Why Some Kids Have Trouble Following Directions

By Amanda Morin
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At a Glance

  • When kids don’t follow directions, it can feel like they just don’t listen.

  • Some kids have a real difficulty doing what they’re asked to do.

  • There are ways to help your child get better at following directions.

When you ask your child to take out the garbage, what happens? Does it go out? Does it make it to the door but get abandoned there? Or does nothing happen at all?

If your child doesn’t follow directions once in a while, you might not think much of it. Kids don’t always do what they’re told to do. But if it happens a lot, you may wonder why your child doesn’t listen to you.

Some people might see this behavior and assume it’s due to laziness or disrespect. But you know your child. If you think something else may be going on, learn why some kids have trouble following directions.

What Trouble Following Directions Can Look Like

When kids have trouble following directions, the end result is clear—things don’t get done. But it’s not always clear that kids are struggling to begin with. And in some cases, their struggles may not seem related to following directions. Here are some things you might see kids do:

  • Get easily frustrated or cry when trying to do something

  • Refuse to do things that seem simple

  • Agree to do something and then not do it

  • Walk away from doing homework or a chore

  • Look away or zone out when you’re giving directions

  • Get halfway through a task and then stop

  • Say they did something when they didn’t

Behaviors like these can be about more than kids just “not listening” or refusing to follow directions. Keep an eye on what you’re seeing. For instance, if you notice your child gets frustrated a lot, track what you see and when in a frustration log.

You can also get some insight from your child’s teacher. The teacher can tell you if the same type of behavior is happening at school.

What Causes Kids to Not Follow Directions

Not following directions doesn’t necessarily mean kids struggle with it. Sometimes they just don’t feel like doing something and choose not to listen.

But for some kids, it’s not a choice. They have difficulty doing what they’re asked to do. There are a few reasons kids struggle with following directions.

Sometimes it’s a matter of memory or planning out tasks. Kids who struggle with these skills (they’re called executive functions) have trouble remembering what you just said or keeping track of the steps involved in big or small tasks.

Take this everyday direction: “Go get ready for bed.” It’s a pretty simple task for many kids, but not all. Some kids might get through two steps in the task—brushing their teeth and washing their face—but then forget the rest of the routine.

Others don’t even get that far. They might go to brush their teeth and then not remember the steps involved for that task alone. And that’s the end of their getting ready for bed. They go back to playing because they don’t know what else to do. Or they might just go to bed without doing anything to get ready.

Another reason kids may struggle to follow directions is that they’re not focused on them. They may get distracted by the smell of dinner cooking or the TV in the background or even by their own thoughts. These things can make it hard for them to “hear” your directions at all.

For some kids, trouble following directions is really trouble following directions quickly. They take longer than other kids to process information and need more time getting the job done. For others, the challenge is with reading written directions or with processing spoken ones.

How to Help Your Child Get Better at Following Directions

Trouble following directions can happen for lots of reason, and it can look different in different kids. But no matter why it’s happening, there are ways you can help your child improve. One helpful way to get kids’ attention is to ask them to look at you before you give a direction. It also helps to give short and simple instructions. Get more tips for helping your child follow directions. And find out how one mom got her child to listen (without yelling).

To find out what might be behind your child’s trouble with following directions, you can ask the school for a free evaluation. Knowing the reasons lets you help your child improve. You can also:

When a child often doesn’t follow directions, it can be frustrating for everyone. Parents and caregivers can lose their patience or get angry. Kids can feel like they’re “bad” and always getting into trouble. They might also feel like there’s something wrong with them if they can’t get even simple things done.

You can help there, too. Tell your child you can see that following directions is difficult—and that’s OK. Together, you’ll find ways to make it easier.

It’s also important to build your child up. Kids who have trouble following directions often get a lot of criticism and need to feel better about themselves so they will keep working hard. Find ways to help your child develop self-esteem. And learn how to recognize your child’s strengths.

Key Takeaways

  • Understanding why your child doesn’t follow directions can help you find solutions.

  • Some kids who don’t follow directions may actually be struggling with focus.

  • Some directions are more complicated than they seem. Try to keep directions short and simple.

About the Author

About the Author

Amanda Morin 

worked as a classroom teacher and as an early intervention specialist for 10 years. She is the author of The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education. Two of her children have learning differences.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Bob Cunningham, EdM 

serves as executive director of learning development at Understood.

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