Following instructions is something we do everyday. When we are at home we might hear, “Can you get some bread and milk today?”, at work we may be told, “I need you to meet with the team to go over this proposal and then call the client to confirm” and even having a night out requires an understanding of instructions such as “Please wait to be seated” or “Pay for your parking before returning to your vehicle”.

 Following Instructions is harder than it seems…

Many people take for granted how easy it is for them to understand what has been asked, and know what they need to do in order to make it happen. In actual fact, following instructions is a very complicated task. It requires a person to interpret and remember the detail of spoken or written directions varying in length and complexity, and then sequence that information into the appropriate steps. Furthermore, it’s generally the responsibility of the listener to seek clarification if they are having trouble remembering the information. So while it may seem natural and easy for us (we have had lots of practise after all), for some children it is simply overwhelming.

Key factors:

There are four main factors involved in following instructions:

  1. Hearing
  2. Attention and Concentration
  3. Working memory – the ability to retain and manipulate information involved in language comprehension, reasoning and learning new information and to update this information as change occurs.
  4. Receptive language (comprehension) – Understanding of spoken and written language, especially vocabulary and concepts such as location concepts (in, on, under), temporal concepts (before/after) and sequencing concepts (first/next/last).

How do I know if my child is having difficulty?

Instructions can be short and direct “Sit Down!”, longer and more complex, “Before you pack your bag, I’d like you to get your green folder from the top shelf and put it in the basket under my desk” and somewhere in between. Sometimes, parents and teachers may not realise that a child is having difficulty following instructions because they seem to follow some and not others. As a result, when the child is not performing as expected, parents and teachers may start to think of them as being a poor listener or a poor reader and start to use terms such as lazy, forgetful, inattentive, impulsive, and distractible.

Children experiencing difficulties with following instructions can present in many different ways. They may withdraw and sit back and wait for others to go first so that they can see what they need to do. On the other hand, they might start to act out or take on the role of “the class clown” in an effort to mask their difficulties, or perhaps as a result of feeling angry, frustrated or embarrassed that they do not understand what they need to do.

Generally speaking, it may be worth seeking professional advice if you notice that…

  • Your child has trouble getting started with their work
  • Your child doesn’t finish their work
  • They copy what others are doing
  • They present work that has nothing to do with the task
  • They often look blank when given an instruction
  • They often need instructions or questions repeated or simplified
  • They don’t want to do their homework (although to be fair – there aren’t that many children jumping for joy about homework)

What can I do to help?

If you suspect that your child is having difficulty with following instructions, (or if they have had a speech pathology assessment that indicates this is the case), there are lots of simple steps you can take to help.

  • Eye contact – make sure you have your child’s visual attention before giving them any directions/instructions
  • Break longer instructions up – If your child can only remember one step at a time, break longer instructions up into single steps.
  • Be mindful of vocabulary – If an instruction contains a word or a concept that your child has difficulty with, help them learn what it means by saying it in a different way. For example, “Point to the cat before you point to the dog. So that means we have to point to the cat first, and then the dog”.
  • Check what your child has heard – After giving an instruction, ask your child to tell you what they need to do to see how much they have understood and remembered.
  • Use your fingers to support multi-step instructions – For example, tell your child, “I need you to go to your room and get 3 things – your hat, your jacket and your shoes whilst holding up 1 finger as each item is mentioned.
  • Provide repetition – For children who have difficulties in this area, threats such as “I’m only going to say this once” or rebukes such as, “I have already explained what you need to do, you obviously weren’t listening” just make things worse.

Don’t forget to check out our previous post on 10 games to improve your child’s listening skills for more ideas.


Whilst we know that all children are different and will learn things at their own pace, it’s very important to get timely advice and (where required) intervention or support for children experiencing difficulties with following instructions.

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