How to Help Toddlers Follow Directions – First/Then

Following directions can be challenging for toddlers for a variety of reasons. The direction may be difficult to understand, they may have a hard time shifting attention, or they simply may just not want to do what your asking. The purpose of this post is to help parents influence their children to WANT to follow a direction they know their child understands. Teaching your child to understand “first ____, then ____” is a very effective strategy to help your child follow a direction.

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While using this strategy we are assuming the child has the language skills to understand the direction we are giving. This is more of a behavioral strategy than a language learning strategy.

The Strategy: First ____, Then  ____.

1. The essence of this strategy is first knowing what they want, and being specific about what you want them to do. All day long children, especially young children, need us to help; open, close, get, move, eat, sit, run, etc.

Observe what they are asking of you, and what they really need, and use this to help them follow through with listening to directions or skills that you are working on with them.

Let’s say you’re working on cleaning up after playing with a toy. A easy example of this would be that if your child is playing with a puzzle, and they ask you to open the bubbles. You can say, “first clean up the puzzle, then I’ll open the bubbles”.

First you do the action I’m asking you (clean up), then I’ll give you what you’re asking me (open bubbles).

You can do this proactively, or re-actively (like the example above). Proactively takes a little more work and creativity on our part by anticipating what they want to do next.

An example of proactive: During sessions if I’m working with a child that I know loves play-doh and I see them starting to fade, I’ll propose; “FIRST do one more, THEN we can open the play-doh”.

Another example of reactive: If the child gets up from the table and goes straight to the playroom without clearing their plate. Tell them, “first put your plate in the sink, then you can go play”.

It doesn’t always have to be about receiving something physical. Another example would be if I am trying to help the child expand their attention to task, and they want to get up after putting in 1-2 puzzle pieces. I can tell the child, “First do one more, then we can be all done”. I know they want to be all done, but I also want them to learn to sit and play with a puzzle for more than two pieces. The child can have what they want, but first, just do one more (expand their attention a little past what they were capable of at that moment) and then you can go and choose a new activity.

For early language learners you can simplify the language even more. Make the request as precise as possible. “First clean up, then bubbles”.

Quick Tips:

Consider the size of the reward, and the impact it will have on behavior. Think of it like medicine. The goal is to find the minimum effective dose. Start small, and see if and how it creates the desired behavioral outcome. Have an idea of 2-3 increasingly desired objects/action you will offer if the first doesn’t work.


Start of with the smallest, readily available and renewable form of a reward: Social Praise. Social praise can be presented verbally, “amazing job”, or a high five. The thought of a high five may not seem too exciting to most adults, but if you sell it right, and show up with a fun and contagious energy, some kids really take to it. “First put away the blocks, then I’ll give you the world’s best high five!”

Another endless and renewable source of reinforcement is song. “First put the books back, then we can sing Row Your Boat”. If you child is motivated by music learn the songs they like and use it to your advantage.

Having a “bag of tricks” in mind for that specific child will be very valuable for you. Keep an ongoing list of activities, or objects that you can use to help your child follow directions. For each one of my daughters I have a couple of actions/objects I know they both like, and some specific ones that are individual to them. These actions/objects also change over time. Staying in-tune with what they are really into at the point in time is really helpful.

This can be used to help children learn to follow directions, or help children follow a less desired direction. I’ve used this plenty of times in my house with morning and nighttime routines. My daughters really enjoy being read to at night. They do not enjoy brushing their teeth. If it’s a night where they are resisting brushing their teeth, I’d get them really excited about a book we were going to read, then tell them, “first brush your teeth, then we will read the book”. The beauty of this example is that the book reading is already a part of the nightly routine. It’s a tool that’s already baked into the routine that can be used to help motivate less desirable parts of the routine.

When they were smaller, it was a struggle to get them into the car seats at times. The transition from play to sitting in a car seat was challenging. Who wants to stop playing to sit in a boring car seat? To help ease the transition I needed to have something small and fun to motivate. I’d carry a tiny jar of bubbles in my car and I would tell them, “Who wants bubbles?! I can blow big bubbles, or little bubbles. What size bubbles do you want Kinsley? Big bubbles? Great! First get into your seat, then I’ll blow bubbles.” Bubbles are always fun, but I really sold them to be extra fun. I also gave an option of big/little to allow her to make a choice, feel a little in control, and take her mind of the fact that she doesn’t want to get into the car seat.

Endless, simple opportunities exist to motivate a child to “first do ___, then get ___” as long as you are aware of what motivates them, and keep in mind the minimal effective dose for what your willing to reward them with at that moment.

Mini spill-proof bubble tumblers are a fantastic option for younger children.

Be playful, be encouraging, and most important be consistent. Your child will begin to learn to trust that once they follow through with the direction mommy/daddy give me, they will get the reinforcement for following through with that direction.

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About the Author


Drake Hastings is a speech-language pathologist who specializes in speech, oral motor, and feeding therapy for kids. Drake has a passion for working with children and families while helping children achieve goals using a fun and motivating approach to learning.

Drake’s main areas of focus within the practice are feeding therapy, and speech (sound production) therapy. Drake has experience working with children who are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Apraxia of Speech, Dysarthria, Down Syndrome, and rare genetic disorders. Drake has experience working and collaborating with a wide variety of families and therapeutic team members while treating children of all ages.