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Encouraging co-operation: how to get children to do what they’re asked!

He just doesn’t listen! She just won’t do as she’s asked! Getting children to co-operate can be utterly infuriating. But when it comes to encouraging co-operation, there are some really simple things parents can do to get children to listen and do what they’re asked (well, most of the time).

Here are my top tips.

Time your requests well

Young children have a strong inner urge to play. Play is their most important developmental task because play is how they learn and grow their brains. Play is serious business in a young child’s world! So asking them to stop playing and come and do something less interesting instead is always going to leave the odds stacked against you.

Encouraging co-operation is all about timing. Try to time your requests so that they coincide with a lull in play or the end of a game. Signal in advance that there is only have a short time left for playing so that your child gets used to the idea. For example, give a five minute warning that after this game, we are going to the shops. It won’t work every time, but it does increase the chance of co-operation. Especially if you can present the new activity as something potentially fun!

Give simple instructions

We love to explain things to our children. To tell them why they must/mustn’t do something. But sometimes, with young children, too many words just get in the way and the instruction gets lost in the middle. And, for older children, explanations are sometimes seized upon to debate the request and argue the point (and avoid complying with the instruction!).

So, if you want your child to do something, give a clear instruction in a calm voice that tells them what they should do. Please do this. Very simple, very clear, very calm. If you want them to stop doing something, tell them what to do instead. Please stop jumping on the sofa, go jump on the trampoline. Or Please stop jumping on the sofa, sit on the sofa instead.

Get up close to your child when you give an instruction – that helps to avoid shouting and means you know they are listening. And only repeat an instruction twice. That’s very important. If you’ve got up close and you know they can hear you and they don’t co-operate after the second request then asking again will not increase the chance of co-operation. But it will result in you getting frustrated and ending up angry or shouting or losing your Zen because you’re not being listened to.

Praise co-operation

If you child does what you ask – acknowledge their co-operation. Praise them. Say thank you. If you feel the need to explain why they needed to do whatever it is you asked them to do, now is the time (after they have co-operated). Thank you for listening and jumping on the floor instead of the sofa. The springs in the sofa will get broken if you jump on it and then we won’t be able to snuggle up comfy to watch the TV. Remember, children repeat behaviour that gets your attention so if you acknowledge co-operation, they are more likely to do it next time too. If the sofa jumping keeps happening, you could set a ground rule to tackle it.

Follow through

If your child doesn’t co-operate with an instruction, only ask twice then follow through with a consequence. For example, remove the play item that is causing the problem for a short time. You could say “I can see you are finding it hard to listen right now, I’m going to remove this distraction for a few minutes.” Remember, the purpose of a consequence is never to punish. The purpose is to provide an outcome that is less desirable than if they had co-operated. We are structuring their choices so that next time they are more likely to choose to cooperate. Consequences work best when they are fair, predictable and consistently applied. Consequences should always be low attention, drama-free and short. Always give back the item you have taken away after a few minutes and give them another chance to get it right. And praise them if they do get it right!

Be reasonable

Encouraging co-operation is one thing – but nobody wants a house full of rules where you are on the kids’ backs for every little thing. Choose what matters and focus on that. Kids will get it wrong (and so will you). Children are not little robots to jump to attention at our every word! Requests should be age appropriate so that we are not setting children up to fail.

If you have to interrupt a child’s play to get them to do something less interesting (like buying milk or cleaning their teeth or picking up their big brother from school) then it is perfectly normal that they might protest, be grumpy or say No. That’s normal child behaviour. Positive parenting strategies can help you to respond to that behaviour so it doesn’t escalate or occurs less often but you will never eliminate uncooperative behaviour completely. And nor should you want to!

Not sure how to encourage co-operation while you are out? Read Managing difficult behaviour when you are out and about.

encouraging co-operation - tips on how to get children to listen and do what they are asked

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