Helping your Child Follow Directions in 5 Easy Steps (Part II)

I work on following directions with ALL of the kids on my caseload. Most educational environments are constructed so that a child’s success is dependent primarily on his/her ability to listen to teacher instructions and follow directions. 

When I’m working in preschool classrooms, it’s easy to spot the MY kids because they're the ones having a melt down or having a hard time following what the rest of the class is doing.

In my last article, I talked about how working memory is a fundamental skill for being able to follow directions, answer questions, and have conversations. And this can often mislabel children as “naughty” when in fact they are simply having challenges with memory.

The first thing to consider is whether your child actually can follow directions. Often children struggling with their working memory are unable to follow rapid-fire, unrelated instructions. 

How to help a child who is struggling with working memory

Realizing that there’s a working memory issue is the first step. The next step is to make sure that everyone in the child’s life understands the deficits. That means telling the teacher, any therapists, and family members that it’s not that the child doesn’t want to listen, but instead it’s that they can’t remember what they’re supposed to be doing.

Caveat: Sometimes children just don’t want to listen… and it has NOTHING to do with working memory! Rest assured, this is normal and every parent faces this at some point or another.

But it’s really important to remember that there are plenty of things you can do to help.

If your little one is having difficult following directions, here are five suggestions to get you started:

-1- Give one direction at a time

As adults, we tend to give lots of directions at once: “Put your toys in the toy bin and then give the iPad to your sister before dinner”

Instead, give one direction at a time.

“Put your toys away” (let them put all of their toys away)  and then tell them, “Give the iPad to your sister”.

Splitting up instructions like this is really helpful for a kid struggling with working memory.

-2- Get down on their level

For children with working memory challenges, make a point of getting down on their level before you give them an instruction. Adults often give children directions while they are in the middle of other tasks and the directions can get lost on children who might not being paying attention.

Make eye contact and ask them: “OK, are you ready?”

Then slowly give them the task(s), e.g. “I need you to take your shoes off and put them in the closet.”

Getting down and making eye contact ensures you have their attention and that you are being intentional about the expectation. Now you don’t have to do this EVERY time you give a direction, but you should aim to practice 5-6 times a day.

-3- Catch a child doing the right thing

It’s easy for kids to get distracted, and that’s when they’re likely to get yelled at. We often notice when a child isn’t listening but we very rarely take note when they are following directions.

I used to work in a preschool classroom where the teacher made a huge deal when her kids were following her directions. All day long she was giving very positive feedback like saying, “Great listening” or “I love how Aidan is sitting at the table so nicely.” The result? Her classroom was calm, students were helping each other and everyone was feeding off of the positive vibes of her praise. 

Most children want to please, so it’s important to create opportunities where they are doing the right thing and then to praise them for it.

-4- Work on working memory with activity

It’s a great idea to use specific activities to help strengthen a child’s ability to follow multi-step directions. Here’s an activity I recommend you try to practice for 10 minutes a night:

Start by lining up four animals.

Say to the child “Give me the dog” (allow them to give you the dog)

Then “Give me the cat” and let them hand you that too.

If they are able to do it then combine the two: “Give me the dog AND the cat”.

Are they having trouble? Point to each animal you want and then put your hands out.

I love using a communication board to help children ask for you to “Say it again” if they need a repetition. Simply respond with “Oh, you need me to say it again” and then repeat the instruction.

-5- Use a visual schedule

At home (and in the classroom) it can be really helpful for these kids to use a visual schedule. There’s an app I love to use for this.

By doing this you break down a day in a very visual way for a child, and you can simply point to the relevant picture and say, “Ok, next we’re going outside for recess” and they can see what’s expected of them without having to rely on their memory.

Children are very motivated by visual schedules and it gives them a sense of accomplishment to slide a picture over once they complete an activity. You know that feeling when you cross something off your to do list? It's the same exact thing.  

Once you improve a child’s working memory you will often see improvements across the board in overall communication as well as their ability to learn and retain information.

Over to you

Are you excited to try any of my suggestions to help your child with their working memory? Which ones?! Let me know in the comments below - I’d love to hear from you!

ENJOYED THIS POST?

I send out blogs like this regularly, offering my expertise and useful tips for parents about all things related to child learning, speech and language development and the use of technology to help children’s communication.

Sign up here and get my free video series, “Communication Crash Course,” which will help you learn the basics for helping your child with autism start communicating. Plus, you’ll always be updated first when I release new content!

P.S. PASS IT ON

Loved this post? Then use the icons below to tweet it, share it on Facebook and send it to your friends via email.

My Child isn't Listening: How working memory could be to blame (Part I)

Last week I got a phone call from a concerned parent. Her 4-year-old daughter, Sophia, was having trouble following directions in the classroom. Teachers were getting frustrated that Sophia wasn’t listening and able to follow the classroom routine. She was easily distracted and they had to give her directions multiple times before she would follow through.

This mom felt frustrated with the school because she knew deep down that her daughter wasn’t a bad child. She tried to prepare Sophia for school every morning by reminding her to listen to her teachers and do a good job. But every day after school the teachers reported the same problems.

When I see a child like Sophia, who isn’t able to keep up with the class, my first thought is a working memory deficit.

Children with working memory weakness usually have trouble with the following:

-Following directions

-Paying attention

-Answering questions

-Recalling details

-Having conversations

What is working memory?

Working memory is an executive functioning skill. And it’s one of the most important skills a child can have. Essentially it's the ability to  hold on to information long enough to do something with it.

The kids who are struggling with working memory are easy to spot. They’ll be the ones in the classroom who are on their own, playing with toys, while everyone else is lined up to go to the bathroom.

Here’s what typically happens with a child who has trouble with working memory.

The teacher gives a direction…. “Hang your coat up and then go sit on the rug for circle time.”

The child may hang their coat up but then forget the second direction ("go to the rug"). They might think for a second, now what am I supposed to do? But as they are glancing around they see that brand new puzzle they were playing with before recess. Instead of going to the rug they go straight to that puzzle and start playing.

In this scenario, it appears as if the child is deciding to go against the teacher’s directions and play instead of doing what they are told.

In reality, the child wasn't able to remember the expectation and then was distracted by something enticing.

Note: Preschoolers also have a hard time with impulse control, so it makes resisting the brand new puzzle that much harder.

You may also find that conversation skills are negatively affected as it can be challenging for a child to hold on to information long enough to formulate responses to a questions.

Testing your child’s working memory capabilities

 If you want to check whether your child is struggling with working memory, there are some simple tests you can try at home. The goal is to figure out how long they can hold relevant information in their mind.

In my practice, I typically start by giving directions with body parts.  Most children can follow simple commands like, “touch your head" and you can immediately evaluate their working memory. 

Then, I progress to combining two commands (e.g. “Touch your nose and then your ears”).

Next, I see if they can follow three commands (e.g. “Touch your nose, your ears and then your belly”).

Once I get a baseline of their skills then I move on to using toys, which are way more distracting.  Eventually I progress to coloring a sheet since these directions take a lot more time between the instructions and the actual follow through.

For example, if you tell a child to “color the dog blue and the horse brown” it takes a lot of time to find the crayons, color the dog, and then move on to the horse.

No one knows why working memory is adequate in some and inadequate in others. The truth it that everyone has differing strengths and weaknesses with their executive functioning skills.

Here’s the good news…

Once you figure out where a child’s skill levels are, then it’s easy to start targeted practice to improve working memory.

Interested in learning more strategies? In my next post (sign up to my mailing list here to make sure you’re first in line to get it!), I’ll share my five best tips for helping your child follow directions.

Over to you

Are you wondering if your child might have working memory issues? Leave a question in the comments below and I'll try my very best to answer it - I’d love to hear from you!

ENJOYED THIS POST?

I send out blogs like this regularly, offering my expertise and useful tips for parents about all things related to child learning, speech and language development and the use of technology to help children’s communication.

Sign up here and get my free video series, “Communication Crash Course,” which will help you learn the basics for helping your child with autism start communicating. Plus, you’ll always be updated first when I release new content!

P.S. PASS IT ON

Loved this post? Then use the icons below to tweet it, share it on Facebook and send it to your friends via email.

4 Strategies to Increase your Child's Attention

Have you noticed that everyone’s attention span is slowly disappearing? It’s no surprise that this is one area of weakness I notice in a lot of the children with autism who come see me in my practice.

Distractors are everyone, so I find that teaching children with autism to sustain attention is critical to long-term learning success.

When you enhance this executive functioning skill, you can expect to see rapid improvements across all domains of your child’s learning.

Specifically, this can help children with:

- Following directions

- Answering questions

- Maintaining appropriate conversations

Help improve your child’s ability to focus with these 4 tips:

1) Minimize distractors for better attention

In order for a child to be successful you have to begin with an optimal learning environment.

Choose a location that is free from visual and auditory distractors. This could mean clearing clutter off the table, throwing beloved toys in the closet, or being mindful to turn off a television that might be playing in the background.

It’s also important to be cognizant of younger siblings or pets that might act as a distraction to your little one.

Once a child becomes proficient in an “optimal” learning space you can gradually add in subtle distractors (e.g. placing toys on the table) or low level background noise (e.g. playing music) so that your child is able to learn how to filter out distractors on their own.

2) Give a definitive end

Children are more apt to focus on a non-preferred task when they know there is an end in sight. Setting clear expectations in advance helps set children up for success.

Try using a visual schedule where you outline all of the activities you hope to accomplish. You can also use a token board where tokens are earned towards receiving a short break.

I love this app for creating effective token boards!

During an earned break I always set a timer and I allow a child to choose whatever activity they like. If possible, I try to encourage children to take a movement break where they are able to get out of their seat and get some energy out. It can be as simple as 10 star jumps or spinning around in a circle.

3) With attention, start small, think big

One way to gain momentum in any learning activity is to achieve success early on.

Create realistic expectations regarding what time intervals are developmentally appropriate for a child to pay attention.

Remember that children are able to sustain attention for varying lengths of time, dependent on age and interest in activity. As a general rule of thumb you can take their chronological age+1 to determine what’s appropriate.

For example, a 3-year-old child should be able to sustain attention to a learning activity for approximately 4 minutes (i.e. 3+1). Always start with a motivating game or toy and then you are able to gradually progress to less motivating activities.

4) Explain attention-related buzzwords

As adults we are constantly encouraging children to “focus” and “pay attention,” but often times children don’t have an understanding of what these words mean.

Explaining to a child that to “pay attention” means to “look at what you're doing” or “listen to a teacher when they are talking” can be helpful descriptions to teach the concept of attention.

I will often create opportunities where I’m purposefully NOT paying attention when a child is trying to gain my attention. Then I make a point to say: “Oops, I was not paying attention. I need to focus on the game”. This teaches children what it looks like when someone is not “paying attention”.

 After several sessions children start to grasp when someone is or isn’t paying attention and they are usually able to catch me and say: “Ms. Rachel…you’re not paying attention!”

Over to you

What’s been your experience with your child’s ability to focus? Can they sustain attention, or do they struggle? Let me know in the comments below - I’d love to hear from you!

ENJOYED THIS POST?

I send out blogs like this regularly, offering my expertise and useful tips for parents about all things related to child learning, speech and language development and the use of technology to help children’s communication.

Sign up here and get my free video series, “Communication Crash Course,” which will help you learn the basics for helping your child with autism start communicating. Plus, you’ll always be updated first when I release new content!

P.S. PASS IT ON

Loved this post? Then use the icons below to tweet it, share it on Facebook and send it to your friends via email.

Building Your Child's Confidence with Effective Praise

Every good parent or teacher knows the importance of giving children positive reinforcement for a job well done. Keep these 4 strategies in mind when giving children praise and inspire them to keep up the good work! 

Be Specific: 

When you give a child specific feedback you are able to highlight exactly what they did well and set clear expectations for the future. Instead of using a blanket “good job” after a child achieves an accomplishment, try making your response more detailed. For instance, “I love the way you told me that story” or “Great job answering all of those questions”.  The more specific the better!

Deliver Instantly: 

In order for praise to start shaping positive behaviors, it needs to be delivered to the child immediately. Sometimes children require continuous feedback in order to complete a challenging task. For example, if your little one has difficulty cleaning up toys try continuing to repeat the phrase (e.g.,“great job cleaning”)  until they are finished. Once a child becomes more proficient in the task, you can scale back how frequently the praise is given. 

Recognize your Child’s Efforts: 

When a child is expending significant effort to complete a task, be sure to recognize their hard work. Children often deliver subtle cues with their body language when frustration levels are rising. Are they beginning to fidget in their seat? Have their breathing patterns changed? Acknowledging this frustration could be as simple as saying, “I see this is a little difficult for you” or “Are you feeling frustrated?”.  Once a child’s feelings are out on the table you can support their efforts with, “ I see you’re working very hard” or “You’re doing a great job staying calm”. This acknowledgement is usually the extra push a child needs to persevere through a challenging task. 

Discuss the Value of the Accomplishment: 

Adults often ask children to complete activities without stating a clear purpose. We know that finishing our green beans will lead to optimal health,  but children don’t always understand the value of certain tasks. Alongside of specific praise (e.g.,“I love that you ate all of your green beans”) be sure to describe the importance of their work (e.g., “Eating green beans make our bodies healthy and strong”). 

How do you keep your child motivated to learn? Share your tips and tricks below in the comments. 

Over to you...

Does your nonverbal child with autism struggle with attention? Any tricks you've found successful? Share your story in the comments below - I’d love to hear from you!

ENJOYED THIS POST?

I send out blogs like this regularly, offering my expertise and useful tips for parents about all things related to child learning, speech and language development and the use of technology to help children’s communication.

Sign up here and get my free video series, “Communication Crash Course,” which will help you learn the basics for helping your child with autism start communicating. Plus, you’ll always be updated first when I release new content!

P.S. PASS IT ON

Loved this post? Then use the icons below to tweet it, share it on Facebook and send it to your friends via email.

Teaching Your Child to Control Impulsive Behavior

Impulse control is the ability for children to resist impulsive responses and regulate themselves so they are able to learn new skills. Impulsivity can often lead to children having difficulties following teacher directions, sharing with peers and taking turns in conversation. Being able to control such impulses is an executive functioning skill that can be strengthened over time, so try incorporating these 4 activities into an every day practice!

Hand Squeeze: 

When children catch a glimpse of a toy they want, they often can’t help but immediately grab it off the table. To help children resist this urge, I encourage them to squeeze their hands together before I introduce an exciting new toy. Constant reminders of “squeeze those hands!” help children resist the impulse of grabbing the toy. You could also use a fidget toy like a squeeze ball, but I love the hand squeeze technique since they will always have this at their disposal. 

Take Control of Technology: 

Games on tablets or phones can sometimes exacerbate a child’s impulsivity with constant temptations of icons to tap, drag and push. To help children manage these urges, I hold the game in front of them and help them practice listening to directions. I always employ the “Hand Squeeze” technique so that they are able to self-regulate as they wait for a turn. For young children an app such as "Peekaboo Barn" works perfectly because they can hear an animal inside the barn and then have to wait for two to three seconds before opening the doors. As the child becomes better at controlling his or her impulses you can gradually increase the wait time for longer increments.  For older children you can use an app such as “My PlayHome” and give children specific directions for more sophisticated commands (e.g. “Open the refrigerator and take out the pizza”). 

Impulse Re-Do: 

Every child has moments where they act impulsively (think: running out of the room because they are thirsty). You can capitalize on these moments as a teaching opportunity by helping a child replay them with an appropriate reaction and response. If a child runs out of the room for some water, I take the child’s hand and lead them back to the table. We then sit down and replay the situation again. I’ll often lead the child through the situation (e.g. “If we need water, first we raise our hand and then we ask the teacher”), and then I help them practice the appropriate reaction. Teaching these “Stop and Think” moments will help a child learn to regulate impulses more consistently.

Practice Taking One: 

Helping children “Take one” is another game to help practice managing the urge to grab as many toys as their little hands can hold. This works great with toys that have lots of small parts such as blocks,  puzzles or small food items such as blueberries or popcorn.  Initially I give constant reminders to “Take one” before each turn and then fade these reminders as a child becomes less impulsive. Be sure to give lots of positive praise “I love how you’re only taking one at a time”. 

Is your child having challenges with controlling his/her impulses? I’d love you to share any tips or tricks you use in the comments section below!

Over to you...

Does your nonverbal child with autism struggle with impulsive behavior? Which methods have you found most useful to help your child with his or her impulses? Let me know in the comments below - I’d love to hear from you!

ENJOYED THIS POST?

I send out blogs like this regularly, offering my expertise and useful tips for parents about all things related to child learning, speech and language development and the use of technology to help children’s communication.

Sign up here and get my free video series, “Communication Crash Course,” which will help you learn the basics for helping your child with autism start communicating. Plus, you’ll always be updated first when I release new content!

P.S. PASS IT ON

Loved this post? Then use the icons below to tweet it, share it on Facebook and send it to your friends via email.