Giving Effective Instructions

Health Writer

In last week's post we talked about what to do when you must discipline your child when at a family function or in public. One of the tips was to talk to your child beforehand and review expectations, in other words, give your child instructions on how to behave. This is true no matter what situation you may be in. Letting your child know ahead of time what behaviors you expect and what behaviors are inappropriate helps tremendously. This is important for all children, but especially important for children with ADHD.

This week, we are going to follow up and talk about how to give effective instructions and increase the chance of your child listening to you and following your directions. The following tips help whether your child is still a toddler or is a teen. (If you haven't been using these methods your teen may rebel at first, but stick with it. He will still benefit from knowing exactly what is expected and what is going to happen if he doesn't follow your instructions.)

Before you talk to your child

Giving effective instructions begins before you even talk to your child. Think about the following questions. The more specific, the better. Writing down the answers may help you to stay focused, especially as you learn to use this technique. As you practice, you will find the process becomes natural.

What do you want to accomplish? Be clear about why you are giving instructions and what the end result should be. For example, suppose you want your child to take out the trash. What does that entail? Do you want your child to take the trash from the kitchen and put outside, on the corner? Do you want your child to put a new trash bag in the trash can? Be specific about what the end result of the task is.

When do you want the task completed? Do you want your child to take out the trash every Tuesday evening? Or are you asking for help just this once? Do you want him to complete the task right now, or should it be done later? Know exactly when you want the task completed.

Decide what the consequences are for not completing the task. Again, the more specific you are, the better. Your son may not be allowed to play video games or watch television on Tuesday until the trash is taken out and a new bag is in place.

Are there any choices available? Some instructions you give will not have any choices. Since trash day is Wednesday, you don't have a choice of completing the task on any other day. Some other tasks might have choices. Think about the choices and whether you are going to allow your child some flexibility in completing the task. Are the consequences different depending on what choice was made? Are you willing to be flexible and negotiate how and when the instructions are followed?

How will you know if the task is accomplished? It is easy to know if the trash was taken out. You can simply look out the window to the curb and check the trash basket to see if a new bag is there. It's not always that easy. Suppose your instructions are "to act right" when in Aunt Mildred's house. Thinking about how you will measure the outcome helps you be more specific. How are you going to know if your child behaved while at Aunt Mildred's house. If your answer is general and vague, such as "if I don't need to yell at him," then your child probably won't understand the instructions or what is expected of him. You need to have measurable goals for the end result. Instead, you might want to explain, "While we are in Aunt Mildred's house, you cannot run or climb on the furniture. You must share the toys with your cousins." Giving your child specific instructions will help him understand what your expectations are.

Knowing this information ahead of time helps you be not only more specific but more confident as you give your child instructions. Although we used an example of taking out the trash, these questions can be used for any directions you are giving your child, whether a specific task or general expectations for behavior.

Once you have answered the questions, you should have a clear understanding of what you want and how you will know if it is accomplished.

When talking to your child, keep the following tips in mind:

Always give instructions when your child is right in front of you. Don't yell into the next room. Either go to your child or ask him to come to you.
Minimize distractions. Turn off the video game, the television and, if necessary, ask other people to leave the room for a moment or take your child into a quiet area.

Maintain eye contact. Hold your child's chin gently and keep their face pointed toward your face. Maintain eye contact as you explain the instructions and the consequences.

Limit instructions based on age. For example, give one instruction at a time for younger children. Once that is complete, give the second step.

Be specific. Explain what you want him to do, what the end result should be and what the consequences are for not complying.

Monitor and follow up. If you know exactly when your child starts drifting away from the instructions, you can gently help him refocus on the task.

Praise him for completing the task. Positive reinforcement is very important for children with ADHD. For longer instructions (such as behaving in Aunt Mildred's house) check on your child from time to time and praise him each time you see him sharing a toy.

Giving instructions effectively helps everyone. Your child knows what to expect, knows what is going to happen if he doesn't comply. You know what to expect and what to do when your child falters. These steps may seem like a lot of work in the beginning but as you continue to use them and practice, it will become second nature.