Following directions is an important skill that children learn through repeated practice and experience. It’s a part of everyday life! At home, parents ask their children to do things around the house (e.g., “Put your toys in the closet”). At school, teachers ask their students to follow directions within classroom routines (e.g., “Hang up your coat and backpack”), and during academic tasks (e.g., “Take out your math book and complete questions one to five”). Even during interaction with peers, children give each other directions (e.g., “Put the trains over there, and then we can build the track”).
What skills are involved in following directions?
Hearing: The ability to perceive sound.
Receptive language: The ability to understand language, including concepts, vocabulary and sentence structure.
Attention: Being able to concentrate on an activity without becoming distracted, and maintain that focus long enough to complete the task.
Working Memory: The ability to remember what was said long enough to process the information and then follow through with the direction.
Challenges in any of these areas may result in difficulty following directions.
Tips for helping your child follow directions successfully
- Get your child’s attention. When you give directions, get close to your child, rather than call from another room. Get down to his eye level so he can see your face. You might even say something like, “Listen, I’m going to tell you to do something.”
- Minimize distractions. It will be hard for your child to focus on what you are saying if he is watching tv or playing a videogame. Ask him to face toward you, turn the tv off or down, and put aside the activity he is involved in.
- Use language your child understands. For younger children, and also children with weaker language skills, this will mean using shorter sentences, with simple, but correct sentence structure, and familiar vocabulary.
- Tell, don’t ask. Avoid using questions when you want your child to do something. For example, instead of “Do you want to clean up your room?” say, “Clean up your room, please.”
- Break down multi-step directions into parts. Limit the length and number of steps in your directions so your child can be successful. For example, if you want your child to do two things (two-steps) but your child is able to follow only one direction at a time, then break it down for him into two separate, single-step directions.
- Give “wait time.” After you give a direction, wait a few seconds to allow your child time to process the direction and figure out what he needs to do.
- Repeat or reword. If your child does not respond after the “wait time,” and you think he needs more help, then try repeating what you said, or rewording (saying the direction in a different way that might be easier for him to understand).
- Use number and sequence concepts. Help your child follow multi-step directions by letting him know how many things he needs to do, and in what order. For example, say, “I want you to do three things. First, put the plates on the table, next call your sister for dinner, then wash your hands.”
- Be specific. Children who have challenges with planning and organization may have difficulty following through with directions that seem to be one-step, but in fact involve many steps. For example, when you ask your child to clean his room, you’re really asking him to do many things. Your child may not respond because he doesn’t know where to start! It might help him if you are more specific. For example, say, “I want you to clean your room. First, put your toys in the box, then hang up your clothes.”
- Use visual cues. Provide your child with pictures, gestures, body language, facial expression, and written words, to help him remember and understand what you want him to do.
- Ask your child to repeat or explain the direction back to you. This will help him to think through the task, and rehearse in his mind what he needs to do to complete the direction. It will also give you a chance to clarify anything he misunderstood.
- Encourage your child to ask for clarification. If he didn’t understand or remember the direction, it’s an important life-skill to be able to ask for repetition or further explanation. For example, “Can you say that again, please?” “I’m not sure what to do.”