Girl thinking about following directions

5 Simple Ways to Help Your Child Follow Directions

Does your child have difficulty following directions? Now, I don’t mean the strong-willed child who understands what you said, but wants to exert his or her own independence. But, the child who is fairly compliant, but just seems to not understand what you say or starts to follow a direction and then gets lost in the middle of it. I personally have one of each!

There are two ways to help this second child who really would like to follow the directions most of the time, but is struggling. One is to modify the environment and the directions given and two is to strengthen the skills involved in following directions. Today we are going to talk about modifications. To learn more about how to strengthen the underlying skills, read 4 Strategies to Strengthen Listening Skills.

Cover for blog post 5 Ways to Help Your Child Follow Directions

Remove Background Distractions

Before you start to give your child a direction, take a moment to attend to the environment around you. What do you hear? Sounds that you easily tune out may be a distraction to your child. Do you hear the dishwasher, the dryer, the TV or the radio? Move away from them or turn them down/off before starting to give your child a direction.

Get Your Child’s Full Attention

Make sure your child is actually paying attention to you before you give the direction. Pause the TV. Put your face just a few feet from hers. This may mean squatting down to her level. If appropriate, ask her to look at you. I often put my index finger on my nose, to bring my son’s attention to my face. If your child struggles with eye contact, then don’t push this. It may be easier for he or she to listen while not looking at your face. Just get close.

Mom standing close to him and looking at him to give a direction.

Shorten Directions

Next, give the direction, but pay attention to how many words you are using. Now, this seems like common sense, but I still catch myself using WAY too many words with my son sometimes. Instead of saying, “go put on your blue sneakers”, I might say, “We are going to leave soon and you can’t wear sandals to camp because they want you to wear closed toe shoes, so go upstairs and put on those blue shoes because we don’t mind if they get dirty and you might get them dirty playing outside at camp.” Um…mom fail. Way too many words. No reason for most of those words! So monitor yourself and make sure you are not giving any unnecessary information. This doesn’t mean you don’t ever share this type of information with your child. Just don’t insert it into a direction you then want her to go follow.

Use Less Steps

When thinking about how many words you should use, also think about how many steps your child can actually follow. Is he pretty successful with one step directions, but rarely completes two? Or maybe he completes two-step directions half the time, but never three-step? Only give your child the number of steps he can handle fairly easily. This is not the time to think “well, he should be able to follow more steps at this age.” Right now, we are just going for success. You can always work on more complicated directions in a structured lesson, which we will talk about more in 4 Strategies to Strengthen Listening Skills.

Use Only Key Words

So maybe you are using less words and only saying the appropriate number of steps, but your child is still struggling. It may be that she is having trouble picking out key words in the direction.

For example, the direction “go upstairs and put your blue shoes on” seems pretty straightforward. But, some children pay just as much attention to the words ‘go’, ‘and’, ‘put’ and ‘your’ as they do to the more important words in the direction. And then they get lost. So you may find that saying “upstairs blue shoes on’ allows your child to have more success. I notice with my son that sometimes the longer direction is fine and sometimes he needs just the key words. The confusion on his face is usually the tip off! So sometimes after I give the original direction, I just repeat the key words. So it sounds like this: “Go upstairs and put your blue shoes on.” Short pause. “Upstairs, blue shoes, on.” I may also point to the stairs and his feet while I say each of the words to help him remember.

Direction "Go upstairs and put on your blue shoes" with the key words highlighted in orange.

Teach Your Child To Rehearse

‘Rehearse’ just means to repeat the direction to himself as he walks through the house to complete it. So in the above example, you may encourage him to say ‘blue shoes’ as he walks through the house. The first couple times, it may be helpful for you to walk alongside him and model saying “blue shoes” as you walk.

Write Information Down

If your child can read or is at least starting to, writing information down so she does not forget can be helpful! It cuts down on all that auditory information your child needs to take in and process. It also teaches her this strategy to use on her own some day to help herself remember information. We have two ways we have tackled this in our home.

Chore Chart and Daily Task Chart for kids.

Semi-Permanent Signs

We have signs around our house that contain information that the children need to do repeatedly or that they ask about repeatedly. For example, the steps to getting ready in the morning are posted in the kitchen. A weekly chore list is also posted there. The meal plan for the week hanging on the wall answers the never ending question “What’s for dinner?”. The weekly schedule and the list of daily tasks in the homeschool classroom reduces the amount of verbal directions I have to give. Often when one of the boys asks a question, I can direct them to one of these papers or signs to answer his own question.

Menu written on a chalkboard

Sticky Notes

For those times that you need to have your child complete a unique task or you really need them to go upstairs and follow three separate directions, you can write the tasks on a sticky note and have him carry it with him. My son used to ask for me to write the directions down even when his reading skills were very new. Just sounding out the beginning of each step helped him remember what I had told him to do.

Sticky note with directions written on it.


Other Resources

Implementing these five strategies should make for a smoother home life and help your child feel more successful. But, you may also want to build some time into your homeschool day to target specific listening skills so you don’t have to rely so much on these strategies. Reading 4 Strategies to Strengthen Listening Skills will get you started!

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