For Teachers

How to Help ADHD Brains Follow Directions the First Time

To follow directions, students with ADHD must hear and understand classroom instructions. Use these teacher strategies for simplifying complex tasks with verbal and written guidance.

Have you ever tried to assemble an IKEA desk with a dozen screws and parts? How about filing your own federal taxes—ever attempted that? What about trying to follow someone’s verbal driving directions instead of using a GPS?

These scenarios can be daunting and anxiety-provoking—and very similar to the Herculean task of following a teacher’s complex verbal instructions when you have ADHD, dyslexia, or other learning challenges.

To help all of your students successfully follow your directions, use these proven teacher strategies.

Follow Directions for Written Assignments

With independent work tasks, directions should be presented with as much visual clarity as possible to make it easy for students to decipher the main components.

For elementary school students:

  • Use a larger 14-point font size.
  • Highlight key words and phrases in bold and italics. This helps students focus on the most important components of the task.

[Download: 11 Focus Fixes for the Classroom]

For middle school students:

  • Number each step of the assignment. This lets students see how many components are involved in the task, and can help them to plan ahead for how to complete the task.
  • Offer a worksheet or an organized answer sheet, with workspace allotted for each numbered step. This sets up students to begin working immediately.

For high school students:

  • Give students a checklist or chart that they can use to cross off the sub-steps as they complete them. This teaches kids to track their progress, which is an important skill for college-bound students.
  • Include concrete expectations in assignment directions. For example, how many words or paragraphs are expected in an essay? This can be easily adjusted for students who may be at different points in their writing progress.

[Read: How to Remove Hurdles to Writing for Students with ADHD]

Follow Directions for Classroom Projects and Tasks

Understanding and following verbal directions requires several executive functions skills–shifting and sustaining focus, selecting what’s important, and engaging working memory, among others.

For elementary school students:

  • Teachers should model for students their thinking about how to start the task: “Let’s see, I need to research Emperor Penguins. What are some good websites I should explore? First, I’ll make a list…”
  • Break down multi-step tasks into individual ones. This makes it easier for students to comprehend.
  • Include visual cues to remind them of the tasks. Draw a quick image on the white board as a non-verbal reminder that they can reference.

For middle school students:

  • Use “first,” “second,” “next,” “last” language to help them order and conceptualize directions that include multiple components.
  • Have students repeat back the steps to help them encode the directions into their working memory.

For high school students:

  • Instruct students to close their laptops and put away their phones before you give them directions.
  • Use the steps outlined in the middle school section above for additional help.

So, the next time you’re about to give directions, recall the frustration and lost hours you experienced putting together that do-it-yourself office desk, and try to save your students from the same fate.

Follow Directions with ADHD: Next Steps

Ezra Werb, M.Ed., is an educational therapist and author of Teach for Attention! A Tool Belt of Strategies for Engaging Students with Attention Challenges. (#CommissionsEarned)

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