple modifiers and descriptors such as size/shape/color are emerging
3 Years 2-step directions (e.g., Find the big ball and give it to me, Get your blue shirt and put it on) early qualitative descriptors such as size/shape/color
4-5 Years 2-3 step directions (e.g., Finish your snack, throw your empty cup in the trash, and sit on the square rug) multiple descriptors
  1. Give extra time.  Avoid repeating yourself.  Whenever you repeat a direction, the child must re-process all of those words again, essentially “starting over”, before he or she can even begin to take action.  Be sure to allow at least ten seconds (which can seem like a very long time) for them to process and respond to a direction.  Once time has been allowed and you are certain the child does not understand, employ additional strategies.
  1. Provide visuals. Use pictures to show the steps the child needs to do in order to complete a task or follow through with directions.  There are multiple ways to do this, including using clip art or photographs of the steps.  Some resources for images include the widely-used Mayer-Johnson’s Boardmaker, a web-based program such as LessonPix, and free online art from websites such as My Cute Graphics or Google Images.  You can also use the Citra App, which uses the Boardmaker and SymbolStyx image libraries.
  1. Provide a model.  Live peer models, such as a friend or sibling at home or fellow classmates at school, provide an opportunity for imitating and success when following directions.  Children learn from watching each other.  Have a capable sibling or classmate demonstrate what you are asking of your child, first.  If there are no peers, model the directions or steps to your child yourself.  Narrate the steps or directions you want your child to complete as you or someone else does them.  This provides an excellent model of the language as well as a physical representation of the concepts.
  1.  Expose.  There are many opportunities for exposing children to language in order to increase their skills.  When you aren’t expecting children to take immediate action and follow the directions, take the time to both talk about and demonstrate what needs to be done or model a sequence of events.  Every-day routines such as bathtime, getting dressed, preparing snack, or classroom projects provide opportunities to talk about the steps you are going to take.  Narrate the steps as you go through them.  Use modifiers and descriptors appropriate for, or slightly above, their developmental age so that they can hear the language in use and become familiar with the vocabulary.  The combination of providing a model of language, and the experience of doing the steps while they hear the language, offers children a tangible experience to associate with the concepts and makes them more “concrete”.

As with all areas of development, the more children are exposed to specific vocabulary and sequential language that comprises verbal directions, and the more opportunities children have to practice, the better they will become at using these skills.  If, even after providing additional strategies and opportunities, there continues to be a concern, consider making a referral to a speech-language pathologist or developmental specialist for further evaluation and intervention.




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