Ask the Experts

Q: How Can I Help My Student Follow Directions on Classwork?

For some children with ADHD, following directions is challenging. Here are five things teachers can do to help their students follow directions more consistently.

Q: I have a 14-year-old student who finds it tough to follow directions. I sometimes ask him to do a math sheet, hand it to a classmate to check, and then make corrections. He can do the first part but then forgets to make corrections. He has trouble with other subjects, too. What can I do to make following directions easier for him?


Following directions is challenging for some children with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD). Sometimes, though, it is helpful to see what else might be going on that could be affecting his compliance. What may sometimes seem like “forgetting” may actually be avoidance. You should ask yourself:

  • How does he feel about having to make corrections?
  • Is he frustrated about having to look at the same material again?
  • Does he feel confident enough that he can make the corrections?
  • Is he embarrassed that his weaknesses have been exposed in front of his classmates?

Also, remember that students with ADHD are distracted easily. Here are some options to help him:

Pair Students with a Buddy

You don’t want to embarrass the student, so give both students in the pair the same roles. You might have each student check that the other is following directions. This strategy builds awareness about following directions and develops the skill along the way.

[Free Handout for Teachers: 11 Focus Fixes for the Classroom]

Create Clear Classroom Checklists

  • Break down exactly what you expect your student to do.
  • Place a written list of directions on a student’s desk.
  • When applicable to the whole class, write directions on the board.

The more you divide the steps, the more likely your student will meet your expectations. Keep in mind that, for some students with ADHD, it’s not a problem of forgetting, but a weakness in working memory.

Stay Involved and Engaged

Check in frequently with the student in anticipation that he will have a hard time following directions. It is possible that working memory is getting in the way, and he may be remembering only the first step of the directions. Knowing that he has a challenge in this area, reframe your thinking. Working with him closely as he makes his way through the assignment will reduce his frustration.

Ask the Student Why?

As I mentioned, there can be a lot going on that is getting in the way of your student’s challenge with directions. With genuine curiosity and withholding assumptions, you can both learn a lot by asking him why he thinks this is a challenge. State that your goal is to work together to figure out how to help him follow directions more consistently, not to reprimand him.

Celebrate a Small Success

When he succeeds in following directions, celebrate it! Help him to more clearly see what you want him to do by reinforcing when he does it. The more you can point out success with following directions, the more the student will focus on doing it.

[Read This: 15 Memory Exercises for Forgetful Kids]

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