So it’s been a couple of months since your child started school, and you’re getting nervous because your child’s teacher has concerns that they can’t follow directions in class. What does that mean? How can you help? There are many reasons why your child may not be following directions. To pinpoint where your child needs help, talk to the teacher and gather information in the following areas:
- Access to the directions: Can your child hear the directions? There are many reasons why even a child without permanent hearing loss may not hear the teacher clearly. For instance, young children are prone to repeated ear infections, which can cause temporary hearing loss. There are environmental factors in play as well. The young child goes from a home environment where the adults talk to them one-on-one and in close proximity. But once school begins, they find themselves with a group of peers, in bigger rooms and at a distance from the teacher. Suddenly they find that they must follow directions given to a large group. The first few months of school are hot because it is still summer. The noise from the fans drowns out the teacher in many classrooms. Additionally, many schools keep the walls bare because it will look neater. This affects the room’s acoustics, and the child doesn’t always hear the teacher’s directions.
- Is the child used to doing age-appropriate tasks independently? This may seem like a no-brainer, but teachers see too many kids who have never been encouraged to function independently at home. Parents, grandparents, or other adults in the family do everything for them. When these kids enter school, they are overwhelmed by the demands to eat on their own, open a book or wait for their turn unless an adult is consistently by their side.
- Does the child have age-appropriate attention skills? To follow directions, the child must do three things:
- attend to what the teacher is saying,
- initiate action, and
- sustain the attention to complete the task. Quite often, parents tell me how surprised they are to hear that their child doesn’t follow directions because, at home, their child rushes to do the task before they even finish talking. Their child must be intelligent to be so quick! But here’s a thought! A child who doesn’t wait to hear the complete direction does not have all the information about the task. The speed of action is not critical, but accuracy is!
- Language Comprehension: Most Indian children are exposed to English for the first time when they enter school. They may not have a sufficient vocabulary in that language to understand the concepts included in the teacher’s directions. This influences how much content they comprehend. Unfortunately, teachers cannot provide more support in the classroom because they have to complete their ‘portions.’
- Working Memory: An essential executive function skill, working memory is the ability to hold information for a short period of time until we no longer need it. For example, when we tell a child, “Get your bag and line up,” the child must remember to do these two steps in the correct order. If the child stands in line without the bag, then the child leaves school without it. Children do forget steps every now and then, but if this happens consistently, then it is something to be looked into.
Why is not being able to follow directions such a big deal? Sometimes, when a child is unable to follow directions, it presents as disobedience or noncompliance. But tackling it as a behavioural problem doesn’t teach the child the skill they need. If the child can’t remember the instructions, there will be many errors in the work. If the teacher has to repeat the directions multiple times or walk the child through the steps every time, it takes away a lot of the instructional time for the whole class. And in our education system, teachers struggle to individualize because they don’t have the additional help or time!
What can you do to help your child follow directions?
- When you ask your child to do something, frame your directions with specific details. Give your child all the necessary information. I say this because it is common for us to make statements like, “Put this thing over there,” and point to the object and the place. Does that ring a bell? We do that all the time in our mother tongue. But that doesn’t help the child process language the way they need to at school or outside the home. “Put what thing over where?” Instead, we must be deliberate in how we give directions. As an alternative to “Put this thing over there,” we can say, “Put the book on the desk.”
- Use the following groups of words in your directions:
- Temporal words like ‘first, next, then, after, before, and last.’ These words tell the listener the order in time.
- Location words like ‘in front of, nearest, behind, on the left, or bottom right.’ These words help the listener understand spatial relationships between objects.
- Use quantifying words like bigger, medium, and longer. These words direct the listener to measurement concepts.
- When you give multiple-step directions, use numbers to tell them how many steps there are. “I want you to do two things. First, put the cup on the table and then pour the water in the cup.”
- Increase the number of elements in your directions. From “Put your bangles in the box,” move on to “Put your red bangles in the box.”
That’s how we frame our directions. Now, let’s look at how we deliver them.
- Get your child’s attention by calling them by their name. Give the direction once you see that they are looking at you.
- Keep the directions meaningful—use naturally occurring activities in your daily routine.
- Drop your voice. When you speak softly, children focus on what you say.
- Give sufficient ‘wait time’ before repeating or adding to your direction. That gives the child time to process and plan what to do.
- Ask them to repeat the direction. A simple “Tell me what you must do now” will tell you if the child understood the instructions.
- Use visuals. You can draw simple pictures or write down keywords. Children can refer to the visuals as they complete one task after another. I still use visuals for my youngest, who is in 5th standard. It gives her a sense of independence even as she follows her daily routine.
Giving your child time to adapt to the new school environment combined with intentional interactions will improve your child’s ability to follow directions. If you and the teachers feel that the difficulty persists, consult a related professional—an educational psychologist or a speech therapist, to evaluate your child’s needs. Remember, the earlier you get help, the better for your child.