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Is Your Child Not Following Directions?

Young child facing away from the camera with their hands over their ears.

Marcy Willard


Last modified 25 Mar 2024

Published 29 Feb 2024

What is Following Directions in Childhood?

Following directions in childhood is the ability to receive instruction from an adult and complete the task assigned. 

It may sound simple, but there are fairly complicated processes that underlie a child’s ability to follow directions. If your child is struggling with this, you will want to take a moment to consider what skill deficit is getting in the way. See the list below for a guide.

Six Things a Child Needs to Follow Directions 

In order to follow an instruction, a child must

1- Understand the directions 

2- Listen to the directions 

3- Pay attention to the directions

4- Remember the directions

5- Know how to do the task directions

6- Be willing to follow the directions

Let’s illustrate this list by way of an example. Imagine that Sarah, the parent, walks into her son Noah’s room, and it’s a mess. Sarah wisely realizes that she can’t get Noah to clean the whole room at once. So, Sarah told Noah, “Put away your clothes.”

  • Skill #1- Does the child understand the directions? Let’s say Noah does know what the words ‘put away’ and ‘clothes’ mean. 
  • Skill #2- Was the child listening when the instruction was given? Let’s say Noah was listening. Sarah knows Noah was listening because he was standing still and looking at her while she gave directions.
  • Skill #3- Was the child able to focus his attention long enough to hear all the instructions? Let’s say Noah was paying attention. Sarah knows Noah was paying attention because he nodded and did not get distracted while she was talking.
  • Skill #4 – Was the child able to remember her instructions? Let’s say Noah could remember the information for more than a few seconds.
  • Skill #5 – Was the child clear on how to do the task? Aha! Let’s say Noah hasn’t done this task much on his own. Because he doesn’t have much practice and experience with ‘put away your clothes,’ he simply stares blankly at the pile of clothes on the floor. Now, we’ve identified the real reason Noah hasn’t followed Sarah’s instructions.
  • Skill #6 – Was the child willing to comply? Most often, parents jump to this conclusion without checking through all of the other five skills. If Sarah had jumped to skill #6, she would likely be frustrated with Noah, assuming he didn’t follow her directions out of defiance, laziness, or a bad attitude.

As a clinician, I have seen this issue extremely often. The parents are frustrated that the child is refusing to follow instructions. However, when we break it down like this, we notice that the child really didn’t have the skills required to get the job done.

In this example, Sarah could help by walking Noah through the task as a team. If Sarah goes into Noah’s room and describes where each item goes, there is a much higher likelihood Noah will start participating in the activity. So, the next time you assign a task like ‘put your clothes away,’ check through this list. Ensure that your child knows exactly what to do. Many conflicts can be avoided with this technique.

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 1 year old (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 ___?’ [1] If your baby is not following your eye-gaze, pointing, or gesturing, there may be a delay.

At 1.5 years old (15-18 months): A toddler should be able to follow simple single-step directions such as, ‘Give me the ball.’ [1]

At 2 years old (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 3.5 years (42 months): 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.” [1]

At 4 years old (48 months): A child who is 4 years old can typically follow three unrelated instructions. They can do a task with several steps, such as getting dressed. They can help clear the table of unbreakable objects.

At 5 years old+: A child who is about 5 years old can follow multiple step directions. The kindergarten teacher can ask a child this age to take out a piece of paper, grab a pencil, and put their name on the paper. If your kindergartener cannot follow the teacher’s instructions, see the ‘what to do’ section for help. By five years old, a child is expected to follow two-three unrelated directions.

Use the guide above to get a rough idea of whether or not your child is on track with following directions for their age. In clinical practice, we have often seen parents expect more of their children than the child is ready for developmentally. Although this guide stops at what is expected of a 5-year-old following directions at home, we really work on these skills our whole life. 

It would not be uncommon for a 7-year-old to have some trouble following directions at school, for example. Most 7-year-olds are in first grade or second grade. At that time, teachers expect a lot from your child in terms of complying with classroom rules. For example, they will likely have certain items that are supposed to be packed in their backpack each morning before school. There may be a bookbag and a reading log. Your child probably has a certain bin for turning in homework and returning books. 

If your child is struggling at this age, don’t panic. These are pretty common challenges for kids in lower elementary school. Consult with your child’s teacher on strategies to support your child. You can help by packing the backpack together the night before. Make sure you and the child pack the backpack together so that your child knows right where everything is. If you do this for your child, it is highly likely they will forget to turn these items in once they get to school. Most importantly, don’t be hard on your child about this. Be patient and supportive as these skills are likely to emerge on their own over time.

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.

Remember, your child may not have a behavior problem. It may be that your child is perfectly willing to comply with your instructions but just didn’t understand them correctly. As a parent, it is your job to be clear and concise with your instructions. Conflict and power struggles can be avoided by simply giving clear directions.

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.

Basically, if your child has auditory processing issues, it is highly likely that they didn’t even hear your instructions in the first place. If you aren’t sure your child heard your instructions, use the following formula.

Following directions formula

  1. Give the first direction
  2. Wait. Give the child a 7-second pause to get started before reminding them
  3. Check. See if the child did the task
  4. Praise. If it’s done, praise the child. If not, gently remind the child and offer help
  5. Give the next direction
This diagram shows the five steps of the Following Directions Formula.

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. 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. 

6. 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. 

Regardless of which reason above is present for your child, this formula is a good place to start. As your child learns skills, you can increase the number of instructions you expect each time. However, if you really want to see your child do better with following directions, try this formula.

Following directions formula

  1. Give the first direction
  2. Wait. Give the child a 7-second pause to get started before reminding them
  3. Check. See if the child did the task
  4. Praise. If it’s done, praise the child. If not, gently remind the child and offer help
  5. Give the next direction

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. Think about whether or not you are getting into a lot of power struggles with your child. Reflect on the quality of the parent-child relationship. If there are issues here, you may need some support as a parent. Consider a consultation with an ABA therapist. See also, the Cadey mobile app. This app is chocked full of strategies to help parents teach their children without getting into power struggles or engaging in constant conflict.

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. If this is an issue, make sure your mouth is in the child’s line of sight before you give an instruction. Check to see that the child knows exactly what to do
  • Receptive language: it could be that problems with oral language comprehension are impacting your child’s ability to follow directions.  In this case, it is important to give directions at the child’s level and make sure the child understands the task before initiating it
  • Sequential reasoning: it could be that a cognitive problem with doing step-by-step procedures is impacting your child’s ability to follow directions. If this is a problem for your child, it is really important to draw out or write out the series of instructions. Explain each task step-by-step before the child begins
  • 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. In this case, be careful not to give vague directions. Spell out exactly what the child is to do and check that each step is done before giving the next instruction
  • Non-compliance: it could be that refusal to follow instructions is a behavioral issue rather than a problem with understanding instructions. If this is the case, you will want to take advantage of something called ‘behavioral momentum.’ That is, start with a smaller task that you know your child will do. Then, gradually increase the demand to bigger tasks as you gain compliance
  • Attention problems: it could be that problems with attention interfere with following directions. In this case, it is important that parents phase directions in accordance with the child’s level of attention. Start small with instructions and make sure you have the child’s attention. Once the child gets started, help them stay focused by offering praise and then giving the next instruction
  • 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

[1] 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 

Barkley, Russell A. (2013) Taking Charge of ADHD, Third Edition: The Complete, Authoritative Guide for Parents. 

Binkow, Howard (2008) Howard B. wigglebottom learns to listen.

Cook, Julia (2011) The worst day of my life ever!: My story about listening and following instructions. 

Cook, Julia (2012) Teamwork isn’t my thing, and I don’t like to share. 

Dawson and Guare (2009). Smart but Scattered

Ludwig, Trudy and Barton Patrice (2018) Quiet Please, Owen McPhee!

Meiners, Cheri J (2003) Listen and learn

Meiners, Cheri J (2005) Know and follow rules 

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.

Speech and Language Milestones: