Are your frustrated that your child isn’t listening? Here’s 9 common reasons why your child doesn’t follow directions and one easy, printable solution.
If you’re struggling with a child who won’t follow directions, you’re not alone. That’s the number one complaint I hear from parents. And I’ve experienced it in my own home.
Drawing from my experience as a educator and as a parent of both uniquely-wired and typical children, I’ve found nine reasons why children don’t follow directions.
Listen, this post isn’t meant to shame you. I don’t do that. However, once adults get clear on the roots of a problem, then we can generate more effective solutions.
Here are 9 reasons why your child doesn’t follow directions.
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#1 – Children’s brains aren’t wired to follow directions
Listening and following directions involves the cognitive ability called executive function. Short-term (or working) memory, problem-solving, and self-control are all part of executive function.
And your child needs all three of those skills to follow directions. Here’s the problem: the part of the brain that manages executive function isn’t fully developed until the age of 25.
Now children can strengthen their memory, problem-solving, and self-control, but they are skills. Much like riding a bike or learning to read, learning to follow directions needs to be viewed as a skill.
More likely than not, if your child is struggling to follow directions, the cause isn’t solely being defiant or stubborn. It’s because your child still has a weakness in core skills.
#2 – Parents use way too many words
Adults notoriously rely on verbal communication – and way too much of it – when giving directions. Even for a neurotypical child who isn’t managing ADHD, autism, or a learning disability, processing language is hard work.
Remember Charlie Brown and the grown-ups, “wha wha wha wha?”
Adults use so many words, it’s hard for children to filter through all the information and comprehend what task to do.
Listening requires a ton of cognition (or thinking). Do you have a co-worker or family member who drones on and on and on? It’s exhausting.
Eventually, you tune them out too.
#3 – Parents don’t give children time to think
Similarly, with using too many words, adults do not give children enough time to think. Children need time to process a direction.
In teaching, we call this “wait time.” Teachers are taught to ask a question or give instructions and then pause for 5-10 seconds to allow children time to think.
So often parents give a direction and when their child doesn’t follow the direction immediately, we explain more.
Your child’s brain gets overwhelmed. It hasn’t had time to process the first direction and now there is a bunch more language to deal with.
So use fewer words and then wait.
#4 – Parents give directions that are vague
Let’s say you tell your child that it’s time to get ready for school. What does that even mean?
In different families, it means different things. Plus with both distance, on-line school and in-person school looming for the next year, it could mean different things on different days for the same family.
So think: what does it mean to get ready for school? Your child needs the direction broken down into small pieces so he or she understands all the steps that go into getting ready for school.
Think about something as seemingly simple as, “Get in the car.”
Getting into the car for school really requires:
- your child to find closure with a prior activity
- he or she transitions to the next task
- your child gathering his or her personal items
- then your child puts on their shoes,
- finally your child can go out to the car.
Have your examined each direction you give your child and broken it down? If your child doesn’t follow directions, think about the situation and how you can break it into smaller steps.
#5 – Your child genuinely doesn’t understand
There are a number of reasons why your child might not understand when you give a direction.
They could have an underlying language disorder or delay, you might be using vocabulary they don’t know, or they could simply be distracted.
You might also be assuming your child already understands how to do a task that they haven’t mastered yet.
So when you give a direction, try another tip borrowed from teaching: check for understanding.
Check for understanding is literally that – you need to check to make sure your child understood.
Here’s an example:
- Mom: Sally, please go get your backpack and then put on your shoes.
- Sally: Okay.
- Mom: Sally, before you go, tell me the first thing to do.
- Sally: Get my backpack.
- Mom: Great, what next?
- Sally: I don’t remember.
So start checking for understanding. Ask, “can you tell me what I said to do?”
#6 – Your child loses focus
Being able to regulate attention and complete a task from start to finish takes some serious brainpower. Like we mentioned above, your child needs executive function to follow directions.
What about when there are competing factors? Your child needs to filter out the unimportant to focus on the important.
While getting dressed for school, your child maybe be distracted by:
- an annoying sibling
- the sounds of the coffeepot
- Leogs on the floor
- or countless other things
Distractions happen, so you need to have a way to teach your child to focus.
#7 – You need a routine
If there isn’t a clear structure or routine that supports children to follow directions, they won’t. It’s really too hard.
If things are unpredictable or change day-to-day without support, the demands are setting your child up to avoid listening.
Teachers use routines in the classroom because they work. If your child doesn’t follow directions, you need a clear routine and visual support.
#8 – You use too much constructive criticism
When your child begins to be independent with a new set of directions, they do not need negative feedback. At all.
Unless it is something that is seriously jeopardizing their well-being (not brushing teeth or washing hands), parents are going to need to let it go.
Do not offer feedback or criticism. You can praise what you like to see.
Try something like, “I see you got your toothbrush out today!”
Next time, you can teach your child proactively. It’s the parents’ responsibility to make sure the directions are clear from the beginning.
You will make mistakes with this. You’ll assume your child already knows something or has already mastered the self-control to execute some task well every time. So give yourself grace.
And plan to reteach the next time you give the directions.
You can say, “Today, we’re going to brush teeth for one minute until the sand in this time runs out.”
#9 – Your child has developed bad habits
Let’s face it – with all these struggles listed above, sometimes it comes down to bad habits. If your child isn’t used to succeeding, they will give up.
If your child is used to be inundated with 10 directions in a row, they will quit listening. Or if they try and all the mistakes they made are corrected, they will lose motivation.
So if you’re tempted to say, “My child just doesn’t care,” I want you to do some soul searching about the reasons that lead to that.
What’s the solution when your child doesn’t follow directions?
Routines. You need routines. And you need a printable visual that corresponds with it.
Printable routine charts support children’s growing executive function. You can grab a free printable morning routine chart to get started.
With printable routine visuals, children don’t need to rely solely on memory when the steps are in front of them. There are fewer demands on the language processing, and this allow more mental energy to be devote to self-control.
The printable routines are the first step in supporting your child. But you’re going to need to commit to teaching each skill.
I also encourage you to check out the Ultimate Routines Printable Pack. There are 35 pages of printable routines.
It has a few variations for 10 common daily routines so you will find one that works for your family.
Recapping 9 reasons why your child doesn’t follow directions
Here’s the summary for all you busy parents
- Children lack some neurological skills to follow directions and it doesn’t develop fully until 25
- Parents use way to many words
- Often parents don’t give children adequate time to think
- Parents give vague directions
- Children are genuinely confused
- Your child loses focus
- Your child needs a routine
- You use too much constructive criticism
- Your child has developed bad habits
- The solution is printable visual routines to support your child
Once you’ve figured out some of the reasons why your child doesn’t follow directions, you can get to work finding solutions or supports. Make sure to grab the free printable morning routine chart below and see if visual routine charts help your child follow directions.