Understanding trouble following directions

By Amanda Morin

Many people — kids and adults — have trouble following directions. They don’t seem to “listen” when they’re asked to do a task, whether it’s taking out the garbage or taking care of a pet. 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

There are different reasons people struggle with directions. It's not a matter of intelligence, but rather 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 serves as executive director of learning development at Understood.