following instructions

Teaching your child how to follow instructions

Posted on
February 23, 2023
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Following instructions or directions is something toddlers learn from a young age. It is a basic part of communication. It is important to understand directions and follow them in order to complete any tasks that are being asked of you in your daily life.

What is following instructions?

Instructions include words that direct you to do something. A parent may tell their child to close the lights, eat their food, go to sleep, do their homework … the list goes on. As instructions or directives increase in complexity and include more than one step it can be more difficult for your child to follow instructions. This is because information needs to be organized in the brain sequentially and recalled in that order.

Why are following instructions important?

It is important to develop the ability to follow instructions so that one can carry out their everyday responsibilities, and requests being asked of them. When this ability is hindered, your child will have difficulty doing what you ask them to do. It may seem like they are choosing not to listen to your request, but in some cases this can be due to difficulty with this cognitive task that involves the recall of information, sequencing this information, and executing this. This will pose a challenge both at home and when engaging in everyday tasks such as when a teacher at school is asking them to do something, or an after-school group leader is giving them instructions. If your child is having difficulty following instructions, there are ways to improve this skill with small interventions.

following instructions
Use visuals to teach your child how to follow instructions

How do you follow instructions effectively?

Following instructions, also known as following directives given by others (usually as a toddler and a child by a parent or teacher). These can be worked on by making sure that directions are simplified so that your child can have an easier time processing the information before executing it.

Following Instructions Activity:

  • If you say to the child “Go to your room and bring down the book,” the words that are not considered keywords will sometimes get lost in translation. Instead, you will want to say “ go room, get book.” This will eliminate the unnecessary prepositions and verbs that are typical including when we provide a full set of instructions
  • Another way to reinforce following instructions is by setting up a visual chart with check marks during a routine. A toddler can easily review their morning routine with you when they see pictures in sequence. Placing a checkbox next to the directive can allow the child (collaboratively with you, the parent, of course) to check off. Visuals can include brushing their teeth, getting dressed, getting their book bag, and leaving the house. These visual charts can be used for any routine to help your child follow instructions.

Why is my child having trouble following instructions?

This can be for many reasons! It can be a simple executive functioning glitch, which is the ability to plan, prioritize, organize information, and execute content that is presented in various tasks. It can also be due to difficulty recalling information as a result of challenges with working memory. As long as strategies are being used as discussed earlier to bolster memory and help with executing information shared in the directives, a child can learn how to follow instructions across contexts.

If you would like to learn more about 5 speech and language activities for parents to try at home, read our previous blog.

Following Instructions resources
Sharon Baum
Clinical Director, United States and M.A. CCC-SLP
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Is following instructions important?
To develop cognitive skills, important skills include following instructions. Children can receive these instructions through daily tasks, like brushing their teeth, or simple requests.
What is the ability to follow instructions called?
Following instructions is also known as directions given by others. Directions should be simplified, so that children can break down and process the task easier.
What are following instructions activities?
Simplify tasks for your child. Instead of saying "go to the bathroom and brush your teeth", you can say "go bathroom, brush teeth". Make learning fun and simple.