“Why Don’t They Listen to Me?” By Dr. Sharon Doubet

Sharon Doubet, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor at Illinois State University in the Department of Special Education. Her research interests include the social and emotional development of young children, early childhood assessment, families, and professional development.

Why don’t they listen to me?”

            Think about the number of times each day that you find yourself repeating directions to children. As adults, we get frustrated when children “do not listen” to us when we ask them to do something. What we need to think about is how we are communicating the directions so that we can “set the child up for success”. Let’s talk about strategies to improve direction-giving and reduce stress for you and your students.Image

Giving Directions

            First, think about the types of directions you are giving throughout the day. When you have directions that are for the whole class, and are typically the same each day – TEACH the directions to the class! For example, in a preschool classroom, preparing for lunch is a whole group activity and is something you do each day. Sit with your co-teacher and plan the steps involved in preparing for lunch. List the adults’ jobs and the children’s jobs. Determine which parts of this activity can be accomplished by the children with and without adult support. List the steps for the children and plan how to teach them their part, and how to acknowledge their efforts.  Image

Examples of this process for children could be: children are on the carpet reading books, while some children are washing hands and some children are setting the table. The steps in setting the table are to put out the plates, silverware, cups and napkins. Continue with the steps to complete the complete lunch process (i.e., serving, eating and cleaning up process). Teach this process to children in either small groups or large group time. By teaching typical expectations of all children, such as the lunch routine, you will reduce the amount of direction-giving for individual children and increase the amount of time you can focus on having quality interactions and discussions with individual children!

ImageA second strategy to improve direction giving is to use picture schedules. Using pictures will provide the children with visual reminders of common activities. Remember: the spoken word is gone the minute you say it, but a picture is a consistent reminder.

Using our example of lunch preparation, you could engage the children in a project to determine what pictures could you plan to take of them doing their “lunch jobs” that would help them to remember each day what they need to be doing at that time. A fun way to introduce this task to children is to ask them to think about having a new friend join the class. What would they want to tell that new child about all of the jobs they do each day during the lunchtime routine? Use your picture schedule to teach and to remind children about their jobs. You could use a chart with the pictures, or use the pictures along with sentences to make a story book.


When giving directions to children, think about these strategies:

  1. Make sure you have the children’s attention before you give the direction. Go to the child, maybe touch their shoulder lightly, get on their eye level.
  2. Minimize the number of directions given to children. Sometimes children can only process one direction at a time. For example: if you ask them to get their tote bag, put the papers in it, and sit back down at the table, you may find that they get their tote bag and then wander around the room. You might get frustrated because you already told them what to do and they “aren’t doing it”. It could be that they do not recall what the 2nd and 3rd directions where. Some children will need you to give them one direction at a time.
  3. Individualize the way directions are given to children.
  4. Give clear, simple directions.
  5. Develop picture cards of directions to give to children. Think of common activities to develop direction picture cards for, such as bathroom, washing hands, snacks, arrival.Image
  6. Give children the opportunity to respond to a direction, this can help them to process the information When appropriate, give the child choices and options for following directions, “I need for you to put your coat on and get your tote bag, which one will you do first?”
  7. Follow through with positive acknowledgment of children’s behavior. “I noticed that you remembered to put your papers in your tote bag! You were thinking about what to do next. That is great work!”
  8. Give directions that are stated in a positive way.

The following activity will help you to rephrase your negative direction, to a positive teaching statement. Practice changing the negative statement into a positive one.

Negative Statement

Positive Teaching Statement

Don’t leave your book bag in the middle of the floor. It will be safe for everyone when you put your book bag in your cubby.
How many times have I told you where to park the wagons? We are going to put the wagons in the wagon parking lot.
Don’t run in the hall.
You can’t yell when you want a toy that someone else has.


You have many opportunities throughout your teaching day to guide children when giving directions.  When children have successful experiences in their environment, you will find that children develop into more responsible and competent students who are ready to tackle the academic aspects of their education. Review this list of strategies the next time you feel like saying, “Why don’t they listen to me?”

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