If you're like most parents, not being able to get your children to cooperate is one of your most vexing challenges. It’s especially maddening when a child’s lack of compliance seems totally irrational; for example, 3-year-old Sadie, who loves to eat but refuses to come to the dinner table and draws her parents into a power struggle, making everyone miserable. This naturally catapults her parents into revved-up mode. They get increasingly annoyed and resort to all kinds of rewards or threats to motivate Sadie to tow the line. Unfortunately, this typical, reactive kind of response usually makes it less likely that a child will change her tune and is more likely to result in an intensified tussle between parent and child.
As with all child-rearing challenges, the key is to figure out the root cause of the problem; what the driving forces are that result in the unacceptable behaviors. My colleague, occupational therapist, Teri Kozlowski of Teekoz Kids, has helped me crack the code on getting kids to cooperate by pointing out two key factors that influence the chance that children will follow directions: (1) whether children are even attending to and processing the information parents are trying to deliver to them; and (2) the tone and approach parents use to communicate directions to their children.
Factor #1: While there are many reasons why a child might not cooperate, one major variable is whether the child has even tuned in to what is being communicated to her. If your child hasn’t processed the information, for example, because she is still focused on the toy she is playing with, it makes it very hard for her to act effectively on your direction.
There are certainly times when children are purposefully ignoring your direction because they have learned that this is a good strategy to avoid having to make a transition. But there are also times when children are not attending because they have challenges with tuning in to others, period. They get so absorbed in their own internal experience that they may have a hard time turning their attention to what others are trying to communicate to them.
Regardless of the underlying reason for a child not tuning in, the following strategies can be very effective for getting kids to focus on and process a direction. All the strategies provide cues which help children know exactly what is expected of them, just like you might have a special ritual to say goodnight at bedtime or goodbye at preschool drop-off that helps your child cope with a separation. Consistent cues are powerful tools for helping children comply with directions, which is why kids are often much more cooperative at child care or school than at home. Group settings are highly structured with cues for everything: singing a song to signal that it’s clean-up time, ringing a bell when it’s time to line up to go outside, etc.
Strategies for Tuning In:
Without realizing it, many of us talk to children before securing their full attention. How often do you find yourself repeating a direction? Calling your child’s name over-and-over? Rephrasing the same direction ten different ways? Talking to the back of your child's head while he’s focused on something else? The following strategies provide clear cues to children to help them stop what they are doing, pay attention to, and process the important information you need to communicate to them.
“Pause”: Stretch out your arm and hold up your hand as you say, “pause”. Explain that when you signal them to “pause”, it means “stop what you’re doing and get your body ready to listen.” You use “pause” to cue children to tune in when more typical strategies for getting their attention, such as calling their name or telling them you have a question to ask them, haven’t worked. (When we call children’s names over and over they tend to tune it out—think Charlie Brown’s teacher.)
Listening body: This provides your child a clear direction about what to do to get his body and mind primed to pay attention. Teach your child about and practice listening body during a quiet moment together. “Darnell, we’re going to play a fun new game called, listening body. Once your whole body is ready to pay attention, I’ll read you a story.” Then you describe, demonstrate, and help your child practice the following steps:
Listening feet: feet are on the ground and “quiet”, meaning they aren’t moving. Guide your child’s feet to the ground and put a finger up to your mouth and say “quiet” to signal “quiet feet”.
Listening hands: hands that are not messing around with other things (unless it’s a small toy/object you have given your child that helps him focus). Guide your child to place his hands on his lap and say, “quiet hands”.
Listening ears: ears that are listening to who is talking and not to other sounds in the environment. Point to your own ears and say, “listening ears”.
Listening eyes: eyes that are looking at the person who is talking. Point to your own eyes and say, “listening eyes”.
Listening mouth: a mouth that is not talking. Make the sign for zipping your own mouth closed to add a visual cue.
Listening brain: a brain that is tuned in to what the other person is communicating, and not thinking about other things. Turn an imaginary knob on the side of your head. This is the cue that your brain is turned on to what you are talking about and doing together.
Once you have taught your child about listening body, in the moment when you need to use it, only provide the cues that are necessary beyond saying, “I need a listening body”. For example, you might need to place a hand over the object your child is still messing with and guide his hands to his lap to provide additional support for him to keep his hands still. Or, you might just use the visual cue of zipping your mouth closed. Keep in mind that the success of these strategies, such as pause and listening body, depends on using them consistently. It won't be effective if you direct your child to show his listening body only one out of the 20 times you are trying to get his attention.
Choice vs direction: Teach your child that a choice is something she gets to pick, while a direction is something she has to do. A choice might be offering her a cheese stick or apples slices for snack. A direction might be: “It's time to come to the table for dinner.” Labeling choices and directions helps your child understand the expectation. “Charlie, I have a direction for you: it’s time to put away the Magna-tiles and wash hands for dinner.” Or, “Laila, you have a choice: do you want to brush teeth before books or after books?” You can also call directions "jobs" as kids tend to respond very positively to this concept: “Omar, your job is to put all the blocks back on the shelf.” When communicating a direction, be very careful not to start with, “can you” or end with “okay?” (“Can you get into you pjs?” Or, “It’s time to clean up, okay?”) Almost all parents do this without thinking. It’s important to become aware of these seemingly minor language choices as they cause confusion for children, who hear that you’re giving them a choice, and frustration for parents when kids don’t comply. I was at a home visit recently during which a mom kept asking her 2-year-old to, “Please take your feet off the kitchen table, okay?” After several requests the toddler turned to her mom and simply said, “No, I like them on the table.” (Click here for more on providing clear choices and expectations.)
Beware the brain teasers: These are distractions that call your child’s attention away from what he needs to be focusing on; for example, the TV, a toy, a noise, a piece of lint on the carpet. In these moments, you might say: “Oh—brain teaser!”, as you point to the distraction; it might be another book on the shelf or a toy he is reaching for while you’re reading together. Then add, “It’s time to turn your brain off of the toy and on to our book”, as you turn an imaginary knob by the side of your head to add a visual cue about the need to change his brain's focus. Another typical scenario is when you’ve directed your child to retrieve a specific object, such as his shoes, and along the way he sees a ball and starts to play with it. In this situation, you might say: “Oops, brain teaser. What was your job?” This provides a cue to get him back on track in a positive way, without nagging.
Being a helper: This is a great tool for when the strategies above are not working and your child is still having a hard time focusing on the direction. Take the example of the child who is going for the ball instead of getting his shoes. You might say: “Oh, do you need a helper? I’m going to count to three and you can decide if you can put the ball down and come get your shoes on, or if you want me to be a helper.” If he doesn’t comply after the count of three, you say, “I can be a helper and put the ball in the ‘wait space’”, which is essentially anywhere the child can’t access the object. This takes the distraction out of the equation and helps your child focus on the task at hand.
Notice that all of these strategies have an intentionally, positive focus - such as showing children they have choices and positioning yourself as a helper - which is a great segue to the next key variable for getting kids to cooperate.
Factor #2: Parents tend to unwittingly approach limit-setting or giving directions using a negative tone or frame: “If you don’t stay in your room, I am going to put a gate up!” "If you don't put all these toys away I am throwing them in the trash." This approach engages children’s defiance and puts them in a more oppositional state of mind which makes it less likely that they will comply. When you use a positive tone it motivates children to cooperate. Consider the following strategies:
You have two great choices!: This strategy acknowledges that you can’t make your child do anything. You can only set clear boundaries and limits that you are able to implement which guide and shape her behavior. It also provides a positive frame as it focuses on the fact that your child is making the choices and you are just implementing the consequences of her decisions. If she makes a good choice it results in a positive outcome for her. A poor choice leads to a less-desired outcome. Here’s how it might look in real life: “Tania, the direction is to stay in your room after lights-out. That’s our rule. You have two great choices: if you choose to stay in your room, no gate. If you choose to come out of your room, we will help you get back into bed one time and put the gate up to help you stay in your room so you can get a good night's sleep. You decide.” Or, "Brandon, if you choose to cooperate with tooth-brushing, we will have time for an extra book; if you choose not to cooperate, I will need to brush your teeth which means we won't have time for the bonus book." This incentivizes children with natural consequences: cooperation leads to more time to do desired activities.
Direct, don’t correct: Children, especially highly sensitive, reactive children, tend to feel shamed and overwhelmed when being corrected. When they hear “no!” their brains become flooded with emotion and they are unable to think or problem-solve. This makes it much less likely they will comply and change their behavior in positive ways. Instead, skip the “no” and provide a clear direction about the expectation and what your child can do. For example, if a child gets up from the table before mealtime is over, instead of saying, “No getting up to from table. Sit back down right now or there will be no more food,” you might say: “Oh, we’re still sitting at the table” (as you tap his chair to provide a visual cue). Or, if a child goes for a toy when you’ve told her it’s time to get pjs on, you might respond: “We’re putting on pajamas, now.” This approach also has an added benefit as it entails using a lot less language than we tend to use when we are frustrated and trying to get our children to cooperate. We give a long lecture thinking we can convince our children to do the right thing. But this tends to have the opposite effect. When a limit is being set it’s stressful for kids. They have to stop doing something they enjoy in order to comply with someone else’s agenda. The more we talk, the more agitated and overstimulated children become, which escalates their frustration and interferes with their ability to regulate and comply. This positive and “to the point” strategy also helps you self-regulate. All that lecturing tends to increase parents’ emotional intensity. Providing clear direction is simpler, keeps everybody calmer, and makes you a more effective limit-setter.
“First, then”: When your child is pursuing an object or activity that is preventing her from focusing on the task at hand, you can say: “Oh, do you want to play with the balls? ... Great idea! First we need to clean up these toys and then we can play with the balls.” When you acknowledge and validate your child’s desire and confirm that she will be able to do what she wants to do eventually, you reduce the stress she typically experiences when she can’t get what she wants right away. This calms her mind and also puts her in a more positive frame of mind which makes her more willing to comply.
Everything children do is driven by what’s going on in their bodies and minds. When you provide them with tools to calm their bodies and focus their minds, and when you approach directions and limits with a positive and motivating tone, you set your children (and yourself!) up for success.