Why won’t my child just listen to me?

We are two weeks into the new routine: no school, no church, no friends over, no toilet paper. I am feeling a little overwhelmed by the loss of schedule, the never ending list of things I don’t want to do, the feelings of guilt that I should be doing “everything”… and on it goes.

I don’t have a lot of little people to manage, but know that I have great compassion for all of you who do. Just the few hours a day that I spend with my granddaughter sometimes feels like pulling teeth to get her to get on my agenda.

So, I’ve been thinking of all of the “teacher tricks” I’ve learned over the years to help preschoolers listen and follow directions. My bag of tricks doesn’t work all the time because even little people are sometimes unpredictable, but they certainly help to encourage your preschooler to be a cooperative helper instead of a reluctant complainer.

So how do I make my preschooler listen and follow directions?

First, make sure that your child has actually heard you. So many times over the course of teaching both middle school and preschool I would give instructions, send children to begin their tasks and have several kids ask me what they were supposed to be doing. They were not being disrespectful, they were just distracted, daydreaming, stuck on the first thing I said, or maybe tuned out while I was giving instructions. When your child is involved in play, screen time or even just daydreaming, your voice is just background noise to them. The answer to this dilemma is to make sure, before you speak, that you have their attention. That sometimes means that you have to go to them, smile, make eye contact, connect and then tell them what you want. When I say connect, I mean say something that says “I see you.” Once I had a student that never answered when I would call him to come work at the table with me. When he was busy playing, he never heard my voice. I would go over, get on his level and just wait until he made eye contact. Then when he noticed I was there, I would smile and say, “There are those big beautiful blue eyes!” and he would smile, every time. That moment of connection made it so much easier for him to stop doing what he was interested in and come do what I wanted.

Second, make sure your child has had time to process what you are asking. We all process different information at different rates. Children generally need more processing time than adults to figure out what you said and what you want them to do. We can help children process information by breaking information into manageable chunks, telling children what to do and showing them how to do it in a way that doesn’t cause anxiety. Can you relate to being asked a question you either didn’t understand or didn’t have an answer to; being asked the question again (maybe several times) before you had time to formulate an answer, any answer; feeling put on the spot and backed into a corner? I have, and it is not pleasant. It made me feel anxious and incompetent. When we give our kids instructions, it is important that we give them very simple, clear instructions, time to process what we say, and visual cues to help them know what to do.

Third, what do you do when you know your child has heard you, they understand what you have asked, but they don’t want to do it? This is where you slow down, assess the situation, and offer choices or provide more information. You have asked your child to do a chore. She is playing a video game and doesn’t do what you asked. This is when you take a breath and ask yourself some questions. Does this need to happen now or can I give her a time frame in which I want the job done? Does she need some choices to feel like she has some control? Does she need more information to understand why you want her to do what you have asked immediately? You may be thinking, I don’t need to explain to my child why I want her to do something, but aren’t you sometimes motivated by more information? You might scramble to get the laundry off the coffee table because your friend just called and is dropping by. More information is sometimes motivating!

Finally, deep down all children want to be part of a group. They want to feel loved and connected. They want to please us. So when your child does cooperate, notice. Notice when they stop doing what they are interested and obey right away. Commend them for their quick obedience. Notice when they listen the first time and tell them that it is so very helpful. Notice when they are helping the family run smoothly. Thank them for their random acts of kindness. As Dr. Becky Bailey says, “You get more of what you notice.” So notice the good stuff!

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”- Jeremiah 29:11

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