Offer sincere praise when your child gets it right.

Cues to Help Kids to Stay on Task

by Julie Christensen

You ask your preschooler to pick up her toys and you find her 20 minutes later playing in the bathroom sink. Time to get dressed for the day? This simple job might take up to 30 minutes because your toddler is continually distracted. Maddening as this behavior is, it's typical for most young children. Life is so interesting and exciting that it's hard to focus on just one thing. A few simple tricks, though, can help keep your toddler -- and your day-- on schedule.


When your little one's attention wanders, use a simple cue to help her refocus. Teachers often turn off a light as a cue to clean up or change activities. At home, try the "light trick" or offer a gentle touch on the shoulder or hand. Eye contact can be an effective cue for keeping kids on track. Thomas W. Phelan, clinical psychologist and author of "1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12," suggests counting to three as an effective way to get your little one back on track. Holding up your fingers as you count emphasizes the message.


Toddlers won't understand the concept of a timer, but your preschooler probably will. Give your little one a job -- say, to pick up a few toys -- and make a game of it. Set the timer and see how fast he can put everything away. The most effective timers are those that give a clear view of time running out, such as a timer with a visible dial or an hourglass timer.

Sticker Charts

Who knows what it is about stickers that makes them so irresistible to young children, but they're a nifty item to keep in your arsenal of parenting tricks. Make a chart with basic daily jobs, such as getting dressed, brushing teeth or picking up toys. Draw pictures of the jobs, or use an online chore chart that comes with illustrations. Help your child go through the chart each day and put stickers or stamps on the chart each time something is completed. Trade out the stickers every now and then with small toys, candies or other items to keep the game novel.


Handling transitions with grace is a major challenge for most young children. If your toddler's ever had a meltdown over turning off the television or putting toys away at bedtime, you can relate to this experience. One way to help your child stay on track is by simplifying transitions. Give your little one plenty of notice when a transition is coming up. You can even put it into simple, understandable terms, such as, "We're leaving in 30 minutes. That's as long as one episode of 'Dora the Explorer.'" Some parents make a visual schedule to show each part of the day and go through this schedule several times with their child. Keep a predictable, consistent schedule as much as possible so your child knows what to expect most of the time.

Simplify Tasks

Young children often get off track simply because they become overwhelmed. The next time you ask your preschooler to pick up her toys, give a few simple instructions to help her organize and break down the job. Say, "You pick up all the horses and I'll pick up the dolls." Getting ready for bed? Break down the tasks one by one. Say, "Put your pajamas on and come back for a high five." Then, "Let's see how quickly you can brush your teeth." Sure, this process is tedious for you, but it teaches your child how to think through each step.

Pick Your Battles

Sometimes it's easier to modify how you do things, rather than try to change your toddler or preschooler. For example, if walking to the park drives you crazy because your little one keeps climbing out of the stroller or insists on turning over every rock, try walking to the park right at lunch time. Pack a simple lunch for him to eat in the stroller. Yes, the stroller might get a bit dirty, but it's washable and you'll appreciate keeping your sanity.


About the Author

Julie Christensen is a food writer, caterer, and mom-chef. She's the creator of, dedicated to family fun and delicious food, and released a book titled "More Than Pot Roast: Fast, Fresh Slow Cooker Recipes."

Photo Credits

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