Counting to three is a simple little strategy for encouraging your child to follow directions that you may end up getting unbelievable mileage from! The basic idea is that you ask them to do something, and if they don’t start doing it then you ask again and start counting. If they haven’t started following directions by the time you get to three, then they have a consequence – get ‘help’ from Mom, time-out, loss of privilege, etc. You can start using this with your child when they are as young as two years old, and once they know it, you’ll find that it comes in handy throughout the elementary school years.
With toddlers, start by giving them an instruction (e.g. “Please sit down on the couch”) and then watch to see if they follow directions. If they do, praise them (e.g. “Nice listening!”). If they do not follow directions, then repeat your instruction with “or I will help you” at the end (e.g. “Please sit down on the couch or I will help you”). Slowly start counting, and if your child has not sat down by three then walk over and physically guide them (e.g. into a seated position). Say something like “There you go, sit down and be safe” or “We sit onthe couch”. If your child continues not following your directions, then repeat one more time (firmer voice!) with the option of going to time-out. (e.g. “You need to sit down on the couch or go to time-out”). Begin counting and if they do not comply by three, then place them in time-out. [Read about using time-out effectively]
In the beginning your child is likely to test you to see what happens if they don’t listen. Be consistent, calm, and follow through so that your child learns to expect that he or she needs to listen to you or you will do what you say you will do! Once your child knows the routine, this strategy will be extremely effective. Over time, you wil need to use it less and less as your child begins following directions more quickly. With older children, this is an effective way to avoid long-winded arguments about why they need to do something. Here is the expecation, please do it or… (time out, reduced TV time, bedtime 10 minutes earlier, etc.).
Always try to frame things as a choice for your child. He or she needs to CHOOSE to either follow directions, or accept the consequence. When your child does follow instructions, be sure to reinforce them for making a good choice. Click here for more about encouraging good behavior.
Children are not picky about where they decide to misbehave, and it’s not always possible to use the same consequences (e.g. time-out, go to room) that you use at home. If you have to give choices/consequences on the fly, be sure to lay out options that are possible to follow through with and that you are willing to follow through with if necessary. For example, if you give your child the choice between keeping her hands to herself or leaving the party, you better be willing to actually leave the party if she continues hitting other children!
Make sure all parents or caregivers are on the same page, communicating with one another about what is expected and what consequences will follow if your child does not cooperate. Everyone needs to follow through consistently with the same expectations and consequences in order to be effective.
It is okay to express disapproval to your child if they are misbehaving or not listening to you. A firm ‘No, that is not how we behave’ is helpful. At the same time, give lots of praise for good behavior. Be very careful not to reinforce negative behavior, for example by laughing, not matter how cute or funny your child is while they are misbehaving. It will only increase the behavior and make it that much more difficult to get rid of later.