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Does your 4 or 5 year old know these basic concepts for following instructions?

Child not listening and not following instructions to brush teeth

Our kids hear so many instructions throughout the day. These instructions may come from you, from other adults, from siblings or even from their peers! At this age, children usually get instructions for every little action they do... and they're expected to follow it! They get instructions for when to brush their teeth, when to wash their hands, where to stand, where to put their shoes, when they can play, how long they can play, when they need to clean up.. it's endless.

Some children may have difficulty following instructions. You might find yourself repeating yourself multiple times before they listen to you. Or might find yourself simplifying the instructions or breaking it down into single steps. You end up doing it yourself because it's faster. If this is you and your child, they might need some help understanding basic concepts. Keep reading to learn about the basic concepts your child needs to follow directions.

Basic Concepts for Following Instructions (4 or 5 year old)

Every direction we give involves an action and basic concepts. Basic concepts are the everyday words we use to talk about the world around us. They include words about location, quantity, descriptions, time and feelings. Basic concepts are essential for following directions, and navigating the world successfully. To follow a direction, a child must have a good understanding of the basic concepts embedded within the direction. If they do not understand the meaning behind the words in the instruction, they won't be able to follow the instruction - even if they really want to!

Your 4 or 5 year old Needs to Know These Concepts to Follow Instructions

Below are the basic concepts your 4 or 5 year old needs for following instructions. They include positional, quantity, describing and time concepts. These basic concepts are highly frequent and common, however some children may benefit from more targeted exposure.

basic concepts 4-5 year olds must know to follow directions chatty therapy edmonton alberta

If you feel confident that your child understand these concepts, you can start exposing them to concepts in the next stage! These are concepts children 5-6 years old should know:

basic concepts 5-6 year olds must know to follow directions chatty therapy edmonton alberta

Why doesn't my child follow instructions?

Following instructions can be hard for our children if they don't have the language to understand what they need to do. Some children who simply don't understand may be labelled as having difficult behaviours, highly distracted or as a "problem child".

Following directions is a multi-step process involving basic concepts. Children need to attend to the instruction, process the words, remember what to do, and then actually complete the actions. When children are younger, they get simple one step directions with simple actions. We usually give them lots of clues for what to do. We say "Put your hat on!" while handing them the hat. We say "Give Mommy the ball!" while holding out our hand. When children get older, instructions become more complex. Older children start getting instructions like "Write your name with pencil on the back of the page before you give it to me". Instructions start getting longer. They start to have multiple parts. They start to become less contextualized - meaning it becomes harder to guess what to do based on the context. Instructions start containing more advanced concepts.

If your child is 4 or 5 years old, they're likely going to kindergarten or have had the chance to participate in extra-curricular activities (e.g., library programs, summer camps, swimming lessons). In these structured programs, following directions can be even harder because they are expected to listen and follow instructions in a distracting environment. Often a teacher or program leader will yell out an instruction to a room full of busy children and expect that the group will hear, understand, and remember what to do. The distracting environment can make it even harder for children to follow directions.

Some children who seem to constantly ignore instructions or not listen, may actually have difficulties with the language or basic concepts.

Signs that your child does not understand instructions

When children aren't able to understand the words in an instruction, they will may try these strategies:

  • Watching their peers and copying their peers instead of thinking for themselves.

  • Doing whatever aligns with their personal preference, ignoring the directions completely.

  • Attempting to follow the part of the direction they understand. For example, you may ask a child to walk around the puddle. However, if the child doesn't understand the concept of "around" they might just walk through the puddle. In their mind, they have followed your instruction based on the words they understood.

  • Following the first part of the a multi-step direction. Some children use the strategy of doing the first part of whatever direction they hear. This may be a problem if adults give an instruction with complex language. For example, a teacher might say: "We're going to have snack after we clean up". If a child does not understand the concept "after" they might head straight for their snack without cleaning up!

  • Following the last part of a multi-step direction. Some children might use a different strategy of following the most recent direction. In multi-step directions, the most recent direction would be last direction. The first direction would the "oldest" or further into the past. For example, if a teacher says "Tuck in your chair before you line up", the child may line up right away without tucking in their chair.

  • Continue doing whatever they are currently doing until someone helps them.

How to teach your child basic concepts to help them follow instructions

When children have a good understand of basic concepts, it will be easier for them to understand instructions. This will free up the resources in their brain for thinking, remembering and learning. As well, concepts build upon each other. When children have a good grasp on basic concepts, they can start to understand more complex ideas.

The best way to teach your child new concepts is to talk about the concepts as they occur in your day to day routine. This gives them a tangible and direct example of what the word means. For example, if your child goes grocery shopping with you, you could let your child touch each item before you place it into the cart. After they feel it, you can say if it is "rough" or "smooth".

Another great way to introduce new concepts is in a fun activity where your child can learn through play. For example, a fall treasure hunt on a walk is another fantastic moment to introduce the words "rough" and "smooth". Your child will love searching for different objects. You can either ask your child to find "rough" or "smooth" objects, or your child can bring you an interesting object and you can say if it is "rough" or "smooth".

At the bottom of our other blog post, we've listed out all the tips for teaching your child new concepts. These tips work for all concepts, across the ages. Click here to read more!

Comment below to share other tips and tricks you have for teaching your child new concepts!


Speech, Language and Feeding Therapy in Edmonton, Alberta

Chatty Therapy has wonderful speech-language pathologists who can give you more specific ideas on how to work with your child and tailor it to your daily routine. Or we can come into your home to help your child learn the concepts they need. Speech-language pathologists specialize in helping children understand others and express themselves better. If you are worried about your child’s ability to understand and follow directions, learn more about our services or book a free 15-minute consultation. It may be helpful for us to do an assessment to identify specific concepts that your child could use more support with.


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