Following Directions: Advice from Experts

following directions

Q: My son is an intelligent kid. He does well in school, loves playing on his basketball team and has a great group of friends, but he can’t follow a direction to save his life. Every day it’s a struggle to get him to do anything—whether it’s picking up his toys or putting on his shoes to get out the door. I feel like I’m nagging him all the time and am so frustrated by the end of the day.

How can I help my child be better at following directions?

Following directions can be a challenge

For many kids, following even the simplest of instructions can be a daily struggle, whether it’s a small ask, such as putting away a single ball, or a more complicated one, such as picking up a messy playroom.

But as parents navigate this common conundrum, Brad Weinstein, co-author of “Hacking School Discipline: 9 Ways to Create a Culture of Empathy and Responsibility Using Restorative Justice,” says they need to remember this: It’s not personal.

“What parents don’t keep in mind is that kids are not adults,” said Weinstein, who also is chief innovation officer for BehaviorFlip. “Kids’ brains are developing … A lot of times, the kid’s priorities are different than yours. They don’t see the significance of having a clean room or having your socks and shoes on or why do I have to be on time for lunch today. They just don’t get it.”

Nagging won’t get the job done. What will, said Weinstein, is an effective three-step coaching strategy that lays out the expectations, includes a warning if directions aren’t followed and wraps up with consequences when the task isn’t completed.

Step one: Preview

Most adults understand what a “clean room” means or why it’s important to meet a deadline. It’s not so obvious to children.

“A lot of times, ‘get ready,’ is very vague,” Weinstein said. “‘You need to be ready by 8 o’clock,’ is very vague. That’s like telling a kid when they’re getting upset to, ‘calm down.’ What does calm down mean exactly? What does pay attention mean exactly?”

When giving directions, parents need to spell it out. If children are getting ready for the day, for example, parents should preview their expectations and explain each specific step.

When laying out the directions, the experts at the Child Mind Institute recommend parents use age-appropriate instructions, are direct and give “clear and specific commands,” such as, “Please go start your reading assignment,” instead of, “Go ahead.” Instead of shouting out your instructions from another room, they write, make sure you’re next to your child as you guide them.

For kids who can read, making a list and talking about it with them can be helpful, Weinstein said. Have a conversation with your child, he said, about what a clean room means to them—and what your definition of a clean room is. You might even model your own clean bedroom and ask them how your room’s appearance is different from their own.

Once you’re both on the same page, make a detailed list together about the steps required, which they can follow as they get the job done, Weinstein said.

“The more you can empower the kid, the better,” he said.

Step two: Warning

Of course, just because a child understands what a clean room is doesn’t mean they’ll actually make it happen. That’s why it’s also important to not just preview your expectations, but provide a warning if there is no follow through.

When you first issue instructions, don’t expect kids to immediately comply. “The kid might be in the middle of their level on a video game, and they are going to go begrudgingly and throw a fit,” he said.

Instead, give them some time. In the case of a messy playroom, say something like, “‘I’m going to give you 20 minutes. I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt. If you do not start this, you’re going to have to clean the playroom, but other areas of the house as well,’” Weinstein recommends.

Step three: Consequences

If, after the instructions and warning, the child still doesn’t get the job done, it’s critical that parents hold them accountable, Weinstein said. But, he said, make sure the consequences are logical. Don’t take away their phone or video games if those distractions had nothing to do with the reason why the child didn’t follow your instructions. If they didn’t clean their room, tack on more chores, for example.

“The punishment itself isn’t going to do anything,” he said. “It’s the logical consequence where the kid takes accountability for their actions and learns why what they did was not appropriate and then fixes it. That’s what’s going to make them change their behavior.”

Say it out loud

“After you give an instruction, ask your child to repeat back what he heard. This can ensure that he understands your expectations and it gives you an opportunity to clarify if there’s any confusion. You might find he needs an explanation about what to do. Or, you might discover that he sometimes says, ‘OK,’ but has no idea what you said. If he doesn’t understand, repeat your instructions until he does.”

Amy Morin, psychotherapist and author, via

Keep it simple

“Keep your commands and instructions simple — just give one direction at a time — and remember to make eye contact and be in close proximity to your child when giving an instruction. Before walking away, wait for follow through. After she does what you ask, immediately praise her behavior. Giving praise that is specific lets your daughter knows exactly what she did right. Saying, ‘thank you for sitting on the sofa,’ instead of just, ‘thank you,’ makes it more likely she will repeat the appropriate behavior in the future.”

Kristin Carothers, clinical psychologist, via Child Mind Institute

Make it fun

“Silly activities such as clothing relay games, clean-up time assembly lines or silly songs with movements, such as ‘This Old Man,’ can make following directions fun. So can other movement games like Simon Says, Follow the Leader, and the ever popular Twister. Invite children to make up their own games using their suggestions for directions and rules.”

Ellen Booth Church, early childhood educator and author, via Scholastic