Following directions is an integral part of language development. Yet many children, especially those with special needs, struggle with this. Your success in giving direction and encouraging progress is based on each individual student and their unique abilities.

By the age of three, most children have begun to understand and carry out more than just basic, one-step directions. For instance, they generally respond appropriately when told to “please put the blocks back in the toy box and close the lid.” And these capabilities progress with age.

Developmental or Cognitive Delays?

If a student has developmental or cognitive delays, their ability to follow directions is based on more than just age. There are basic concepts that they need to grasp, including:

  • Basic primary colors.
  • Directional terms like “through, around, under” and “over.”
  • Quantities such as “few” and “many.”
  • Sequences like “first, next” and “last.”
  • Fundamental shapes, like “round” and “square” and sizes, like “big” and “little.”
  • Social and emotional states; for example, “happy” and “sad.”
  • Textures like “smooth” and “rough.”
  • Times such as “early” and “late.”
  • Spatial relationships, like “in front of, behind, on top of” and “on the bottom of.”

Signs to Watch For

There are some red flags to alert you that a child has difficulty following directions. They include:

  • Taking a long time to respond.
  • Misreading directions.
  • Missing key information in verbal directions.
  • Appearing to hear, but not listen to directions.
  • Difficulty in recalling details.
  • Mixing up the order in which things need to be done.

There are numerous explanations for these issues, including ADHD, trouble with executive function skills, or auditory processing challenges and other language disorders.

Steps to Take

Practice leads to improvement. Use these tips to help children build their skills in following directions:

  • Start by asking for their attention. Before you begin giving directions, ask children to look toward you or use their listening ears.
  • Eliminate distractions. Get rid of as much background noise as possible, including games, books, music, or other disturbances.
  • Speak in a low tone of voice. Give directions in a soft, even voice tone.
  • Wait before repeating directions. Research has shown that children respond better when given time to let directions sink in. Wait three to seven seconds and after this time, if students are still not able to follow through, repeat the direction.
  • Check to make sure children understand. Use this active listening technique: Ask a child to repeat the directions you have given them. This will help you to gauge whether they understood.
  • Break instructions down into smaller, more manageable pieces. This will make it easier for a child to process information and follow through.
  • Use visual clues. This can be very effective when working with children who have trouble with auditory processing. Break down common directions into a visual schedule or cue cards to encourage independence in following them. Use hand-drawn pictures or graphics from Board Maker or other sources.

At Cobb Pediatric Therapy Services, we understand your day-to-day challenges as a school-based therapist. We’re not just recruiters; we’re experienced therapists ourselves. So, if you’re struggling – or simply looking to further improve your therapy toolbox – contact us today for additional resources and tips. We have 27 years of experience to back us up, so let us be your career growth partner!

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