Written by Doctor G

Trouble following directions

I think there is something wrong with my 4 year old son. He has trouble following directions. When we put him in time out for not listening, we tell him he has to sit quietly for 4 minutes. If he gets down or talks the timer starts again at 4 minutes. It can take 20 minutes to get through a time out. What can we do?

Bela, in Tucson, AZ

A: Bela, I think your son is a pretty normal 4 year old boy. There is of course the possibility that he has a real obstacle to following directions, like a learning disability or a processing disorder. But based on what you’ve asked I would say he is developing just as he should.

Time outs can be very useful. But if your son is like mine, the only time he stops talking for 4 minutes in a row is when he is asleep. Make sure that your guidelines for timeout match the lesson you want to teach.

I’m going to assume that most of the time he is in timeout for not listening. You’ve told him to do or not do something and he didn’t do as you asked. I would ditch the timer if I were you. Most kids this age have no reliable sense of time. If his timeout spot is somewhere without a clock, you can ask him to sit quietly. Let him get a handle on it for enough time to calm down and then take a minute to get him to use his words to explain why he needed the time out. When he can verbalize the (simple) lesson he was there to learn, he can get down. If you don’t use a timer, you won’t have to reset it each time he has trouble controlling an impulse. That way you don’t have to have timeouts during the timeout!

All of this – not listening, talking when you’ve said to be quiet – is about impulse control. Preschool boys are mostly really bad at impulse control. You are absolutely right to have already started working on this. It’s a long process. If you think about it, most of what gets teenagers in trouble is an impulse control problem too. So work on it. But keep your standards reasonable.

If you are still worried, start by asking other adults who interact with him regularly how they feel he compares to other boys his age. His preschool teachers, other adults in your family, friends’ parents may have insights for you. But trust your instincts – if you feel something may be wrong talk to his doctor and get the information for Early Intervention in your area. They can evaluate his development in all areas, and usually this service is free, even without medical insurance.

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2 thoughts on “Trouble following directions”

  1. My almost 5 y/o son is great about time out, where we follow Dr. Gs method as descirbed above. What has me most concerned is the impulse control( ants in the pants!) and complete unresponsiveness when an adult is speaking to him or calling his name. It is as if he does not hear them, but I know his hearing is fine. I always thought his behavior was just age appropriate, but now, upon closer observation from teachers and watching his interaction with other adults, I realize how constantly he requires physical contact (turning his head toward me, putting a hand on his shoulder) to get his attention. I am meeting with my ped. and his teacher in the next few weeks, but I thoroughly appreciate your perspective on all things parenting and would love some ideas on how to help me reach him and help him so he is not always having trouble in school.

  2. Thanks Kristen, for letting me know your situation. I will put it in my queue and get back to you soon! In the meantime, try not speaking to your son until he is looking in your eyes.

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