Want Your Child to Follow Directions? – free printables

Does your child ignore you when you ask him to do something?  Are you desperate to teach your child to follow directions?

This is a common frustration I heard from a lot of parents when I taught and I also hear it from other parents now that I’m a mom.

Does this sound like your family:

  • “My child won’t put his shoes for school on when I ask.”
  • “When it’s time for dinner, my child won’t come to the table.”
  • “I tell my child to pick up his Legos, but he just keeps playing.”

If you want to teach your child to follow directions with fewer meltdowns and more focus, there is a simple solution:  you need to use pictures or visuals with your children.

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Why Doesn’t My Child Listen to Me?

You may wonder, why doesn’t my child listen to me?  The truth is following directions is a complex skill.

  • First, a child needs to understand the spoken language.
  • Next, she needs to be able to filter out the non-essential information.
  • Then, she needs to remember the request and plan how to do the requested action.
  • Last, she needs the self-control to carry it out.

All of these skills are a part of executive function.  The brain’s prefrontal cortex controls most of our executive function – the ability to process language, retain information, plan logically, and react calmly.  And that part of the brain doesn’t stop developing until age 25!

While many children who struggle with executive function have neurological issues like ADHD or autism, all children need to learn these executive function skills over time.  According to research at Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, no one is born with the ability to complete all these skills.  All children need opportunities and support in order to develop executive function.

Just like learning to walk or ride a bike, your child needs support to practice the skills involved in following directions. One of the easiest and most effective ways is to use pictures or visuals at home.

Why Should I Use Pictures?

Think about the last time you were in a preschool or elementary school classroom.  Did the teacher have a chart on the wall to show the children the routine for the day? Has the teacher displayed posters with pictures to teach skills like the alphabet or numbers?

Most likely the teacher uses visuals. Educators use visuals because pictures work!

Pictures remain in the brain’s memory longer that words.   According to Psychology Today, “the part of the brain used to process words is quite small in comparison to the part that processes visual images.”  Simply put, your child has a lot less brain power to deal with words than with pictures.

If you want your child to listen to you and follow directions, the simplest way is to use pictures.

Adults Use Too Many Words

Another reason children don’t follow instructions is that adults use way too many words.  Plus, adults also give directions too quickly for children to think about and remember the directions.

How often does this scenario happen in your house?

“Come on! You need to get your shoes on now or you’re going to be late for school!”

Then five seconds later you say, “Put your shoes on now so we’re not late!”

This is a problem for two reasons. First, your child’s brain likely hasn’t even processed the first direction before you’ve moved on to the next.  Your child’s brain is likely still focused on the last word you used: “late.”

Second, the quantity of words is so great, your child hasn’t been able to sort through them to figure out what’s important.  Pictures or visuals alleviate these problems by focusing your child and you.

Benefits of Using Pictures at Home

Besides focusing your child and you, using pictures at home helps your child in other ways.

First, visuals help prevent problem behavior.  Take the shoe incident above. The threat of running late is going to drive many children into a spiral of anxiety that erupts into anger or meltdowns.  Using a picture eliminates all that.  Pictures don’t convey frustration the way adults often do.

Second, using a picture can address problem behavior.  When you use a picture to direct a child, it eliminates all the other language demands on a child and thus, frees up the ability to focus all his mental energy on self-control.

Third, visuals teach self-management.  While initially a child will need to be given a picture and still assisted with the task, with practice, the child will be able to do the task independently.

Eventually, with practice a child can use a sequential display of pictures, called a visual schedule by professionals, to direct themselves through a daily routine like the morning routine.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

My Child Is Just Stubborn

I’d hear this a lot when teaching:  “My child knows what to do but is just stubborn or naughty.”

Parents would bring their concerns to me when their child wasn’t complying at home, and often I’d suggest using visuals.

A lot of parents were resistant to the idea.  And sometimes there are issues around defiance or you have a spirited kiddo who has their own agenda, but let me ask you this:

Do you use visuals to help you with your work or household management?

Yes, yes you do.  You use a calendar or a grocery list or a reminders app or a notepad so you can follow your own internal directions. Maybe you use a paper planner to keep track of your weeks and tasks.  You likely use written words instead of pictures, but as an experienced reader, your brain stores those written words as images.

Would you want your spouse or boss to prohibit your use of these tools and then suggest you weren’t doing tasks just because you are stubborn or lazy?  Probably not.

Thus, when your child is not following your directions at home, it’s better to assume lack of skill over lack of will.

How to Prepare the Printable Pictures for Home

I’ve included a printable with 24 typical challenging times at home: brush teeth, get in bed, get dressed, eat breakfast, get backpack, get lunchbox, clean up toys, go potty, change diaper, get in car, and more.

To use them, you need to gather some supplies:


  1. Print out the cards.
  2. Cut out the cards first.
  3. Then laminate them. I totally recommend my laminator. If you’re not ready for that level of commitment, you can use self-laminating pouches.
  4. After laminating, trim the the cards.
  5. Place them in a pocket chart like pictured above.
  6. If you prefer, you can store these on your fridge.  Apply adhesive magnet tape to the back (see below).

How to Use the Printable Pictures at Home

Here’s the steps on how to use picture cards at home:

  1. Keep the cards in a central location.
  2. Then when you give your child a direction, hand him the appropriate card.
  3. For example, say “Shoes on please” and hand your child the shoes picture card.
  4. Wait about ten seconds to see if your child begins.
  5. If not, without using more words, help your child put the shoes on.
  6. Praise your child when the task is done.

Depending on the age and needs of your child, repeat for one to three weeks and then just hand the card and give the direction.  With practice, your child will grow in independence.

This is the most important piece: Start now. Don’t wait to start until you can use these pictures perfectly.

If you don’t have the time to laminate, just print them on whatever you can. You can always print them again when you get better supplies.

Similarly, it’s better to use the picture cards and risk losing them than it is to keep them in a safe place.  You can always print them again.

Teach Your Child to Follow Directions at Home

If you want to teach your child to follow directions, use visuals.  Print these cards out and help your child practical the skills of listening to, understanding, and following directions.

Drop a comment and let us know how these cards are working for you!

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