What to do when a toddler is not listening

Do you struggle to get your child to listen? Does he forget what he’s supposed to do? When told to wash his hands, he finds something more interesting on the way and stops to play instead?

There are several reasons why children don’t seem to listen and we’ll discuss one of them in this blog post. Toddlers (and older children) are still developing their working memory, which is a limited capacity that holds information in order to process it and store it in the long term memory. But it’s also used when we’re executing a task such as receiving an instruction of going to the bathroom to wash your hands: to start the task, focus on it, and keeping track of yourself that it’s being done.

Small children don’t have the same working memory capacity adults have and can’t keep track and monitor themselves to the same extent. The capacity increases with age, but it can be a cause of frustration for parents in the meantime. If parents view this inability to complete tasks or do as the children are told, it’s easy to mistake it as the children don’t care, don’t bother to listen or are being disrespectful. If so, it’s easy to lose your temper and become angry, feeling as if they’re defying you and that the overall life isn’t as satisfying as you wish.

The conclusion of this is that children don’t mean not to obey or listen. Many children simply don’t have the capacity to execute the tasks asked.

How to ease morning and bedtime routines for children

When we’ve identified the real cause of why the children isn’t listening or doing as told, we can focus on finding a solution that really works instead of scolding them for being bad or naughty.

A simple but very effective way to help children with working memory difficulties is to show them what to do visually. Since they cannot visualize the task and monitor it, we’ll need to find a way to keep them on track and complete the task.

I will use morning and bedtime routines as an example here. For these routines and the tasks involved I’ve used a simple visual board for my children to see in order to help them know and keep track of what to do.
Each child has a set of magnets that they put in place when they’ve completed a task. When they’ve done a task, they come back to the board to see what’s left. When they’ve done this enough times, they will eventually incorporate the process of each task and be able to do it themselves without the visual board.

For some children who are easily distracted, you might need to keep an extra eye and remind them of what they’re doing in the beginning. After a while they will be able to complete one task and then come back to the board by themselves.

This board has worked wonderfully with my children and for many of my clients who have needed it and eased a lot of frustration and strains in their families. You can see the board we used to have below.


The kids


Tasks laid out visually


Magnets to put when a task has been done


Bed time story!

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