Helping Young Children Stay On Track

If you live with small children, you know that getting them through the day can be very challenging. They forget to do tasks, they leave important items behind and they are easily distracted. In fact, supervising little ones reminds me of a video I recently saw of someone trying to get his bunny to run an obstacle course. Needless to say, the bunny didn’t smoothly move from beginning to end. Like the bunny, children frequently run off course, ending up in all kinds of places where they shouldn’t be and lacking the things they need. How can we help them remember what they need to do, what they need to bring and where they need to go? Here are a few tips:

#1. Be Predictable

Unlike adults, children have a tough time anticipating what comes next. Time tends to be divided into the “now” and the “not now.” This makes it hard for them to remember anything that isn’t relevant to the current moment. However, children are also teachable. They thrive on routine and repetition. Have you ever noticed how children love to watch the same movie over and over? Children find this pleasurable because they have learned what will happen next. They don’t need to be anxious or fearful because the outcome is known.

To the extent possible, parents can assist children by establishing routines that help children remember what will be happening and what they need to do. For example, you might establish “five tasks we do each morning before we walk out the door” or “three things we need every time we go to school.” Say and do things in the same manner, over and over and over. Before long, children will catch on to the system, which will help them follow through. Keep telling yourself, “Repetition breeds remembering.”


#2. Make Your Child the Teacher 

“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”
~ Benjamin Franklin

If we can teach it, we have a better chance of remembering it. Adults and children alike tend to internalize only a fraction of what we are taught by someone else… the old “in one ear and out the other.” In contrast, when we are responsible for doing the teaching, we must fully understand the material, making it much more likely that we will recall it in the future. Think of the difference between being a driver and a passenger. You can sit in the passenger seat and not ever take serious notice of how to get somewhere. However, if you are the driver, the responsibility for knowing where to go is on your shoulders, so you will invest more energy into making sure you know the way.

As you establish new routines, review them with your children, and then ask them to teach someone else what to do. They could tell another adult, a sibling, a stuffed animal or even the family dog. If they can “tell the story” to someone else, they have a much better chance of internalizing the instructions.


#3. Add Visual Reminders 

The majority of human beings are visual learners. Given that young children often have limited reading skills, they benefit even more from images that remind them what to do. For example:

  • Picture labels on toy bins and cubbies
  • “List” of images showing what needs to be in their bag each morning
  • Pictorial reminders of activities that are planned for each day of the week
  • Visual chores charts for morning & evening tasks

When children make mistakes, forget what to do or ask what they need, refer them back to these visual reminders. Then praise them when they follow through.


#4. Stay Positive 

In an effort to be helpful, parents often find themselves saying, “Don’t forget this!” or “Don’t do that!” Over time, the “don’ts” become an unpleasant soundtrack that children tune out. No one enjoys repeatedly hearing a laundry list of things they should not do.

Instead, use positive, action verbs when reminding children. For example, instead of saying, “Don’t forget to bring your lunch,” try saying “Carry your lunch to your cubby!” or, “Grab your lunch and let’s head to the car!” Focusing on what children can and ought to be doing creates a constructive atmosphere. When children feel empowered to act in the right way, they are more likely to respond and cooperate.


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Have you had success with any of these techniques? What would you add to the list?

23 thoughts on “Helping Young Children Stay On Track”

    1. I’m always impressed by how quickly school teachers get small children to follow routines. They really embrace the value of repetition, visuals and positive encouragement… all great principles for parents to incorporate:)

  1. These are wonderful tips, Seana. When I taught nursery school we repeated routines. This works really well. We also labeled all the bins and containers with pictures and the words so the children would begin to associate the word with the picture. I love what you said about saying things in a positive manner. I believe we all react better to positive reminders rather than negative ones.

    1. I know I react better to positive reminders. There is something about a sentence that begins with the word “don’t” that sort of makes me not want to listen:)

  2. What a brilliant collection of ways to encourage our children to learn and grow. Our girls are now young adults, but I vividly remember the days of raising them and working on many of the suggestions you’ve so beautifully described. One of the things that always amazed me was how much our kids intrinsically knew. While we did a lot as parents to teach them, we also learned so much from them. While our daughters shared many similarities, they also were quite different. Our oldest daughter needed more time to transition when changing activities or getting ready for the next thing, while our youngest daughter was always ready and waiting by the door for the rest of us to catch up. We learned to adjust the cue time for each of them based on their natural tendencies.
    Linda Samuels recently posted…How to Mindfully and Easily Discover Your Next StepMy Profile

    1. I have two girls who are also quite different. From the time they entered our lives, they were “themselves,” with unique approaches to life’s tasks. We still tend to “adjust the cue time” for one of them:) That said, both responded better when we stayed positive and tried to be as consistent as possible.

    1. I’ve seen children “own” the routine when they teach someone else. Even if they are teaching a little baby or a pet, they have to truly understand the system in order to teach someone else.

  3. Excellent post to help parents. I agree repeating the routine is very important. My kids loved routine so, at the end of the day, we would return toys to the toy bin. They did this consistently for years when they were younger. Now that they are older teens, they are taking after my husband and leaving things to do on the weekend. Not suitable for me who sees the stuff out all the time since I work from home. =(

    1. I think life shifts when you hit the teenage years, especially nearing the end of high school. These kids are so busy, trying to balance school and activities and volunteer commitments, sometimes they can’t keep up with it on a daily basis. My girls both went through a fairly messy stage, but once they got to college (where they were living in a tiny space), they started keeping things in good order. I was always thankful for the bedroom door when my high school girls were living at home!

  4. This is excellent and so relevant. I just spent two weeks with my daughter and her young family. I was so impressed at how capable my little two year old granddaughter is, and it’s all because of the principles you have outlined here. I wish more parents understood these simple guidelines; it would make life with little ones so much more manageable.
    Sheri Steed recently posted…Jan 26, The P.E.A.C.E. Principles of OrganizationMy Profile

    1. What a fun time that must have been, Sheri! I have many clients tell me that their children do such a good job of picking up at school, but not at home. Usually this means that the parents are missing one of these important steps or not enforcing the systems they’ve put in place. I know it isn’t fun to enforce the rules, but if you do, you typically reap tremendous rewards over time.

    1. I’ve seen children teaching others and it is quite precious. It is also a chance to “listen in” and make sure they understand clearly. Sometimes you find out that they have come up with an idea that is different from what was intended, so this provides an opportunity to clarify as well.

  5. Love these tips, Seana. I’m a parent educator and your tips are focused around teaching and building skills. The visual cues tips is a great practical tips and the stay positive tip is really the foundation of parenting, isn’t it?

    1. It really is, Susan. Kids are barraged with “don’ts” all day long. I understand that parents are drained and just need to get things done, but a little intentionality with language can make a big difference. I do believe I was a teacher in another life:)

    1. Kindergarten teachers are the bomb. I think it is amazing to see how young a person’s interests and talents present… I love that Des embraces routines!

  6. I need to work on #2. Such a good idea! I also like to give my son choices: Would you like to put your legos away first or brush your teeth? Things still get done, but they get to make the decision of what to do when.

  7. As a former teacher, a mother of three, and a live-in grandma of three young children, I love these suggestions! I’ve posted them to my Facebook page.

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