10 Steps to Giving Instructions

When giving a child instructions, it is a good idea to repeat them multiple times and ask for confirmation of understanding. 

Taking instructions on what to do when we see a car.

I teach English as a Second Language (ESL) at a local community college. Students will often say they understand instructions when they really did not. It is a normal thing a person does when operating in a new language. You need confirmation that they understand your instructions for the next activity or nothing will happen. The first step is to repeat requests three times. A person may only pick up on parts of the sentence the first time. The iterations provide a chance to put it all together. For example:

“Please take out a piece of paper and write your name at the top.” (Repeat)

Now ask the class: “What are you going to do?” Take out a piece of paper.

Follow up: “Yes. What will you do next?” Write my name at the top. 

Without taking this extra step to ask for confirmation you may have a class sitting quietly not knowing what to do. In my experience, this also works well with a toddler.

I have found success giving our child instructions with repetition and confirmation.

A great example of this is staying out of the street. I was digging weeds in the front yard and 2-year-old Boogie was walking in circles on a path. I could see that she wanted to go out in the street to make a loop over to where I was.

Here is an example of repetition and confirmation in 10 steps:

  1. Give the instruction using Stop, Look, Listen: “Stop. Look at daddy. Listen to me: stay in the yard.”
  2. Reinforce: “Boogie, stay in the yard. Stay out of the street.” (Repeat slowly 3 times)
  3. Ask open question: “What will you do?” Stay in yard (or some other form of confirmation.)
  4. Reinforce: “That’s right, stay in the yard.”
  5. Ask again: “What are you going to do?” Stay in yard. 
  6. Celebrate understanding: “Yes! High five.”
  7. You can add in an optional conditional: “If you go into the street, we are going inside.”
  8. Ask for confirmation: “If you go into the street, what will happen?” Go inside. 
  9. Reinforce: “That’s right, we will go inside.”
  10. Close with the full instruction: “Stay in the yard, honey. If you go in the street, we will go inside”.

Sometimes she makes a choice to test the boundaries, but it is not for a lack of understanding. When she doesn’t follow instructions I can calmly take her inside with the comfort that she knew what she was doing. This presents another time to practice repetition and confirmation, “Why are we going inside?” Me street. “What will you do next time?” Stay in yard.

Learning a language is so hard. Be sure to use step 6 as often as possible. Celebrate understanding every chance you get. This list may also look exhausting on paper. Trust me, though, once you get in the habit of this process it will not only work but also be fun.


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