Language skills targets for babies and toddlers: 4. Following instructions

Mar 15, 2016

When a little one begins to follow instructions this is a moment worth celebrating! Not only might they be able to help out with simple tasks, they are also showing us that they understand words. Whether a toddler follows commands is a crucially important indicator of their early language skills. Today’s post talks about this milestone, and how to help toddlers understand and carry out simple instructions.

following instructions

What’s expected?

First of all, perhaps you’re wondering what’s typical for babies’ and toddlers’ ability to follow commands. Most children show signs of understanding ‘No’ before the age of one. They might stop what they’re doing when an adult says ‘no’, but they might carry on again soon after. A baby of one year old typically understands very familiar verbal cues, like ‘Let’s eat!’ or ‘Bathtime!’ or even ‘Give me the book’. They might head to the kitchen, for example, if asked, ‘Want to eat?’, or hand over an object if asked.

The ability to follow instructions builds gradually. By two years old, children are usually able to follow simple commands like ‘Kick the ball’, and by three years old they can follow more complex commands with two steps, like ‘Find the puppet and give it to Daddy’.

By the time a child starts in a school environment it’s important for him or her to be able to follow unfamiliar instructions with several parts, without gestures to help. There are many ways we can help prepare our little ones for this. One of the most important is simply by supporting their language learning. The more words they understand, and the more complex a sentence they can follow, the easier they will find it to process verbal commands.

We can also support our children in developing this skill by giving them practice at following instructions. Parents do this all day long! We’re doing it when we ask our little ones to eat, or come to the door, or give a cuddle.

Ways to help toddlers learn to follow instructions

For children at the very beginning of their language-learning journey, help them to become familiar with the instructions you repeat daily. Simplify your language to single words or very short phrases, like Stop! Sit down. Find the ball! Bring it to me! As you talk make sure to communicate really well, getting down to your child’s physical level and making eye contact if you can.

Build language rituals into your day by using certain phrases every time you do particular actions, e.g. ‘Put on shoes’ or ‘Wave to Daddy!’ Hearing these words spoken in the same way with the same actions daily will help young language learners to understand them, and then to follow the commands, and finally to say the words themselves.

Narrating what we do with our children in very simple language naturally supports them in learning to follow instructions. For example, if a young toddler brings you a book, you might say, ‘You’re bringing a book. Thank you for me bringing this book. Let’s read the book.’ Once they’ve heard this kind of sentence enough times they will be able to understand the instruction, ‘Bring the book! Bring me the book!’

Play is an ideal time for this kind of simple narration and instruction. If your little one does not follow your commands in play, then show them what you want them to do by doing it yourself or guiding them gently through the action. Playing Match and Copy is an excellent way to build the interaction and understanding very young learners need in order to learn to follow instructions.

At first language-learners need lots of support through demonstration, repetition and gestures like pointing. As their language skills grow, try giving them opportunities to strengthen their ability to follow instructions by using less gestures, and putting together more novel or more complex instructions. Whatever you may be doing, include instructions at the appropriate level for your child.

Following instructions is a language issue!

Finally, this isn’t a post about discipline! I’m interested in whether a child understands instructions, because that’s a language skill. Of course a toddler might understand and decide he or she doesn’t want to do what’s being asked. In play our instructions do have to be fun and motivating! Too many instructions can get frustrating and cause a toddler to tune out or rebel. We can ease this problem with good communication – there are some tips about that here.

However, difficulties following directions are a sign that a child may not understand what is said, and I think it’s important to be aware of this, because it can cause tensions and unhappiness. A parent or caregiver may think a child is being disobedient or stubborn, when she just doesn’t understand what is being asked of her. It’s easy to overestimate what a small child understands. If you are doing an activity with your child that involves instructions, and your child isn’t following them well, please consider whether they just don’t get it! Don’t make it too hard for yourself, or for her!

Finally, if you are reading this because you are worried that your toddler does not understand simple instructions, please do discuss your concerns with your child’s doctor. Not understanding language could be an indicator of a language disorder, so medical advice is appropriate.

Good luck with this challenging but exciting milestone!

This post is the fourth in a series on communication skills young children develop on their way to better and better communication. In the next post we are finally getting verbal, starting with play sounds, one of my favorite early language targets!

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Looking for more strategies and ideas to get your little one talking? Check out my book for strategies that work, and hundreds of fun playtime activities to share.

This post is shared on Practical Mondays.


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