3 ways to give directions to help kids with ADHD

By Margie DeSantis

Kids with can have a tough time following directions. Trouble with focus can make it hard to listen. Or directions may be too long or too complicated for kids to remember every step. 

There are strategies that can help. Here are some tips to make it easier for kids with ADHD to follow directions and complete a task.

1. Be precise.

Since kids with ADHD have trouble with executive function, they may be unsure of how to get started on a task. Precise language helps kids know exactly what they’re supposed to do. And it can give them the confidence to get started. 

One good way to practice this is by telling kids to do something, instead of asking. Kids may think they have a choice when you phrase directions as a question. For example, don’t ask “Can you please clean up your desk?” Instead, give a precise direction: “Please clean up your desk now. You can start by putting all of your pens and pencils in the cup.” 

2. Limit directions to one or two at a time.

Since ADHD affects working memory, kids may have trouble holding on to and remembering multiple steps. You can make this easier by giving one or two directions at a time, and by numbering the steps. You can also break large tasks into smaller steps. 

Let’s say kids are working on an art project. They’ll need to set up the project, work on it, and clean it up. That means there are multiple stages to this task. And each stage has multiple steps. It’s important not to overwhelm kids with directions for all the stages at once. Instead, start with only the directions for setting up the project, and give one or two directions at a time. 

3. Use visual aids.

Kids with ADHD can benefit from having a visual reminder of what they’re supposed to be doing. Tools like picture schedules and checklists can help kids follow the steps without having to remember them all. It’s important to keep these written steps simple and direct, just like your verbal instructions.

One example of a visual reminder is a backpack checklist. Sometimes, it’s not enough to simply say “Keep your backpack organized.” And even with more specific verbal directions, kids may forget how to organize their backpacks. Having a checklist reminds kids exactly what it means to keep their backpacks in order.

These are just a few tips to help kids with ADHD follow directions. Try them out to see what works. And remember to give kids positive feedback along the way. Praising even the small victories builds self-esteem and reminds kids that they’re on the right track.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Margie DeSantis is an associate editor at Understood.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Andrew Kahn, PsyD is a licensed psychologist who has served as an evaluator and consultant in public schools for nearly 20 years.