Young children can usually follow three-step directions. For best results, it’s important to keep them short and simple. Of course, this might be hard to remember when your child is getting ready for school and you’re busy trying to pack his lunch, serve him breakfast, and make sure everyone gets out the door in time.

Below are a few ways to handle common stressful times — when you really need your child to be able to follow directions.

Getting ready for school

You know the scene: You have five minutes until your child needs to leave for school, and he hasn’t brushed his teeth, put on his shoes, or found his backpack. No matter how organized you try to be, mornings can be the most hectic time of day. You can avoid this daily chaos by making it easy for your child to follow simple directions for getting ready.

Try this: Make a morning picture schedule that lists all the things your child needs to do before leaving for school. Either have your child draw the tasks (there should be no more than three, such as: 1. Get dressed, 2. Eat breakfast, and 3. Get backpack) or find pictures in a magazine or online (click here to find some online).

Next have your child cut out the top three things he needs to remember and paste them on sheets of paper. (Having your child cut and paste helps with his fine motor skills and strengthens his sense of responsibility.) Hang them in a few places for him to refer to, like the bathroom, kitchen, or bedroom. Once he’s mastered these tasks, you may be able to add others to the list.


Does it take an hour to get your kindergartner settled into bed, with you asking over and over for him to stop playing and go to sleep?

Try this: To make things easier on both of you, create a simple bedtime routine so your child knows what to expect. Even if your child can’t tell time yet, it helps everyone in the family if you have a set bedtime like 8 p.m. What’s important is that your child understands that “lights out” is the same every day. Make sure the directions you’re giving him are clear, direct, and positive. For example, you can tell your child his bedroom routine is: (1) Put on your pajamas, (2) Brush your teeth, and (3) Go to the bathroom.

Also remember that young children respond better when you tell them what to do, rather than what not to do. So try to avoid saying things to your child like, “Don’t put your toothbrush away until you’ve rinsed it.” Instead say, “Please rinse off your toothbrush.” Finally, don’t expect too much from your child all at once. After he’s gotten good at doing three things, you can add more, like (1) Put on your pajamas, (2) Put your dirty clothes in the hamper, (3) Brush your teeth (4) Go to the bathroom, and (5) Pick out a book to read with me in bed.

At the grocery store

You’ve got 20 minutes to shop, and your grocery list is a mile long. The last thing you need to deal with is a child who is grabbing things off the shelf and begging for every sugary cereal he sees.

Try this: Ask your child to help out with your shopping. Why? He’ll be too busy and happy helping you to whine about treats. (It’s true! Young children love being helpful and busy.) Plus you’ll probably get out of the store faster. Choose items on your shopping list that you child can easily find (preferably ones that are close by), and ask him to pick them out for you. Remember: Only ask for one item at a time — and make sure he reports back to you as soon as he has found what you need. Then give him another assignment.

Crossing the street

You’re juggling grocery bags and the baby while trying to cross the street with your kindergartner. This is the time when it’s very important that he listen to you carefully and follow directions.

Try this: Before you get to the street, make sure you get his attention. Get down on your knees if you have to and make sure he’s looking at you. Tell him very simply “I want you to be safe. So hold my hand and wait until I tell you to cross the street with me.” Ask him to repeat it so you know he’s heard you. Before you begin crossing, tell your child what he can do (“Wait until I say go”) instead of what he can’t (“Don’t cross the street now”). Once you’ve made it across safely, tell him how great it is that he followed your directions.

At suppertime

Getting ready for dinner can be one of the most difficult times in the day. Everyone is hungry and usually tired — that’s why they call it the “witching hour.” You have a lot to do: set the table, make dinner, and possibly deal with a cranky child!

Try this: Mealtimes are actually perfect for practicing following directions. Ask your child to help you set the table. Instead of simply saying, “Set the table,” break down the tasks into steps. Start by saying: “First, get the plates and put them on the table.” When he’s done, say, “Get the napkins and put one to the left of each plate.” (This also teaches kids about left and right!) Once that’s done, say, “OK, last step: Get the spoons, forks, and knives and put one of each by each plate.” For the first few times, you may need to show him where the silverware goes. (If putting out drinking glasses is too much, save that until after he’s perfected these three steps.) After he’s successfully set the table a few times, you can just say, “Please set the table.”