Understanding trouble following directions

By Amanda Morin

Expert reviewed by Bob Cunningham, EdM

Many people have trouble following directions. They don’t seem to “listen” when they’re asked to do a task. Even if there’s a negative consequence, they don’t do what they’re supposed to do.

Why does that happen? 

It might seem like laziness or a lack of respect. But when people frequently don’t follow directions, there’s often something else going on.

A common reason is trouble with executive function, a group of skills needed to get through tasks. Some people also have a hard time processing information or tuning in to what others are saying.

When people have trouble following directions, the results are clear — things don’t get done. Or they get done poorly. But people may also struggle in ways that seem confusing or not directly related. 

For example, kids and adults might: 

  • Get easily frustrated when trying to do something
  • Agree to do something and then not do it
  • Look away or zone out when being given directions
  • Get halfway through a task and then stop
  • Say they did something when they didn’t

People struggle with directions for different reasons. It’s not a matter of intelligence. It’s caused by challenges with specific skills.

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About the author

About the author

Amanda Morin is the author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education” and the former director of thought leadership at Understood. As an expert and writer, she helped build Understood from its earliest days. 

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Bob Cunningham, EdM has been part of Understood since its founding. He’s also been the chief administrator for several independent schools and a school leader in general and special education.


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