When Do Toddlers Understand Directions?

When can you expect toddlers to understand simple directions and requests?

Babies communicate from birth, through sounds (crying, cooing, squealing), facial expressions (eye contact, smiling, grimacing) and gestures/body movements (moving legs in excitement or distress, and later, gestures like pointing.) Babies continue to develop communication skills when adults respond to their efforts to “tell” others about what they need or want.

By 10-12 months of age your child should be able to respond to a basic, clear command, especially if it comes with a gesture, for example, "Give the cup to me" with a hand held out.

Some children however develop quite slowly and hence may find it difficult to understand and respond to instructions.

Many Nigerian parents and teachers sometimes label toddlers as “difficult” or as having behaviour problem when the real problem is that the child doesn’t understand and process language as well as other children his age.

Parents sometimes overestimate what their child who is not talking is able to understand.

Many times toddlers don’t follow directions, and it’s not because they’re being disobedient, stubborn, or lazy. They don’t follow directions because they don’t understand what’s being said. They seem to ignore language because words don’t mean anything to them yet.

What you can do

  • Talk more frequently

The best way to help your baby understand words and directions is to talk to him! Use clear, descriptive language and plenty of repetition so that your little one begins to learn to associate individual words with their meanings. 

  • Pause frequently when you are talking to him to give him time to process what you’ve said
  • Repeat directions (again & again) when he doesn’t seem to understand.
  • Break commands into smaller bits of information.

Until he’s following directions consistently, limit yourself to simple commands with one piece of information, “Go get your cup,” rather than “Take your cup to the sink.

  • Give him frequent opportunities to demonstrate that he understands.

Consistently ask him, “Show me the ____, ” and “Where’s the _______.” If he’s not pointing yet, encourage him to look around to find what you’ve asked him to locate.

  • Insist that he follow directions by providing physical assistance as necessary.

Once you’ve given him a verbal direction and repeated it one time (maybe twice if he wasn’t listening), get up and help (make) him do it. Repeat the direction so he can link the activity with the words.

  • Praise all signs of cooperation with warmth and enthusiasm.

Children with difficulty understanding and processing language need adults who are there to “interpret” the world for them. They benefit from nurturing parents and teachers who can provide support to help them understand words and associate them with their environments.

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