How to teach your toddler to follow directions

Library Home  >  Parenting & Family Life
  Published on Wednesday, 11 July 2018

How to teach your toddler to follow directions

Library Home  >  Parenting & Family Life
  Published on Wednesday, 11 July 2018
Sick of searching for child care? Then stop! Sign up for Vacancy Alert It's quick, easy and free

Between the ages of one and three, a small child has a lot going on. Your toddler is enjoying upward mobility, and it's not just their body that is busy. Their brain is also working overtime as it develops intellectually, emotionally and socially. Even though your toddler is actively absorbing language, this doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll do as you say.

Is it possible to teach your toddler to follow instructions? Bright Horizons have some great ways to encourage them to pick up toys, put away shoes and generally heed your instructions on the home-front.

Why don't toddlers follow directions?

Because of all the developmental changes they're undergoing, there are four big reasons why a small child might struggle to follow instructions (or deliberately ignore you!)

  1. They're distracted: toddlers are curious and active, with a keen interest in 'cause and effect', so they're often more interested in making things happen, such as pouring or knocking things over rather than making things tidy.
  2. They're testing you: your toddler's penchant for experimentation means they also love getting a reaction. They might be thinking, "Does Mummy really mean it?" or "What will happen if I don't do what Daddy asks?"
  3. They're asserting their individuality: sometime during their first year, your baby realised that they're a separate being and with this epiphany comes the power for your toddler to say, "No" – just because they can.
  4. They're human: like everyone, your toddler has different moods and tolerances which mean they may not want to follow instructions. However, there will also be times when they don’t know how to follow your directions, whether it's because they don't understand, they can't follow them, or they're simply too tired, hungry, or grumpy.

How can you encourage your toddler to follow directions?

To help your toddler listen up and help out, Bright Horizons recommends that you:

  1. Create a 'climate of respect': speak to your child as you would to any person – in a direct, clear, open and respectful way. Instead of yelling an instruction or trying to manipulate circumstances, say things in a way that won't encourage toddler defiance. For example, say, "Let's put your shoes away," rather than, "Good girls/boys put their shoes away."
  2. Get organised: your toddler hasn't been tidying up toys for decades and they're new to daily routines, so make it easy for them to help. Create easy-to-access spaces for their belongings, such as a coat hook at toddler height, and show them how to put things away.
  3. Keep your expectations in check: because your toddler is just learning about the world, try not to overload them with instructions. Give them one job at a time and the time and space to complete it. Then if they don't follow your direction, you could take their hand and say, "Here, I'll help you."Afterwards, reward them with a smile or a simple "Thank you" for a job done well, and remember that a two-year-old won't tidy up like an adult, so try not to be a perfectionist, and put value on their effort instead.
  4. Focus on the fun factor: if you complain about household chores to your partner, your toddler will get the sense that jobs are to be avoided. Be positive about 'helping out' and inject some fun into domesticity.
  5. 'Say what you mean and mean what you say': because your toddler is testing boundaries and showing an interest in cause and effect, it's important that you follow-through on any requests you make. If you ask your toddler to do something, commit to them following your direction.

All in all, the toddler years are a great time to teach your child new skills, like using a broom or packing up toys, and involve them in the domesticity of family life. However, it's important that you recognise your little helper for what they are: a young child who's experimenting, asserting themself, and learning on the job.

This child care article was last reviewed or updated on Thursday, 09 July 2020

There's thousands
of amazing early
childhood care services on

and Child Care Vacancy Alert tells you as soon as a space comes up in one of your favourites.


Take the Quiz

The Child Care Guide covers everything you need to know about early childhood education and care no matter what stage of the process you are at.