Signs & Symptoms

Following Directions

Is your child not following directions?

Do you catch yourself saying things like,

“If I had a dollar for every time I asked you to get ready for school, I’d be a millionaire by now?”

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 about 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.

What do challenges with Following Directions look like?

  • 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?

Why is Following Directions happening?

Clinically, there could be 4 reasons why your child isn’t following directions: 

  • Doesn’t understand the directions: Receptive language
  • Doesn’t pay attention long enough to hear the directions: Attention
  • Doesn’t remember the directions: Memory
  • Doesn’t want to follow the directions: Behavior

It could be that your child simply does not understand the directions, which can be related to comprehension or receptive language. No amount of discipline is going to correct it when the child simply doesn’t understand what you are asking. 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. 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. Alternatively, some children just don’t want to do what you say. If you have the sense that your child understands what to do, and simply refuses, you may have a behavior problem on your hands. When deciding how to help your child or teenager with these skills, consider the above to ensure you are treating the root cause of the behavior. A psychologist or ABA therapist can help you with all of the above.

How can I manage Following Directions at home?

First, consider whether your child is developmentally on track.

Use the following simple guide when thinking about typical language development.

At 9-12 months: A baby begins to identify gestures, to respond to ‘no’ and to understand to start looking for something when someone asks, ‘where is ___?’ [1] If your baby is not following your eye-gaze, pointing, or gesturing, you may have a reason for concern.

At 15-18 months: A toddler should be able to follow simple single step directions such as, ‘Give me the ball.’ [1]

At 24-30 months: A toddler can follow related two-step directions. For example, ‘Close the book, and put it on the shelf.’ Children who are unable to follow simple instructions at this age may have a delay in comprehension skills.

At 42 months or older: A child should be able to follow two-three step unrelated commands such as, “Go get your shoes on, grab your backpack, and meet me at the door.” [1] If your kindergartener is not able to follow two-three unrelated directions, a delay may be present.

If your child seems to be behind on the developmental continuum, he or she may have difficulties with receptive language skills, attention, or memory. In this case, consider an evaluation for a developmental disability.

Second, request accommodations at school such as: 

  • Visual aids
  • 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

Third, provide behavior support at home:

It is important to be consistent. 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.”

Finally, if your child is struggling significantly:

Consider an evaluation by a psychologist or ABA Therapist.

How can Clear Child Psychology help with Following Directions?

If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his or her learning, relationships, or happiness, it’s time to seek professional help.

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Our Free Discovery Session is a 20-minute consultation where we can talk one-on-one about the concerns and questions you have about your child.

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Once we understand your child’s needs, we will help families get connected to the right specialists. No more guesswork, no more wasted time and resources.

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Our Coaching Packages allow us to continually support families as they continue their journeys. Parental coaching, life-skills practice, and school advocacy are just a few examples of ways we help.

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