parenting preschoolers

Three Steps to Teach Preschoolers to Follow Directions


Guest Post by Jill Fuller, MEd.

There is a myth that applied behavior analysis (ABA) can only be used for individuals with disabilities. Well, I am here to tell you this practice can be used for any individual, in any setting! Additionally, you can use ABA to help with teaching preschoolers to complete adult requests, a task previously thought to be impossible by us mere mortals, the parents of preschoolers. How you ask? Read to find out!

Before getting into how to increase your preschoolers’ completion of adult requests, I must provide some notes.  It should be noted that preschoolers are not expected to be 100% compliant, as it would be dangerous to teach a child to comply 100%, because then you could inadvertently teach them to comply to inappropriate requests from peers or strangers.

Stephenson and Hanley (2010), provides us with some research to support teaching preschoolers to perform adult requests. The results established two conclusions. First, the probability of compliance to requested tasks increases when you use the proximity, position of adult and child, physical contact, and vocal attention. Second, the researchers found that when you pair these with an adult using three-step prompting, the probability of the child performing the requested task is even higher.

Three step prompting can be remembered as “tell, show, do.” 

1) Tell

Step one: provide the preschooler with a request. Then wait three to five seconds to see if the child will perform the request. If the child does, provide positive reinforcement promptly “(I love how you followed my instructions!”). If they do not, move onto step two.

2) Show

Step two: repeat the request, while at the same time modeling or gesturing to what you want the child to do. Again, wait three to five seconds to see if your child completes the request, and if they do, provide reinforcement promptly.  If the child still does not perform the request, move to step 3.

3) Do

Step three: repeat the request, in combination with going over to the preschooler and then physically prompting them to what was requested, an example would be hand over hand. Continue to provide physical prompting until the task is complete.

If you apply these strategies, not only will you be happier, but your child will be as well!



Stephenson, K. M., Hanley, G. P. (2010). Preschoolers' compliance with simple instructions: A descriptive and experimental evaluation. Journal of applied behavior analysis. 43. 229-47. 10.1901/jaba.2010.43-229.

Wilder, D. A., Allison, J., Nicholson, K., Abellon, O. E., & Saulnier, R. (2010). Further Evaluation of Antecedent Interventions On Compliance: The Effects of Rationales to Increase Compliance Among Preschoolers. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 43(4), 601-613. doi:10.1901/jaba.2010.43-601