A parent’s guide for teaching positive instruction following to toddlers

If you’re the parent of a toddler, your days are filled with the word “no:” both your child saying the word to you and you saying it to them. Your day is also likely filled with activities, routines, and movement, all of which you need your toddler to agree to in order to maintain some level of sanity, and well…to do anything! All children should have a choice and there are easy ways to incorporate choice into the day, and there are also times when it’s important for a child to follow instructions for their own safety and well being. I was recently at the park and observed a mother and her 2-year-old son. It never gets terribly cold where I live in California, but on this day, a jacket or coat seemed necessary and everyone else at the park was wearing one. I was surprised to see her tot running around without a jacket on. She and I briefly spoke, commenting on the funny things parents of toddlers do – a casual conversation that most parents have in these situations. After our brief interaction, she looked at her phone and told her tot “Time to go! Dad is waiting for us so we can go to the store.” Surprisingly, her son was A-Okay to transition from the park (check out my blog on mastering toddler transitions for more on this topic!), but, as she approached him to put his jacket on, he ran circles around her, screamed “no” and actively resisted. She tried to get the jacket on him for a few seconds, but looked exasperated, and quickly gave up. She turned to me and said, “I guess we’re not wearing our jacket today.” And they left.

This situation or situations like this are more than common when raising toddlers. And it makes sense that they would regularly occur – we ask our kids to do A LOT of things throughout the day. Take just a moment and reflect on the most recent interaction you had with your child. I bet there was at least one,  if not several instructions involved in that interaction.

Get your shoes on! Take a bath! Get your diaper changed! Come inside! Get in the car!

We’re pretty much telling our kids to “do stuff” all day long. And while telling them to do things is a natural part of parenting, this parenting task gests complicated because the toddler stage is filled with an intense period of growth. Kids are learning new things at superspeed, and their brain is operating on all cylinders. They’re experiencing physical and emotional growth while trying to navigate a completely new world and new experiences daily. So, when they resist an instruction, say “no” or run away, they’re not “bad kids” by any sense of the term! There is no such thing as a bad kid. They’re navigating their environment in a completely developmentally appropriate way. How we, as adults in their world RESPOND to that resistance is critical to whether the behavior becomes a big deal or becomes easy to manage.  

So, let’s get to that part about how we respond……

When you ask a kid to do something, you’re presenting an instruction or a request. And for most kids, instructions aren’t particularly “fun.” That is, kids mostly want to keep doing what they are currently doing, and they don’t care to do what you’ve asked them to. Of course, there are “fun” instructions like “let’s go eat ice cream” but you likely don’t get any refusal during those requests, so we won’t focus on them here. The day to day requests we ask our kids to do are boring, and even a bit aversive to them. And so, when you ask your kid to do something, you should always assume they don’t want to do it. And that they will do everything in their power to avoid doing what’ you’ve asked them to do. It’s our job as parents to teach them that when we ask them to do something that is important for their health and wellbeing, we’re going to positively and calmly follow through.  Following adults’ instructions is not only important, but critical to their success in school, activities and in life. 

And so, that mom in the park was reinforcing her child’s resistance. This is a bit complicated but what’s happening is a form of reinforcement, called negative reinforcement – it’s when something aversive is present, someone engages in a behavior and that aversive thing that was present gets removed. In this situation:

Aversive thing: Mom’s request: Put your jacket on

Behavior that gets reinforced: running away, saying no, actively resisting (A not so great thing!)

Event that reinforced it: taking the request away (“guess we’re not wearing our jacket today!”)

To provide a more real-world example: think about the last time you got in your car and didn’t put your seatbelt on right away. What happened? A very annoying beep that you likely found aversive started to occur. And so, what did you do? You put your seatbelt on. And what happened? The beeping stopped. That’s negative reinforcement, but it’s reinforcing a good behavior that we want to see (seatbelt wearing).

Aversive thing: beeping

Behavior that gets reinforced: putting seatbelt on (A good thing!)

We want to teach out kid that the instruction will only go away once they’ve completed it. And that we will follow through with our instruction. The running away, resisting, saying no has no function and it certainly won’t get mom to say “okay you don’t have to wear your jacket.”

At this point, I’ll refer you to my YouTube channel, specifically my video on 3-step guided compliance. Watch it. Then Watch it again. Then watch it 7 more times. A procedure like this is CRITICAL to instruction following. It does a whole lot of great things, including 1) teaching your child that your words have meaning 2) that your words are important and have meaning, and 3) that despite their resistance, the instruction to take a bath, put on a jacket , sit at the dinner table is an important one that will not go away based on their behavior.

But here’s the trick: you have to be SUPER consistent. Meaning: if you ask your child to do something, you have to guide them through it. You can’t only follow through half the time, or it won’t work. But, beautifully, if you do it all the time, you won’t have to do it as much! Once your kid learns you mean what you say, the negative behaviors will go away and they’ll start to listen! Really! I promise! And remember that you should use this strategy for the big instructions that you really need them to follow to maintain safety and health! In other scenarios, you can provide choice, allow negotiation, and honor requests.

If working with a toddler, you can also use this developmental stage to your advantage: most toddlers absolutely want to do things themselves (I’m a big boy! Me do!!) – and so you helping them is more aversive than just doing the task! We’ve used 3-step guided compliance with my son consistently and I have to say: he listens to almost all of what we ask him to do – and quickly! We had to work to get there, but now I don’t think much about asking him to do things because I almost always know he will listen. And on the rare occasion a little negative behavior creeps in, I’ll usually just ask him if he needs some help (aka, I’m about to use 3-step) and he quickly says “NO!” and does it himself. I don’t even have to go into the procedure anymore!

Now, there are all sorts of things on top of this procedure you can do to help support compliance: provide choices, give lots of attention and praise when your child independently responds to your instruction, and break instructions down into small actionable activities that are easy to follow through with (e.g., instead of saying “go take a bath” say: “go to the bathroom, take off your socks, etc.”). Most importantly, I always tell parents that if you know you don’t have the energy to follow through, don’t place the instruction in the first place. So, that mom in the park would have been better off just not asking her kid to put his jacket on in the first place, over asking and not following through.

So teach your child to follow those important instructions while providing choice and independence along the way!

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