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!

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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.