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Getting Children To Follow Directions

When kids have trouble following directions, the end result is clear, things don’t get done. But what is not clear is that the child may be struggling with 'something' and their struggles may not be related to following directions.


Here are some things you might see kids do:


  • Get easily frustrated or cry when trying to do something

  • Refuse to do things that seem simple

  • Agree to do something and then not do it

  • Walk away from doing homework or a chore

  • Look away or zone out when you’re giving directions

  • Get halfway through a task and then stop

  • Say they did something when they didn’t

Behaviours like these can be about more than kids just “not listening” or refusing to follow directions. Keep an eye on what you’re seeing. For instance, if you notice your child gets frustrated a lot, keep track of that, you may even want to write down when you see the frustration.


You can also get some insight from your child’s teacher or coach. They can tell you if the same type of behaviour is happening at school or at the club.


What Causes Kids to Not Follow Directions

Not following directions doesn’t necessarily mean kids struggle with it. Sometimes they just don’t feel like doing something and choose not to listen.


But for some kids, it’s not a choice. They have difficulty doing what they’re asked to do. There are a few reasons kids struggle with following directions.


Sometimes it’s a matter of memory or planning out tasks. Kids who struggle with these skills (they’re called executive functions) have trouble remembering what you just said or keeping track of the steps involved in big or small tasks.


Take this everyday direction: “Go get ready for bed.” It’s a pretty simple task for many kids, but not all. Some kids might get through two steps in the task—brushing their teeth and washing their face—but then forget the rest of the routine.


Others don’t even get that far. They might go to brush their teeth and then not remember the steps involved for that task alone. And that’s the end of their getting ready for bed. They go back to playing because they don’t know what else to do, or they might just go to bed without doing anything to get ready.


Another reason kids may struggle to follow directions is that they’re not focused on them. They may get distracted by the smell of dinner cooking or the TV in the background or even by their own thoughts. These things can make it hard for them to “hear” your directions at all.


For some kids, trouble following directions is really trouble following directions quickly. They take longer than other kids to process information and need more time getting the job done. For others, the challenge is with reading written directions or with processing spoken ones.


How to Help Your Child Get Better at Following Directions

Trouble following directions can happen for lots of reason, and it can look different in different kids. But no matter why it’s happening, there are ways you can help your child improve.


Here are some tips to help your child to follow directions:


1. Ask for your child’s attention.

Ask for your child’s attention by saying, “Look toward me, please. I need you to listen now.” Some kids have a difficult time with the nonverbal aspects of language. Asking your child to look toward you, instead of looking you in the eye, takes that into account. You can make it easier by moving into your child’s line of sight.


2. Minimize distractions.

Once you have your child’s attention, you want to keep it. It can be hard for him/her to hear and follow directions while playing video games or when the TV is on in the background. Minimize any distractions before giving directions. Turn off the TV. Ask your child to put down the game or book. Make sure he or she is looking toward you.  You can model this behaviour by giving your child your full attention when giving instructions. That also shows your child what you are saying is important.


3. Speak quietly.

It may be tempting to speak louder or speak over your child when there is something you need to say or get done. But you may capture his/her attention better by speaking in a softer voice. Give directions in a calm, even tone. Your child may be able to focus more easily on the substance of what you have to say when he/she doesn’t have to process the tone and the volume, too.


4. Use “wait time.”

Teachers often use “wait time.” So do educational TV shows for kids. “Wait time” is that three- to seven-second pause after you say something or ask a question. Research shows that kids process better what you have to say—and respond to it appropriately—when they let it sink in. 


Your child still may not follow directions or answer your question after that pause. If so, it’s OK to repeat what you said.


5. Check for understanding.

Checking for understanding goes hand in hand with giving your child some “wait time.” Ask your child to repeat your directions back to you. Or ask him/her to explain your directions in his/her own words. It gives your child a chance to ask questions, if he/she has any. It also gives you a chance to clarify what you said in case it is misunderstood. 


6. Tell, don’t ask.

Many parents phrase directions as questions, such as, “Would you set the table, please?” Your child may think that it is a choice about following directions. Rephrase what you said so that you are telling your child what to do instead of asking. Simply saying, “Come set the table, please,” can make a big difference.


7. Give instructions one at a time.

Younger kids with learning and thinking differences may have trouble following a sequence of steps. You may say, “Please set the table, wash your hands and tell your sister it’s time to eat.” Your child, however, might get stuck after setting the table. Give directions one at a time, when possible.


If you can’t break directions down into steps, try to group things together in ways that make sense. For example, “While you’re upstairs washing your hands, please tell your sister it’s time to eat.”


8. Number your directions.

Help your child follow multi-step directions by actually putting a number to them. Typically, people can hold up to four things in their working memory at a time. This is easier to do when they’re connected or there’s a way to make them more memorable.  Say things like “There are three things you need to do,” or use words like first, second, then, next and last. That can help your child keep all the steps in mind or at least remember there’s more to the directions than what he’s done.


9. Be precise in what you say.

Kids who have problems with planning and organization or language may have trouble with vague directions. You may think your child isn’t following the directions to clean his room. But maybe he’s really having trouble figuring out how to get started.


Be specific. For example, you may get better results by saying, “Please put your laundry away, pick up the trash from the floor and make your bed” instead of “Clean your room.”


10. Use visual cues.

Kids who have language processing issues can have a hard time following spoken directions. Consider using visual cues, too. For example, point out what needs to be cleaned. You can also demonstrate what you’re asking him to do. For instance, “Please set the rest of the table the same way I’m setting this spot.”


When a child often doesn’t follow directions, it can be frustrating for everyone. Parents and caregivers can lose their patience or get angry. Kids can feel like they’re “bad” and always getting into trouble. They might also feel like there’s something wrong with them if they can’t get even simple things done.


You can help there, too. Tell your child you can see that following directions is difficult—and that’s OK. Together, you’ll find ways to make it easier.


It’s also important to build your child up. Kids who have trouble following directions often get a lot of criticism and need to feel better about themselves so they will keep working hard. Find ways to help your child develop self-esteem. And learn how to recognize your child’s strengths.

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