1. School Age
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Requests and instructions: helping children cooperate

1-8 years

It’s great when children cooperate and do as they’re told. But cooperation doesn’t come naturally to all children. You can help your child learn to cooperate by using clear language and balancing instructions with requests.

Requests and instructions: the difference

A request is when you ask your child to do something.

For example, ‘Will you help me fold this washing?’ Or ‘I think you should wear your coat. It’s cold today’. Your child can say yes or no to a request.

An instruction is when you tell your child to do something.

For example, ‘Please help me fold this washing now’ or ‘Please put your coat on now’. This tells your child what you want her to do and when. Your child can’t say no – in theory, at least!

It’s important to be clear about whether you’re asking or telling your child to do something. If you’re asking, you’re letting your child make a choice about what to do. But if you’re telling, you expect your child to do what he’s told. If he doesn’t, there’ll be a consequence.

Sometimes it isn’t clear to children whether something is a request or an instruction. For example, ‘Why can’t anyone help me tidy up in here?’. Are you asking for your child’s help, telling her what to do, or complaining that no-one is helping? If what you want isn’t clear or specific, you probably won’t get any help with the tidying!

Requests give your child choices, and making choices helps your child build confidence and independence. But instructions are important and can be good for children too. For example, learning to follow instructions helps your child prepare for preschool and school.

Getting cooperation by using requests and instructions

It’s best to use a mix of instructions and requests.

But by using requests more often than instructions, you might get your child to cooperate more of the time.

Children can feel overwhelmed or rebellious if there are too many instructions. If you’re telling them what to do a lot, they might just ignore it. Also, it’s normal for your child to want more control as he gets older. By telling your child what to do most of the time, you’re taking away his sense of control.

You might increase the chances of your child doing what you ask if you give instructions that include options. For example, ‘It’s bath time. Do you want bubbles or no bubbles? Or ‘It’s time to get dressed – the red pants or the blue ones?’.

When you need to give an instruction, it can help to have a consequence ready if your child doesn’t cooperate. For example, ‘Please hold my hand while we cross the road’. The consequence might be standing or sitting on the footpath – very boring! – until your child holds your hand.

I save directions and insisting on obedience for the really important things – like wearing a bike helmet, holding my hand when we cross roads or being gentle with other kids. I use a firm voice so they know I’m serious. For most other things I just give choices like ‘You’ll probably want your jacket – it’s cold today’. If they don’t take it they soon learn for next time.
– Janice, mother of Max (four years) and Tully (six years)

Giving effective instructions

Ensure you have your child’s attention
When you need to give an instruction, you can give yourself the best chance of success by getting your child’s attention and making sure she’s listening to the instruction. You can do this by:

  • moving in close – within 2 m is ideal
  • getting down to your child’s eye level
  • using your child’s name
  • using a low and calm voice.

Use clear language
Instructions should be clear, short and appropriate for your child’s age.

Use short, easy words for younger children and slightly longer words and sentences for older children. For example, for a toddler you might say ‘Toys away’. But for a five-year old you could say ‘Please put your toys away now’.

Give only one instruction at a time for younger children. You might also use a different tone of voice for instructions to the one you use for requests.

Positive instructions help your child succeed because they tell him exactly what you want him to do rather than focussing on what you don’t want him to do. For example, say ‘Please chew with your mouth closed’ instead of ‘Don’t eat like that’. Or ‘Please pick up your food’ rather than ‘Don’t throw your food on the floor’.

Encourage cooperation
Asking for agreement from your child can help with getting her to cooperate. For example, you might have a conversation that goes like this:

  • Dad: ‘Please put your shoes on – we’re leaving’.
  • Child: blank look.
  • Dad: ‘Mel? Put your shoes on now – do you understand?’.
  • Child: ‘OK’.
  • Dad: ‘Well done. You can tell me about your game on the way home’.

Be prepared to repeat yourself
Children often need reminders. For example, ‘Sam, I’m telling you again. Put the tissues in the bin now’.

Sometimes you can encourage a reluctant helper by adding an incentive or reason for your child to do as he’s told. For example, ‘When the tissues are gone, we’ll have room to play our spaceship game’. For a younger child you might say ‘First shoes, then park’.

If your child seems distracted, it can help to get her to repeat the instructions back to you before she starts the task.

Use consequences
If your child won’t follow your instructions, you’ll need either to use consequences or to come up with a creative way of dealing with the situation, depending on how important you feel the task is and your child’s age.

If you’re firm and consistent your child will eventually learn that at times he needs to do things he doesn’t want to do to help your family, get praise, avoid discomfort or get what he wants. This is an important step in developing self-discipline and independence as he grows up.

Helping your child learn to cooperate: tips

It can take time for children to learn to cooperate with instructions and requests. These ideas might help things along:

  • Keep using the same, familiar words – for example, ‘Listen Jamie’, ‘You need to’ and ‘Now please’. These words act as cues, and eventually your child will catch on to their meaning.
  • Give your child praise and encouragement when she does cooperate – for example, ‘Great job, I couldn’t have done it without you’. This makes it more likely that your child will do what you ask next time.
  • Get into daily routines. A routine can help your child get through repetitive daily tasks. Routines can also be particularly helpful for young children and children with special needs.

Why your child might not cooperate

If your child isn’t cooperating, it might be because you’re expecting more than he can do. Think about your child’s age and level of understanding when you give instructions.

If your child has only just learned to talk or has special needs, she might not always reply or understand what you’re saying. It can help to show her how to do what you’re asking. You can also give examples of what you want her to do, help her follow the instructions the first few times or get her to copy you as you do it together.

Also, there might be a good reason why your child won’t do what you’re asking. Your child might not feel well, might feel tired or scared or might not know what to do. For example, asking an over-tired and hungry child to clean up his room probably isn’t going to work.

If your child isn’t cooperating for a good reason, you could delay the start time of the instruction until your child is more likely to cooperate. For example, ‘After dinner, I want you to clean up your room’.

Sometimes children go through phases of refusing to cooperate at all. It’s normal for a child’s behaviour to change as she develops. It’s also normal for a child to be very uncooperative for a while.

If this sounds like your situation, you could try the following:

  • Give your child lots of affection when he’s behaving in an appropriate way.
  • Comment when your child does the right things.
  • Ask rather than tell where possible, to avoid a battle of control.
  • Try engaging your child in tasks by making them fun or part of a game.
  • Make sure your child gets some quiet time alone with you.

Try to be consistent, firm and loving and focus on getting your child to cooperate on the important things, like safety issues.

If your child has special needs, it’s helpful to coach other people – for example, older siblings, extended family members and neighbours – so they know how to give your child effective requests and instructions.

Most children love attention – and many don’t mind whether it’s positive or negative. If your child is getting lots of negative attention for refusing to cooperate, she might keep behaving this way. Instead, try to give your child more attention for cooperation. Respond in a low-key way when she doesn’t cooperate.

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Last updated or reviewed
02-11-2016

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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