Picture this: your child is a bright student. Maybe they’re in third grade but already reading at a middle-school level. They show great academic potential, but their grades don’t always reflect that. They only write down part of her homework assignments, and they can’t remember the steps to solve a math problem. Above all, they struggle with following directions.


Does this sound familiar?


Following directions is a huge part of our lives. We have GPS in our cars or on our phones that tell us where to turn and when. We follow automatic tutorials whenever we install new devices. Even outside of technology, directions are everywhere we turn, like on a road sign or in a simple recipe.


Directions are inescapable, especially in school. In fact, the classroom is where most young children hone this skill. We expect students, even at the elementary level, to have mastered the art of following directions.


So what happens when they don’t?


Certainly, there are behavioral reasons to explain why a child won’t do what they’re told. Maybe he or she is feeling grumpy that day and just doesn’t want to work. But for some children, following directions is a consistent problem. And it’s not because they don’t want to — it’s because they can’t.


According to Understood, an online support group for parents of children with learning and attention issues, there are a few different reasons why a child may struggle to follow directions. One possible scenario, as writer Amanda Morin explains, is that the child “hears and understands directions, but she can’t get past the first step.” Morin goes on to say that this could be a problem with working memory.


What is working memory?


A few months ago, we published a post about executive functioning skills, and among those is working memory. To recap, working memory is related to short-term memory: it helps us accomplish immediate tasks. It’s basically like the Post-it reminder in our brains.


For kids who have weak working memory, it can be hard to remember directions, even if they’re simple.


If your child …

  • does tasks out of order
  • struggles to remember details
  • has trouble answering questions directly
  • hears but doesn’t seem to listen

… they may be struggling with working memory issues. And if they have this problem at home, chances are it’s happening at school, too. Even the brightest students can have problems with working memory.


How can I help?


This battle is more common than you might realize, and luckily, there are ways to support children with weak working memory skills, particularly when following directions.


At home


Ask for your child’s attention. To avoid glazed-over eyes, use verbal cues to make sure your child is paying attention. Politely ask them to maintain eye contact, emphasizing that you need them to pay attention at that moment.

Lower your volume. Sometimes we think that a loud voice draws more attention, but the opposite is often the case for a child. A reduced tone of voice forces a child to listen more closely so they don’t miss what’s going on.

Check for understanding. Ask your child to repeat what you just said to them. Better yet, ask them to say it in their own words. This forces your child to think through your request and encourages deeper understanding. It also gives them a chance to ask clarifying questions.

Encourage activities that improve working memory. Something as simple as solving jigsaw puzzles can boost memory skills. Make it a team effort, so that it feels like a fun activity for your child instead of a chore. For more ideas on improving working memory, check this post out.


At school


It’s tough to control what happens to your child outside of the home, but many teachers are willing to work with you to enhance your child’s learning experience. If your child is old enough, encourage them to advocate for themselves: ask them to find out if their teacher would be willing to provide written instructions for them so that they can follow along at their own pace.


It should be noted that weak working memory can be a sign of ADHD. However, they are not mutually exclusive. If your child exhibits multiple symptoms of an attention disorder, you might want to consider getting them tested. If they get a diagnosis, or if they already have one, talk to your child’s school. Often, the faculty will include specialists that can help you and your child’s teachers create a plan for your child’s success in the classroom.


What’s the bottom line?


You may think your child is difficult or unruly because they don’t seem to listen, but that’s not always the case. Following directions can be a challenge. However, I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be impossible for you or for your child. You just have to develop a plan to help your child, so that they can thrive at home and at school. Try these strategies out! You may be surprised to find how well they work.


And if you’re in the St. Charles area, you can seek executive functioning tutoring at Learning Ascent. We offer specialized help to students at all ability levels. We are trained to boost skills like working memory and other important study habits. So call us at 630-587-2795 for a consultation or schedule an appointment online today!  Click here for Homework Help resources.


Featured image credited to Central Elementary School-89.

One Comment

  1. Katy V March 2, 2018 at 10:39 am - Reply

    Every child is unique in their own ways. It’s better not to compare your child with others instead help them in a proper way where they will not feel that they are weak or less better than others.

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