Following Directions

Key Takeaways

  • The ability to follow directions is more complex than we realize. It takes important cognitive skills and improves with practice.
  • Creating visual instructions (e.g., photos of the steps to follow) is a great way to support children's memory of routines.
  • Use games to practice following directions. Games with prompts and rules help children practice self-control and have fun while doing it.

Children need to be able to follow directions for many reasons, including: staying safe, playing games, understanding new concepts, and following daily routines. 1

But if you've ever felt exasperated and asked your child, "Why can't you just follow my directions?" or "Are you even listening to me?" you are definitely not alone. It can be hard to understand why children don't "just do it."

Following directions (even seemingly clear-cut ones) is a skill that reflects the coordination of important cognitive skills that children are building in tandem, namely: working memory (the ability to remember information for short periods of time), attention (the ability to focus), and inhibition (the ability to manage impulses and distractions). 2

How do these skills work together? Children use working memory to recall instructions, they focus their attention on each step and inhibit distractions while they work to reach the final goal. These cognitive skills lay the foundation for a child's ability to follow directions. 3

As you can see, there is a lot more to it than meets the eye. After all, these are skills that we as adults often take for granted!

What Does Following Directions Look Like Across Childhood?

3-4 years

  • Following simple, 2- to 3-step directions with regularity
  • At this age, children will still need caregivers to help remember routines and directions. Offering little reminders like, "Don't forget to wash your hands when you come inside" are helpful.

4-5 years

  • Following 3- to 5-step directions in the correct order
  • At this age, children can manage simple instructions with less help from adults. Visual reminders (like a picture or a sign) or verbal reminders such as, "What do we always do before we eat dinner?" can provide the cues that children need to remember instructions!
  • This is a great age to build daily practices. You can strategically add levels of complexity to instructions to help children build their capacity to follow multi-step directions.

5-6 years


  • Following multi-step directions with less caregiver guidance
  • Using written instructions (with adult help) to learn how to play cooperative games.
  • At this age, children can complete self-help routines with greater independence (e.g., dressing themselves, brushing their teeth).
  • Work with your child to co-develop routines and directions. This will help them to feel more in control and responsible for their goals.

How Can You Create Situations That Foster Success?

  • Make visuals (your child can help with this!) for parts of the day that require your child to follow multiple steps to complete a task. For example, take pictures of your child completing each step of their toothbrushing routine and hang them near the sink.
  • Be consistent! Children will have an easier time following directions when the directions are part of a routine.
  • Children will follow instructions best when there are fewer distractions. If you can't have your child's full attention because you're in a distracting situation, be aware of that and simplify the instructions as much as you can.
  • Break down instructions and focus on what's immediately important. For lengthy processes, take the instructions one or two steps at a time, and try to keep the directions clear and in an order that makes sense.

How Can You Practice Following Directions?

  • Practice following multi-step directions by assigning goofy things for them to do -- they'll have a blast and not realize the skill set they're practicing!
  • Music and dance are fun ways to practice following directions! This is especially true for songs that require children to base their movements on the prompts, patterns, or sounds in the song.
  • Games, games, games! Tabletop games, board games, group games, and pretend games all require some level of following directions to complete a task. For imaginary games, take turns creating rules with your child and refer to them as you play together.
  • Cook simple recipes together or assign your child a specific task to help with while you are cooking.

References

  1. McClelland, M. M., & Morrison, F. J. (2003). The emergence of learning-related social skills in preschool children. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 18(2), 206–224.
  2. Anderson, V., Jacobs, R., & Anderson, P. J. (2010). Executive Functions and the Frontal Lobes: A Lifespan Perspective. Psychology Press.
  3. Willoughby, M. T., Wirth, R. J., & Blair, C. B. (2012). Executive function in early childhood: Longitudinal measurement invariance and developmental change. Psychological Assessment, 24(2), 418–431.

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