Wouldn't That Be Nice?
It should be really simple: You ask your kid to do something, and they do it right away. Wouldn't it be nice if it were that easy to get your kids (or anyone) to do what you ask?
The truth is that with complex kids – as with all kids, really – they actually have to be taught how to follow directions. Fortunately, that is something you can help them learn.
According to leadership experts, there are five essential elements for helping individuals accomplish goals. Over many years of training, coaching and supporting parents, we've discovered that these essentials work really well when parenting complex children, too.
5 Steps to Teach Kids (or Anyone) How to Follow Directions
1. Set Clear Expectations:
We tend to shout from another room, ask for things on the run, or fail to give specifics when giving our kids directions – and then we get frustrated when they don't follow through. But if our kids are unsure about what we're asking, even when they want to do what we ask, they may not. (Example: is it really clear what you mean when you say "clean your room"?) Also, if they have a history of not meeting our expectations, they may avoid doing it for fear of doing it wrong. (Example: If they are regularly criticized for how they sweep the floor, they may question if they should do it at all.)
TIP: Get crystal clear about what you are asking your kids to do and communicate clearly:
- Get their undivided attention before making a request.
- Use language they understand.
- Communicate time frame expected.
- Give specifics: “Go upstairs now and take a shower with soap, shampoo, and water.”
2. Get Agreement:
It's hard to get anyone to do something if they don't recognize it as their job to do. And kids, especially, push back when they think they didn’t agree to something. (Example: “You said I could watch this video on YouTube before doing my homework!”) So a common understanding is essential. Elaine’s family uses, “Get it? Got it. Good,” as a way to verbally seal the deal. Some families find it helps to put agreements in writing. However you approach it, their ownership is key to their success.
TIP: Make sure your kids agree to their responsibility:
- Check in to make sure they understand the request.
- Ask your child to acknowledge (maybe even re-state) basic requests.
- Use photos or other visual aids to agree on a completed job (like a previous photo of their room after it's been cleaned).
- When appropriate, put agreements in writing, like a family behavior agreement or internet-use contract.
Complex kids get a disproportionate amount of correction and redirection, so a little acknowledgment for a job well done goes a long way! Do you really have to tell them “good job” every time they remember to hang their towels up? Well, yes… until it becomes a habit! Besides, positive reinforcement can help to identify your child's motivators, which is key to long-term independence and success.
TIP: Try to catch your child being good and reinforce positive behaviors at the time that your child begins to take action:
- Use words of encouragement, like, "You can do it!" or words of praise, like “Good job.”
- Consider tangible rewards (sometimes, but not for everything).
- Make it okay to make mistakes and show compassion when they do.
- Identify your child's motivators. With older kids, ask, "What helps you get things done?”
Complex kids need to understand what they're responsible for, be supported in the process, and understand what the ramifications are when they are not able to follow through. It is reasonable to expect that they'll make mistakes, and they need to know what will happen when they do. When consequences are clearly communicated in advance, without judgment or shame, then our kids can feel empowered to try again with encouragement and support.
TIP: Establish and communicate consequences in advance:
- Just like positive motivators, consequences don’t always have to be “big.”
- When possible – and within reason! – let “natural consequences” teach their own lessons (like walking to school when missing the bus, or losing points for a late paper)
- When possible, let your child be part of determining consequences.
- Agree on consequences in advance (e.g. house rules so that you can be a compassionate, supportive parent – and let the system be the bad-guy when consequences go into effect. (Example: “Wow, that stinks! You won’t be able to watch YouTube tonight because you didn’t finish your homework before dinner. Maybe we'll have time for a game if you finish before bedtime.")
5. Monitor the Process:
It can be hard to keep track of all the things we ask our kids to do, let alone remember to put a monitoring system in place. If you struggle with consistency and structure yourself, this may not come naturally for you – and it might seem like more work. But truly, you can set your kids (and yourself) up for success by Taking Aim on one thing a time, and putting a simple system in place to make sure everyone is clear and accountable.
TIP: Put a system in place to follow-up on requests:
- Break tasks into smaller pieces, when possible.
- Monitor the steps in the process, rather than just the end-result.
- If you don’t have a way to monitor easily, find someone else to be your back-up.
- Consider making an alternate request if it can’t easily be monitored.
A Teaching Moment
When you're trying to get your child to do what you ask, remember that you are actually teaching your child to learn how to follow directions and hold themselves accountable – and that takes time, clear communication, and patience with the process. The solutions are always in the successes. So start with the little things, and gradually build up to bigger things.
In other words, to teach kids to follow directions, choose one area to focus on, use the 5 steps above to help your child learn to be successful in that area, and then use build on that accomplishment when you Take Aim on the next task.