How to Teach Kids to Follow Directions

You want kids to follow directions, right?

Ok, that makes sense.

....AND, let's keep in mind that one of the things that children are going to "pre"school for is to learn how to be at school. To follow the daily routines. Listen to the teacher. Go along with the group. Be apart of the group. Play well with others. To follow the directions. Back in the day I think we were a bit more clear on the fact that, yes, we want to familiarize the children with the ABCs and teach them some concepts, but overall the idea was to help them to get used to and be ready for being in school while supporting their development.

So, if you are teaching children 5 or below (or honestly even kindergarten) and children aren't just snapping to it as far as listening to directions I think it's important to remember that:

Part of the job of a preschool teacher is to teach children to follow the directions. 

Actually, I would go so far as to say it's a BIG and IMPORTANT part of the job.

Before getting into the question of HOW are going to teach them to follow the directions, given that that's one of the tasks we are charged with it is just super important to remember that this is actually what they are here to learn from you. So, expecting that they will all do it, all do it right away, or do it at the beginning of the year, is not a good or developmentally appropriate expectation. When I say, "not good" here, I don't mean that its morally objectionable, I mean that it is simply not realistic and you are kind of setting yourself and the children up for frustration, upset, and potentially power struggles.

So, as usual, I'm inviting you to do a little reframe of how you might be thinking about this.

Now, if you are a toddler teacher? 

Well, then just forget about it.

One of the jobs of the toddler is to not follow your directions. To resist your authority. 

It's in their DNA, like some sort of implanted resistance gene that blossoms and explodes once they turn 2 (Some are advanced so it happens earlier! Also, children with developmental delays literally may also be delayed with this and you will see it at 3 or 4 years of age). Then, the authority-resisting may or may not go fully or partially dormant until sometime during the teens or pre-teen years (I don't claim to be an expert on those years, don't ask me. If you're a parent of a teenager I'm sure you know exactly when it re-blossomed).

Toddlers are not going to follow directions. It's like herding cats. 

Do not take it personally and work not to get frustrated. If you really can't take it or think toddlers (in a group especially) should be able to follow directions then I gently recommend doing yourself a favor and trying to teach in the infant or preschool room next year :) where you either will be less likely to expect the children to follow directions or you'll be a little more likely to have them actually do so.

Ok, so, now that we've got that all cleared up (if I haven't lost you)...

HOW do we teach young children to follow directions?

In my opinion one of the absolute best ways is to do fun songs, games, finger plays, and movement activities that invite the children to follow directions!

I'm talking about the freeze song. I'm talking about Ring-around-the-Rosey. Acting out the Bear Hunt, Tiger Hunt, or Dragon Hunt (all available on iTunes and no I'm not getting commission but it's too bad I'm not because I recommend these ALL the time). Now, ANY finger play, song, movement activity or game where you are saying or doing a thing and inviting the children to copy or repeat you is GREAT! They are getting in the habit of looking at you as the teacher, following your lead, and doing what you say or do so that's terrific!

However, what I'm really talking about is songs, games, finger plays and movement activities where you or Greg and Steve are literally singing, "jump up and down, jump up and down..." or, "roar like a lion". And, if you're using recorded music that's great but make sure you are also singing those directions and doing the motions playfully and excitedly so that the children simply cannot resist.

In songs like the "freeze" the directions about what to do are in the song (just like last week when we spoke about singing about drying your hands but in this case its all fun, no chore). 

So, in these activities they are getting in the habit of following your directions while they are having the time of their lives!

(You're making it SO much fun and picking the REALLY fun songs, games, and activities so they are having the time of their life, right?)

They are getting in the habit of following directions...but it's fun!

Now, notice I said "invite"? (6 lines up). If they want to sit on the rug or twirl in circles and not follow directions during these activities than as long as no one's getting hurt I say fine. DO NOT get into a power struggle with them about following directions during the Bear Hunt. Cause, you're just working against yourself there. Say something like, "oh, Jacob I see you're sitting down for the Bear Hunt. Here, hold my camera and if you see the bear while we are out hunting take a picture for us!" (imaginary camera or grab a random object off a nearby shelf). Or, catch him that one millisecond where he's moving and not bumping into his peers and say, "oh Jacob I liked that kick-turn-jump move. I'm not sure I can do it while bear-hunting but show me again so I can try?" 

Whaddaya think? Do you have some good songs in your bank? Can you get some? Can you try to catch Jacob or whoever your Jacob is during the millisecond when he's doing something acceptable and build on that to break out of the redirection and correction hamster wheel? 

If you're not sure, this week pay attention to your go-to songs, games, finger plays, and movement activities. Which ones are fun and great and teach math like the 5 Green and Speckled Frogs...and which ones have directions embedded right in the fun? Look for songs that have prompts where you are singing directions about what you want the children to do. (Not like what I was talking about in last week's email where you're singing about drying hands and putting Legos in baskets). I'm talking freeze, we all fall dow, jump, pretend your a fish. Got it? 

Then, if you find your repertoire in this area is a bit sparse you can go find some songs like this or make some up!

THAT my friends is the best way I know to get kids to learn to follow directions, especially in a group setting.

I learned a lot of these songs, games, finger-lays and movement activities from the teachers I worked with when I came into the field, not in my early childhood or child development courses in college. We didn't actually talk about the fact that we were using these to teach children to follow directions. But now I realize that's exactly what we were doing. 

I hypothesize that all this pressure you all are under to teach them to write their names and other academic skills the hours off your lives you are losing when you are uploading 80bazillion photos for your assessments has meant a little less singing...a little less fun...and kids being a little less good at following directions (a lot less good?)

You can even try fun songs and activities with directions embedded with toddlers. Sometimes they'll follow along if you pick ones they love...at least for a bit!