The daily life of a student begins with a list of instructions to follow. Directions are written by competent educators who use the clearest language possible, provide a clear list of what the student is to do, and describe the task with simple incremental steps. Following directions is the core of every academic assignment. Why is it so hard for some of our students to follow, when for us the outline and sequence are obvious and clear?
Why do youngsters with ADHD seem so unable to follow directions? Following directions involves the ability to complete one or a series of verbal or written commands. Students with ADHD are mentally able to grasp the concepts, but no matter how hard we try to make them clear, these students consistently fail to comply. Let’s analyze the reasons as they relate to inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity.
• Unable to sustain focus during the instruction time
• Thoughts focused on other issues
• Possibly being distracted by things in the classroom
• Hearing only bits and pieces of the instruction
• Assuming the instructions were just like yesterday’s, so he doesn’t need to think about them
• Experiencing a language processing difficulty and getting stuck on one word or phrase
• Fearing failure, there is no need to listen
• Begins knowing what to do anyway
• Distracted and fiddles with objects around them
• I’m stupid and I can’t do it
• I hear you talking but I’m already in gear
• Hearing the first part of the instruction, student begins before taking in the whole plan
• My motor is already running, if you want me to do it, let me begin
• I’ll race you to finish first
• This is a piece of cake, why do it
• It has to do with writing, and I can’t force my motor to go there
For whatever reason, each student may need to be guided through baby steps to learn to follow directions. As adults we look at following directions as one unit, a thing, but it is not. Following directions is a process. The reason teachers get so upset and frustrated with students is that:
1. They wrote the directions.
2. Their directions were perfectly clear as to what they meant.
3. They have seen the same pattern of directions for years and can’t understand why the students aren’t getting it. It’s not their fault that this doesn’t work; it’s the way the system works!
Let’s get back to the reason students have difficulty. Learning to follow directions is a process. Like many processes in education, youngsters who have ADHD need to be taught in incremental baby steps, for some do not learn to process automatically. Each of us learns differently. Let’s look at the way following directions progresses and the incremental steps involved.
1. Basic Instruction
a. Give me the cup.
b. Draw a circle.
c. Turn in your paper.
2. Expanded One Step
a. Show me the one that is not red.
b. Do not pick up the brown one.
c. Pick up only the red blocks, no matter what size they are.
3. Basic Two Step
a. Draw a circle and a square.
b. Close the door, then sit down.
c. Write your name on the upper righthand corner of the paper.
4. Expanded Two Step
a. Throw away the trash from your lunch before you begin your assignment.
b. Write your name on the paper and do the odd problems from 9 –27 on page 345 in your math book.
5. Complex Directions
a. As you come into class, turn off your cell phones, turn in your assignments and be ready to fill in the parts of the cell body as shown on the board.
Our students want to comply and have the desire to please, but multiple sets of directions baffle them. The constant fear of failure, being wrong, and not doing the assignment right, completely debilitates a student, lowering his or her self-esteem. Punishment by giving the student a zero for incorrectly done assignments creates harm. The student’s reaction is: “I’ve failed again, so why try?” The zeros continue, and the student continues to fail, proving his own self-fulfilling prophecy. If he could have done it right, he would have. ADHD-related sensitivity leads to frustration and giving up.
Let’s look instead at ways to increase success and booster the skills needed so these students can have the equipment they need.
Just this month, a brilliant young ninth grader stormed into my office with a “Dr. Joan crisis.” He was so upset that I had a hard time deciphering what had happened.
Lance had returned to public school this year, and was determined to be a great, successful student. Four weeks into the school year, he is already frustrated. Apparently, he is taking advanced science and had a project that he just adored working on. He spent many hours at night researching, designing, constructing, and writing up his report. His dyslexia got in the way, his ADHD made time on-task agony, and his impulsivity made him re-do many parts of the construction as waiting for glue to dry just wasn’t his thing. But he finished on time! When the grade was announced, he got a B-minus. He asked the teacher why. He thought everything was perfect—but the report was to have been typed and put on poster board.
It was definitely time to get to the teacher and play let’s make a deal. Yes, he failed to follow directions. Considering his considerable dysgraphia, and the fact that his handwritten report was both neat and legible—plus the fact that his accommodations mention his dysgraphia and ADHD—he made an appointment with the teacher to plead his case. He stated his difficulties and negotiated with the teacher to change his grade to a 98, considering the content of his presentation.
Lance learned that advocating for yourself in light of your weaknesses does indeed at times make a difference. But, failing to follow directions to the letter of the law can be debilitating. Lance’s next assignment is now underway. His strategies include:
• Rereading the directions at least once a week as he works on the project.
• Rechecking with the teacher periodically to be sure he is on-track.
Students with ADHD often find themselves in Lance’s shoes. Therefore, once you know the level of complexity of the assignment you are giving, look next at the number of processes each student must use to remember the list of directions they must follow. How many students in your classroom can automatically follow these directions? What can you do to increase the number that are successful?
Remember Charlie Brown’s teacher who wha, wha, wha’d, spouting the directions in a monotone, making it difficult to follow and understand? Many of us state what we want more clearly, but at times rely only on the spoken word to relay directions to our students. Although this is the quickest and easiest delivery method, it is the least productive for getting results.
Reflect on the following progression for attaining success.
• The least efficient manner of instruction
• If we add a written list of instructions, our probability of success increases.
• If we add visual enhancements such as drawings to our written list, our chance of success increases.
Visual ++ pictorial enhancement
• If we add a demonstration to our instructions, the impact on memory compounds.
Visual ++ pictorial enhancement-color coding
• If we involve the student in the activity by writing down the assignment, acting out the assignment, drawing the steps of the assignment, the student becomes involved in rehearsal and begins to internalize the directions. Think multisensory approach to learning, yes, even to following directions.
Visual ++ pictorial enhancement-color coding
Demonstration—like playing charades
Student replicates all aspects of the directions placing them in memory by saying, writing, doing, drawing or more.
So often we write the assignment on the board, ask students to copy the list of instructions, and move on. Students with grapho-motor difficulties often cannot read what they have written, and the squiggles resulting have little or no meaning. With pictorial representations, students can at least get the visualization and perhaps copy their own graphics or hieroglyphics as the case may be. At the end of the session, before turning the students loose to work on the assignment, have several students demonstrate, tell, or pantomime how to do the assignment. You may say this takes time; however, if half of your students are not following directions adequately, I ask you, is the time really wasted?
Other techniques to help students retain your instructions
1. Hand out just the directions that commonly appear at the top of a math page. Highlight key words.
• Round the following numbers to the nearest hundred.
• Convert the measuring units as indicated.
2. Teach the Problem Solving Notebook routine, step by step. Have them follow the steps below, which are slightly adapted for our students who have ADHD.
a. Read the problem carefully, out loud as a class chorus.
b. Highlight first process in yellow. Perform that process.
c. Cross out unnecessary information. XXXXXX
Pause: What do you do first, next? Proceed.
d. Always show your work, don’t do it in your head.
e. Don’t erase your mistakes, cross out instead. XXX
Pause, check if you are on track so far.
f. Draw a picture that illustrates the problem.
g. Reread your problem and check your answers.
h. Write in your own words how you got your answer.
Posters and materials are available at
3. Online interactive stories that guide the student to write, invent, and process as they go, avoiding the need to have elaborate directions and develop successful creative writing. You can find examples here.
4. George Washington Directions. Do not tell students, but if you follow the directions you will outline the silhouette of George Washington’s head. Washington’s profile is created on a grid 20 squares wide and 25 squares long. Directions found at Education World: George Washington Teaches Map Directions.
5. The Magician’s Apprentice. Teaching the skill of following directions requires a little hocus-pocus in this lesson. Students re-create magic tricks, evaluate the clarity of the instructions, and teach an apprentice how to perform a trick.
6. Critics of Cuisine. As food critics, students follow directions to create culinary delights and then critique the recipes and the flavor of their products! This lesson seeks to capitalize on the healthy appetites of kids and their love of cooking to improve their skill in following directions.
Be the ultimate teacher by providing interactive ways to follow directions. Be sure you understand the language ability of the students in your class.
• Keep directions short, simple, and action-oriented.
• Make eye contact, especially for that child who may need your assistance for focus.
• Use visuals, over and over again. Create a pattern—for example, GREEN means it is important; RED means watch out, something may trick you, etc.
• Provide written lists of important instructions, homework.
• Print extra instructions to staple in students plan books when handwriting is an issue.
• Post your instructions on your teacher e-page so everyone has a chance to get it right.
• Use voice modulation to get your message across. Sing the assignment; clap to the to-do list; rock-n-roll; beat out the word; whisper or chant, holding hands in a circle.
• Remember variety is a necessity or the message gets lost.
• Constantly have students rehearse what they are to do.
At the end of the day do a STOP-LOOK-LISTEN.
STOP: do you have x,z,y assignment?
LOOK: do you have the book, page, etc.?
LISTEN to rehearsal of full assignment.
• Encourage the use of technology: digital memory recorders to tape assignment pages, etc., and the more sophisticated APs for tablets and players.
• Break everything down into baby steps.
• Use photos to create timelines, large calendars with circled dates.
• Encourage checklists, teach backplanning.
• Add rewards or naturally occurring perks.
• Redirect noncompliance, as punitive measures fail to increase compliant behavior.
• Visit Tina’s World, an interactive video based on following directions from earobics.
• Try How Well Can You Follow Directions?
• Following Directions with Goofy.
For classroom fun, try some of the following.
Create a bear hunt.
• Each child brings in a bear (or other toy) to hide.
• Each child creates the directions to find their bear.
• Hunt for items.
• Describe where to find the object.
• Teams follow directions.
Follow directions to make a sandwich
• Teams construct the sandwich according to different instructions.
• One team member records sequence of events.
Phil’s Bait Shop
Playing roles as new employees in a pet shop, students offer advice to customers, answer questions, and create a handbook of instructions for new fish owners.
Follow a recipe
Everyone knows what happens when a cup of flour becomes a teaspoon, and a teaspoon of salt becomes a cup.
Active activities lead to conscious need to follow directions.
Following directions worksheets can be found for all levels to middle school.
Students experiment with gravity as they follow directions to create parachutes that will carry paperclip passengers safely to the ground.
Find 16,000, free create-your-own via themes, history, math. Try the ages 3 to 6 worksheets on Following Directions.
Intersperse activities throughout your curriculum. Make your focus to deliberately teach the skill of following directions.
Draw a small fish in the middle of the page. Draw a large shark over the fish. Put a small x at the lower left corner of the page. Color the shark blue and the small fish red.
Puzzle activities that require sequencing
Color coding labeled areas that create pictures ( color all 4’s blue)
Draw a _____ in this box (
YouTube type language enhancements for following directions; lively and fun
And last, but not least, try this age-old spoof on following directions. Write a list of directions as follows:
1. Read all of the following directions before you do anything.
2. Print your name, last name first then your first name and middle initial (if you have one), at the top of the page.
3. Draw a line through the word “all” in direction 1.
4. Underline the word “directions” in direction 1. 5. In direction 2, circle the words “your first name.”
[continue listing directions numbered from 4-12]
13. Place a circle in the center of the square.
14. Place an “x” in the center of the triangle.
15. Now that you have read all of the directions as instructed in direction 1, follow directions 2 and 16 only.
16. Please do not give away what this test is about by saying anything or doing anything to alert your classmates. If you have reached this direction, make believe you are still writing. See how many of your classmates really know how to follow directions.
You can view samples of this spoof on the following websites:
High Reach Learning even provides teachers with a credit-based training module. Their approach is to help guide your thinking of how you can train Following Directions in your students.
Throughout the ages our students have faltered and failed by not following directions. One of the most common errors made during exams is failing to read and understand those constantly interfering directions. You are our teachers: My ADHD friends and I challenge you to look at our shortcomings, but support our need to learn. Directions will be with all of us for a lifetime; help us improve now.