What is Following Directions in Childhood?
Following directions in childhood is the ability to receive instruction from an adult and follow through with the task or complete the assignment.
It may sound simple, but pretty complicated processes have to occur to actually follow directions.
Six Things a Child Needs to Do to Follow Directions
1- understand language to know what the directions mean
2- have the listening skills to hear what is being said
3- have the focused attention to stick with the information and process it
4- use working memory to hold that information in the brain for long enough to act on the direction
5- have the skills to follow through with whatever is being asked
6- be willing to comply behaviorally
For example, if a parent says ‘put away your clothes,’ a child may know what those words mean. A child may be listening when the instruction is given and may be able to focus attention and implement working memory to hold on to that instruction. If they do not have practice and experience with ‘put away your clothes,’ they may look at the pile on their dresser and just stare. Or, if it feels hard, they may just decide not to comply with that direction, even though they processed, understood, and can do it.
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Symptoms of Inability to Follow Directions in Children
- Puzzled looks: your child looks lost and may give you a puzzled look when given complex directions
- Struggles with multi-step directions: your child is given three instructions and only completes the third item
- Needs constant reminders: your child might make comments like, “I didn’t hear you!” or “You never asked me to do that!” even when you gave the instructions with eye contact and provided wait time to be sure your child heard and processed what you said
- Gets lost partway through a task: your child is given a specific task, and then you find they are looking at a picture, organizing toys, or just studying their fingernails instead of the task
- Long morning routine: your child may have been doing the same routine for two years, but you find they still forget the procedure of getting dressed, eating breakfast, and brushing teeth
- Hearing from teachers that your child doesn’t listen: your child struggles when only given verbal instructions during the school day. Your child may rush through schoolwork without checking to see if they did the work right
Phases of Following Directions in Childhood
At 9-12 months: A baby begins to identify gestures, to respond to ‘no’ and to understand to start looking for something when someone asks, ‘where is ___?’  If your baby is not following your eye-gaze, pointing, or gesturing, you may have a reason for concern.
At 15-18 months: A toddler should be able to follow simple single-step directions such as, ‘Give me the ball.’ 
At 24-30 months: A toddler can follow related two-step directions. For example, ‘Close the book, and put it on the shelf.’ Children who are unable to follow simple instructions at this age may have a delay in comprehension skills.
At 42 months or older: A child should be able to follow two-three step unrelated commands such as, “Go get your shoes on, grab your backpack, and meet me at the door.”  If your kindergartener cannot follow two-three unrelated directions, a delay may be present.
Difficulties with Receptive Language Skills
If your child seems behind on the developmental continuum, they may have difficulties with receptive language skills, attention, or memory. In this case, consider an evaluation for a developmental disability.
Causes of Not Following Directions in Childhood
Clinically, we have six main causes for not following directions in childhood.
1. Receptive language (Communicating): If your child doesn’t understand the directions, they may struggle with receptive language. Difficulty with following directions can be due to a delay or disorder in receptive language, which means the child has trouble understanding or comprehending.
The term language delay means a child’s speech and language development follows the usual pattern and sequence but is slower than other children the same age. A language disorder is language development that is not following the typical pattern or sequence.
Receptive language in English Language Learners (ELLs): An English language learner will demonstrate improved receptive language skills as their vocabulary builds in English. This language acquisition process looks different from a true receptive language delay or disorder.
An ELL student without a disorder would not have problems in their primary language. If a receptive language delay or disorder were present, it would show up in all the languages a child speaks.
2. Auditory Processing: If your child doesn’t listen to the directions, they may struggle with auditory processing. As most directions are provided verbally to a child, they could be struggling to listen and process the information. Children with language processing challenges or ADHD may have trouble with auditory processing. Keeping directions short and sweet and adding visual cues when you can help with this cause. For example, having a visual schedule of the morning routine and a step-by-step visual chore chart should help alleviate any difficulties processing those verbal instructions.
3. Attention (Focusing): If your child doesn’t pay attention long enough to hear the directions, they may struggle with attention. An attention deficit is a potential root cause of challenges with multi-step directions. If your child does not focus on the information, they will not hold the steps in memory long enough to complete them.
If the challenges are attention-related, a licensed professional should consider whether Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) may be relevant for your child. Children with ADHD often have trouble with directions due to challenges focusing. They may seem to need more help with daily tasks than other children. Children with attention deficits struggle with executive functions like organization and planning. Such difficulties can make following multi-step directions challenging.
Children with motor planning, attention, or sequencing problems have specific deficits that may interfere with following directions. These challenges could indicate an Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Often, children with autism seem to be in their own world and become internally distracted, which leaves less focus for the external environment. If your child is sitting on the floor, staring into space, they may be focusing on something in their own head. This tendency to be in one’s own world may cause difficulties following directions.
4. Memory (Remembering): If your child can’t remember the directions, they may struggle with memory. For example, when a child is given directions like, ‘Get your laundry, put it in the basket, and bring it downstairs,’ they have to remember the instructions to complete them. Procedural memory refers to the memory for tasks that we do all the time.
An example of procedural memory is driving a car. Instead of concentrating on driving a car, you may find yourself reviewing your grocery list, remembering what your kids’ activities are for the day, or thinking about what movie you might want to see this weekend. You can think about other tasks because the driving skill is a part of your procedural memory. Children who get stuck on tasks like tying their shoes or making their beds might be struggling with procedural memory.
Working memory is another area to consider. It is closely linked to focused attention. If a child cannot hold information in working memory, they may have a lot of difficulty with a multistep direction like ‘Get your laundry, put it in the basket, and bring it downstairs.’ You may get better results by breaking these directions into individual steps or adding a visual aid if they seem to, for example, wander upstairs, forget why, and sit down to build a Lego.
5. Behavior (Behaving): If your child doesn’t want to follow the directions, they may struggle with behavior. Some children just don’t want to do what you say. If you sense that your child knows the directions, understands how to do them, and simply refuses, you may have a behavior problem on your hands. Psychologists refer to this issue as non-compliance. Here, there could be a need for more of a reward or reinforcement system and consideration of the key tasks and chores so you can work hard on those and build compliance skills.
6. Ability or Skill: If your child doesn’t have the skill associated with the directions, they may struggle with that ability. Be sure that your child has the skill to do the task you are assigning. If not, break the task into manageable steps or do it with them. Asking a child to put away laundry may need to be broken down and modeled step by step if this is a new skill. Having a toddler ‘eat their cheeseburger,’ for example, may also need to be broken down. It may be overwhelming; thus, the child throws the food. If the cheeseburger is cut into smaller pieces to make it easier to eat, perhaps the child would give it a try. Always consider skill when giving directions, though this may not be the problem.
What to Do About Your Child Not Following Directions
It can be helpful to think about where the problem is occurring in your household.
What To Do If Your Child Doesn’t Understand the Directions
Work on language with your child by reading books together, identifying new vocabulary by going on walks, playing I Spy, naming things you see, etc. The grocery store is another great place to expand vocabulary and basic directions. A speech therapist can be a great resource if you have continued language concerns.
What to Do If Your Child Doesn’t Listen to the Directions
Use visual chore charts, such as a morning routine poster in the bathroom, and tie following this routine to immediate reward. A visual chart you develop together is excellent for a child who struggles to hear and process the information verbally. You can add stickers or smiley faces as immediate feedback.
What to Do if Your Child Doesn’t Pay Attention Long Enough to Hear the Directions OR Your Child Doesn’t Remember the Directions
For attention and memory, it is important to be consistent. Keep routines predictable, and help your child practice the sequence of steps. Break things into small parts and have your child do them one at a time. For working memory, give the instruction when the room is quiet, screens are off, and you have your child’s attention. If they continue to forget what to do, refer to a visual chart or make them a list depending on their age and reading level.
What to Do If Your Child Doesn’t Want to Follow the Directions
An immediate and meaningful reward is an important consideration here. An example of an immediate reward is “When you get your routine finished, I will give you your iPad.”
Define what instructions you plan to give and be ready to follow through with enforcing and rewarding the task. If they don’t do it, they don’t get the iPad. Keep your list of rules short as you gradually build compliance and add new things.
You want to not overwhelm yourself as a parent by having so many different expectations you need to reward and reinforce. If you have too many, you are more likely to set an expectation and let it slide. When you don’t follow through, you show your child they don’t really need to do what you say.
What to Do if Your Child Doesn’t Have the Skill Associated with the Directions
Start with two or three easy chores. Model and break those down for your child. Make sure you are clearly defining the expectation. Help them develop the skills to complete these chores. Practice with them until you know they understand how to do the task.
What To Do About Following Directions at School
A student’s ability is an important consideration in school if they are reportedly not following directions. We want to be sure each child understands what is being asked of them and has a way to ask for help if needed.
Accommodations to Request at School
- Visual aids
- Extra time to comprehend and complete tasks
- Hands-on demonstration or modeling
- Explanation of vocabulary terms to increase comprehension
- Breaking down steps and providing help with sequencing
- Verbal check-ins to ensure your child understands before initiating tasks
When to Seek Help for Following Directions Issues
When your child struggles significantly with following directions, it may be time to seek help.
If your child is in an almost constant state of disharmony over completing tasks or difficulties following instructions, that is a sign they need help.
If your child’s school regularly reports difficulties following directions, it could be time to get help. Generally, this help will come from a psychologist or ABA therapist.
Further Resources on Following Directions in Childhood
- Speech-language pathologist: to provide therapy for receptive language problems and communication skills
- Licensed psychologist: to diagnose associated disabilities such as autism or ADHD or behavior disorders and provide therapy
- School psychologist: to help with academic or social challenges that may be associated with following directions
- Special education teacher: to help with academic challenges that may be associated with poor ability to follow directions
- Pediatrician: to diagnose any medical issues that could be impacting your child
- Board certified behavior analyst (BCBA): to help teach your child how to follow directions, comply with rules, do chores, and succeed academically
Similar Conditions to Difficulty Following Directions in Childhood
- Auditory processing: it could be that difficulty hearing sounds and words correctly is impacting your child’s ability to follow directions
- Receptive language: it could be that problems with oral language comprehension are impacting your child’s ability to follow directions
- Sequential reasoning: it could be that a cognitive problem with doing step-by-step procedures is impacting your child’s ability to follow directions
- Intelligence: it could be intellectual ability. It is important to consider fluency in cognitive processing. A child may not hear or encode information, which can impact the ability to follow directions
- Non-compliance: it could be that refusal to follow instructions is a behavioral issue rather than a problem with understanding instructions
- Attention problems: it could be that problems with attention interfere with following directions
- Executive functioning: it could be that difficulties related to planning, sequencing, organizing information and carrying out a task on time are impacting your child’s ability to follow directions
- Motor or sensory: it could be that your child struggles with the motor skills needed to follow instructions, such as tying shoes, kicking a ball, or sitting in a chair in the classroom
- Depression: it could be that your child appears forgetful or distracted due to underlying feelings of sadness and emotional distress
- General memory: it could be that your child has memory challenges in many areas that are impacting their ability to follow instructions
Reference for Following Directions
 Lewis, Ph.D., Jeanne, Calvery, Ph.D., Margaret, & Lewis, Ph.D., Hal (2002). Brainstars. Brain Injury: Strategies for Teams and Re-education for Students. US Department of Education: Office of Special Programs.
Book Resources for Following Directions
Speech and Language Milestones: http://www.asha.org/public/speech/development/chart.htm
Barkley, Russell A. (2013) Taking Charge of ADHD, Third Edition: The Complete, Authoritative Guide for Parents.
Dawson and Guare (2009). Smart but Scattered
Purvis, Karyn B., & Cross, David R., & Sunshine, Wendy Lyons (2007). The connected child: Bring hope and healing to your adoptive family.
Seigel, Daniel J. & Bryson, Tina Payne (2014). No drama-discipline: The whole-brain way to calm the chaos and nurture your child’s developing mind.
Meiners, Cheri J (2005) Know and follow rules
Meiners, Cheri J (2003) Listen and learn
Cook, Julia (2012) Teamwork isn’t my thing, and I don’t like to share.
Ludwig, Trudy and Barton Patrice (2018) Quiet Please, Owen McPhee!
Binkow, Howard (2008) Howard B. wigglebottom learns to listen.
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