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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