Helping children understand spoken instructions

Children use many skills when it comes to understanding and responding to instructions. It can be frustrating for them and you if this doesn’t go to plan. Children might be told they are ‘not listening’ or perhaps that they are deliberately not doing as they are told. Children with speech and language difficulties can find following instructions challenging for a number of reasons.

Let’s consider what skills might be needed to follow an instruction such as ‘Go and get your coat after you tidy up those toys’:

• Focus attention and listen to the speaker
• Understand the meaning of the words being used
• Understanding the intention and expectation of the speaker
• Understand concept words such as ‘after’ and how that determines the sequence of actions
• Remember both parts of the instruction, i.e. hold both parts in your head long enough to complete both actions
• Predict that ‘getting a coat’ might mean ‘we are going out soon’

Children’s understanding of an instruction such as this may break down at one or more levels of this process. Some children may experience difficulty with all of these levels. We can help children to understand instructions by providing them with some extra support along the way.
Top Tips for supporting children to follow instructions:
Call their name or gently place a hand on their shoulder to let them know it’s time to listen

• You can use visual cues when giving the instruction, e.g. point to the coat or hold up a toy so they also have a visual reminder of what you said
• Emphasise the important words, such as ‘coat’, ‘after’, ‘tidy’, ‘toys’, and consider whether showing them the first activity might be needed to demonstrate the order
• It might be necessary to change the way you say the instruction, e.g. ‘Tidy toys first, then get your coat’
• Repeat both parts of the instruction, so they have multiple opportunities to hear it
• We might need to shorten longer instructions into smaller parts, e.g. ‘Let’s tidy the toys. Now, let’s get your coat’.
• Some children need us to explain the connections between activities to help them understand what’s happening next, e.g. ‘We’re going to the shop now. Put your coat on’.

Finally, let’s put ourselves in their shoes. If someone gave us a long or complicated instruction, we would certainly appreciate some help too! We might ask them to say it again, or to tell us one bit at a time- we might need to rehearse the steps out loud first to make sure we got it right. As adults, we have a pretty good idea of what helps us to understand or remember information. Children are still learning what support they need to help them get the job done- it’s our job to fill in those gaps for them while they figure it out!
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