Following Directions through High-Probability Requests 

Hello! I hope you’re enjoying our Parenting Series as much as we are!  Today we’re talking about another technique that helps your little sprouts learn to follow directions when you ask them to (and isn’t that what we’re trying to do 97% of the day??).  So let’s take baby steps toward our goal of getting our kiddos to listen to us more! 

Today’s tip, called a High-probability request, is a widely used technique in child and adolescent therapy, particularly with kiddos that are defiant and have conduct issues. Though your little one may not have a conduct disorder, this will hopefully help prevent a resounding “No!” next time you ask your toddler to clean up their toys or encourage your tween to take the garbage out (and hey, feel free to use it on your spouse, it may just work in getting them to do a chore or errand you’d rather not ;))


Do you wish your kids would put their clothes in the dirty laundry as readily as your toddler is to give you a high-five, or as enthusiastically as your teenager tells you about the latest phone app that is all the rage? Me too, but we know that some tasks (i.e. chores or homework) are more difficult for kids to get a jump start on.  One trick we can use is to give the kiddos small or easier commands (high-probability requests) that they are likely to follow before…. BAM! sneaking in the big command for the tedious or more challenging task we wanted them to do all along (low-probability requests). See, kids? Your parents can be sneaky too ;). Research has shown that compliance can be carried over from easy-to-do requests to more difficult or dreaded tasks. In essence, you’re building compliance momentum. Here’s a bonus tip: if used by more than one adult, this technique has the potential to help your little sprouts increase their compliance to requests by other adults that don’t use this technique (e.g. teachers, grandparents). So get your spouse or other caregiver in on the action!

How to:

First things first: figure out what your end game is. Is it getting your child to set the table? Start their homework? Put their toys away? Next, identify and give small requests (high-probability requests) that your child usually complies with –  for example, giving you a high-five or kiss, touching their nose, pointing to something, or going into the kitchen. Only you will know what these requests are, and they will, obviously, look different for a toddler than for a teen.

When your child completes these, give brief praise and move onto the next request immediately. In a similar fashion, try to stick to 3-5 simple requests so that your little one doesn’t feel like you’re asking too much or nagging them.
After you’ve given the simple commands, go ahead and ask the big kahuna request. Now pat yourself on the back and watch your teen do his laundry! Just kidding, I can’t promise your kids will begin doing all of their chores right off the bat, but I do know that this technique increases the likelihood they will obey you more. Think of this as creating a habit of obedience, sometimes it’s more difficult at first but once it’s more well-established you can get on a roll!


Let me tell you how I’ve used this technique with my little boy. After coming home from the park or store, JT runs to his toys or wants to eat, and sometimes doesn’t want to wash his hands before doing all those fun things. Now that he has learned a bunch of body parts and willingly points to them when asked, I use these commands as my high probability requests, after which I can sneak in my request of the “boring” activity (i.e. washing his hands). This exchange goes something like this: I enthusiastically say “show me where your eyes are, great!”, “show me where your tummy is! Awesome!”, “show me where your hands are! Good job!” (High-probability requests). After which I finish up with “Let’s go wash your hands!” (Low-probability request), and he more often than not happily toddles to the bathroom.

I hope this is helpful in increasing the likelihood that your little ones will follow your directions and obey you more. Sound off in the comments and let me know if you have any questions and how it goes when you use this technique!

*The information on this site is provided as an information resource only, and is not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes.  This information is not intended to be patient education, does not create any patient-provider relationship, and should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis and treatment.  Please consult your healthcare provider before making any diet or treatment decisions.

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