As a mum and former early years teacher, I am fully qualified to tell you it can be really difficult to get little ones to follow instructions sometimes. Now, sure, there are times they don't want to do what you're asking of them. And of course, they're easily distracted (especially when they don't want to do what you're asking of them!). But in my experience, when instructions are a struggle, it probably has more to do with the brain's ability to process new information and store it in memory long enough for the instruction to be carried out.
It may not seem like it, but children are born with the same memory capacity adults have. What they're lacking is the experience they need to use it efficiently or effectively just yet. That's because in the early years, the brain is laying down neural pathways that determine how information is processed, stored, and retrieved. Until those pathways are in place, reliable memory (short-, working-, and long-term memory) is still a work in progress.
There are lots of fun ways to help children manage memory tasks, but one of my favorites is music...
Music & Memory
Music works together with the brain to compress information and make it easier to retain. You see, the human brain has limits to what it can store in short-term memory at any one time. The repetitive nature of a musical melody enables the brain to group or "chunk" multiple pieces of information.
An obvious example is The ABC Song. Long before a child grasps the complex concept of symbolic language, he's able to sing all the letters of the alphabet -- in order! We think "how smart!" But it's really music condensing 26 pieces of information into one memory.
So it goes, that if music helps little ones remember, then you both stand a better chance with instructions if you add music to the mix. So here's an easy trick... sing your instructions.
That's right, SING them.
For instance, try singing the following lyrics to the tune of Old MacDonald Had a Farm...
Time to tidy up today
Let's put our toys away.
Time to go. We're on our way!
Hooray! Hooray! Hooray!
Come sit by me and have a chat.
Come circle round the mat.
Music also cuts through the audio clutter to get children's attention...
Show me how you listen here.
Give me both your ears.
And, once the kids are familiar with your Singstructions, pause to let them finish the lyric. For instance, try a musical reminder of good manners and have the children sing "please" and "thank you" with you...
To be polite you must say PLEASE
And THANK YOU very much
Of course, little ones will remember even more when they physicalize the instruction. So add movement through dance, finger plays, or whatever else works. For example, rub your hands together as you sing...
Let's wash our hands
And don't forget the SOAP!
Setting a Collaborative Tone
More than a memory trick, music and movement can be a shared language that makes you partners in the instruction. Striking a collaborative tone fosters understanding and respect between you while giving kids an active role in the decision making. And any time a child plays a part in deciding things for himself, he's learning what it feels like to be self-reliant.
So when it’s time to get the job done, start singing! And if you're shy about your voice, don't worry. Kids respond to the voices they know, love, and respect (even if you do sound like a frog!).
Close your eyes and snuggle in.
And let your dreams begin.