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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