Some kids with learning and thinking differences have trouble following directions. Here are 10 ideas for helping your child improve.
1. 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.
2. 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.
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 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.
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. It’s also helpful to ask kids to explain your directions in their own words. It gives them a chance to ask questions. It also gives you a chance to clarify what you said in case your child misunderstood anything.
6. 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.”
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 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.
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 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.”
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 your child to do. For instance, “Please set the rest of the table the same way I’m setting this spot.”
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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.
Laura Tagliareni, PhD is a pediatric neuropsychologist in New York City and a clinical instructor at NYU Langone Medical Center.