Many people — kids and adults — have trouble following directions. They don’t seem to “listen” when they’re asked to do a task, whether it’s taking out the garbage or taking care of a pet. Even if there’s a negative consequence, they don’t do what they’ve been asked to do.
Too often for learning disabled people, the behavior is framed as “won’t” instead of “can’t.” And, quite often, ‘can’t’ disguises itself as ‘won’t.’ But treating the behavior (which essentially is task refusal) as ‘won’t’ invites punishment instead of support. And you cannot punish the learning disability out of a child if that is the issue.
That’s why, as always, it’s essential to get a thorough evaluation in all areas of suspected disability. Parents and educators both need to know if you are dealing with “won’t” or “can’t” because punishing a child for a lack of a skill set can do tremendous long term harm.
It can be frustrating when your child doesn’t do what you say. Your child might make comments like, “I didn’t hear you!” or “You never asked me to do that!” Your child may seem to require constant reminders.
You may only be able to give one instruction at a time or nothing gets done. You might give the child directions and then find her looking at a picture, organizing toys, or just studying her fingernails. Your child may give you a puzzled look when given directions.
The morning routine may take too long. Your child may still forget the procedure of getting dressed, eating breakfast and brushing teeth, despite the fact that you’ve had the same routine for the past two years. Your child may not start on the task, may require more time, or may ask you to repeat the instructions.
At school, the teacher might report that your child doesn’t listen. When you ask him why he doesn’t follow directions, he might act surprised. Your child may have a poor vocabulary and might have trouble understanding how to complete assignments. Independent work may be challenging if your child is only given verbal instructions. Your child may rush through schoolwork without checking to see if the work is done right.
Is your child:
- Appearing lost when you ask him or her to do something?
- Getting confused? If you give her three instructions, does she only do the third?
- Saying, “Oh, I forgot!”
- Failing to follow along with the teacher’s instructions?
- Getting in trouble for forgetting directions?
- Saying, “Brush my teeth, get my shoes, and then what?”
- Getting lost partway through a task?
- Doing something entirely different than instructed?
- Completing procedures out of order?
It could be that your child:
- Doesn’t understand the directions: Receptive language
- Doesn’t pay attention long enough to hear the directions: Attention
- Doesn’t remember the directions: Memory
- Receptive language (Communicating): Difficulty with following directions can be due to a delay or disorder in receptive language, which means that the child is having trouble understanding or comprehending. The term language delay is used when a child’s speech and language development is following the usual pattern and sequence, but it is slower than other children that age. A language disorder is used to describe language development that is not following the usual pattern or sequence.
If your child is struggling with a similar problem, not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for links to information about other related symptom areas.
- Auditory processing: it could be that difficulty hearing sounds and words correctly is impacting your child’s ability to follow directions.
- Receptive language: it could be that problems with oral language comprehension are impacting your child’s ability to follow directions
- Sequential reasoning: it could be that a cognitive problem with doing step-by-step procedures is impacting your child’s ability to follow directions
- Intelligence: it could be intellectual ability. It is important to consider fluency in cognitive processing. A child may not hear or encode information, which can impact ability to follow directions
- Non-Compliance: it could be that refusal to follow instructions is a behavioral issue rather than a problem with understanding instructions.
- Attention problems (Focusing): it could be that problems with attention interfere with following directions
- Executive functioning (Organizing): it could be that difficulties related to planning, sequencing, organizing information and carrying out a task in a timely manner are impacting your child’s ability to follow directions
- Motor or sensory (Moving & Sensing): it could be that your child struggles with the motor skills needed to follow instructions, such as tying shoes, kicking a ball, or sitting in a chair in the classroom
- Depression: it could be that your child appears forgetful or distracted due to underlying feelings of sadness and emotional distress.
- Receptive language in ELLs: An English language learner will demonstrate improved receptive language skills as vocabulary builds in English. This language acquisition process looks different from a true receptive language delay or disorder.
An ELL student without a disorder would not have problems in his primary language. If a receptive language delay or disorder were present, it would show up in all the languages a child speaks.
- Attention (Focusing): A potential root cause of challenges with multi-step directions is an attention deficit. If your child does not focus on the information, he or she will not hold the steps in memory long enough to complete them.
If the challenges are attention-related, a licensed professional should consider whether Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) may be relevant for your child. Children with ADHD often have trouble with directions due to challenges focusing. They may seem to need more help with daily tasks than other children. Children with attention deficits struggle with executive functions like organization and planning. Such difficulties can make following multi-step directions challenging.
- Children with motor planning, attention, or sequencing problems have specific deficits that may interfere with following directions. These challenges could indicate an Autism Spectrum Disorder.
- Working Memory: Problems with directions could be related to memory. For example, when a child is given directions, like, ‘Go get your laundry, put it in the basket, and bring it downstairs,’ he has to remember the instructions to complete them.
- Procedural memory refers to the memory for tasks that we do all the time. An example of procedural memory is driving a car. You may find yourself reviewing your grocery list, remembering what your kids’ activities are for the day, or thinking about what movie you might want to see this weekend, instead of concentrating on driving a car. You can think about other tasks because the driving skill is a part of your procedural memory. Children who get stuck on tasks like tying their shoes or making their beds might be struggling with procedural memory.
- Behavior: Some children just don’t want to do what you say. If you have the sense that your child knows the directions, understands how to do them, and simply refuses, you may have a behavior problem on your hands. Psychologists refer to this issue as non-compliance. As we say in IEP land, “All Behavior Tells you Something.” So your first step is a good behavior analysis to see why it’s happening. Remember to ask yourself, is this an issue of “won’t” or “can’t?”
Potential Learning Disabilities
Children who have significant problems in this area may have any of the following potential disabilities. Remember, I’m not a doctor nor do I play one on the internet. If you have concerns, see your child’s pediatrician.
- Language Disorder (Expressive, Receptive, Pragmatic): some children with language disorders do not follow directions.
- Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): many children with autism have difficulties following directions.
- Intellectual Disability: many children with lower cognitive abilities struggle to follow directions.
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): most children with attention challenges have difficulties following directions.
- Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI): many children with brain injuries have difficulties following directions.
- Learning disability (Educationally Identified Disabilities): some children who do with learning disabilities may not follow directions.
Following Directions | Accommodations and Strategies
- Visual aids or visual schedules
- Extra time to comprehend and complete tasks.
- Hands-on demonstration or modeling.
- Explanation of vocabulary terms to increase comprehension.
- Breaking down steps and providing help with sequencing.
- Verbal check-ins to ensure your child understands before initiating tasks.
- Keep routines predictable, and help your child practice the sequence of steps.
- Use visual chore charts, such as a morning routine poster that is in the bathroom, and tie following this routine to immediate reward. An example of an immediate reward is “When you get your routine finished, I will give you your iPad.”
- For tasks that are going to require multiple steps, teachers need to present students with each individual step separately. This also means that each step will likely require its own set of directions. For example, an English teacher chunking a five-paragraph essay for students should provide specific instructions and requirements for each paragraph, separately.
- Introducing an assignment in steps also allows students to ask more specific questions when necessary. Instead of receiving a bunch of emails saying, “I’m confused about the essay,” students can specify exactly which step they need clarification on.
- Teachers should consider including the amount of time that each task should take in the instructions. That way, students who may plan on taking an hour to complete a 20-minute assignment can adjust their workload appropriately. Parents should note on the assignments how long it took to complete that assignment.
- Use direct and specific language in the directions that you would like students to use in their assignments.
- This level of specified directions may seem tedious at first, compared to our normal way of explaining tasks in the classroom. However, assignments with ultra-clear directives will allow your students to not only comprehend the task but also regain a sense of confidence.
Following Directions at Home
- Ask for your child’s attention. Giving directions when your child isn’t focused on you could set both of you up for failure. 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.
- Minimize distractions. Once you have your child’s attention, you want to keep it. It can be hard for kids to hear and follow directions while they’re 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 your child is looking toward you.
You can model this behavior by giving your child your full attention when giving instructions. That also shows your child that what you’re saying is important.
- 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 your child’s attention better by speaking in a softer voice. Give directions in a calm, even tone. Kids may be able to focus more easily on the substance of what you have to say when they don’t have to process the tone and the volume, too.
- 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.
- 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. It’s also helpful to ask kids to explain your directions in their own words. It gives them a chance to ask questions if they have any. It also gives you a chance to clarify what you said in case your child misunderstood anything.
- Tell, don’t ask. Many parents phrase directions as questions, such as, “Would you set the table, please?” Kids may think they have a choice about following directions. Rephrase what you said so that you are telling your child what to do instead of asking: “Set the table, please.”
- 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.”
- 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 the things are connected or when 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 that there was more to the directions.
- 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 direction to “Please go clean your room.” But sometimes kids are really having trouble figuring out how to get started. Be specific. For example, you may get better results if you break the job into smaller tasks: “Please put your laundry away. Then pick up the trash from the floor. And then make your bed.”
- Use visual cues.