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Helping A Child With ADD Follow Directions

Many more kids now seem to be diagnosed with ADD or ADHD.  ADD is mostly about difficulty paying attention, and ADHD has attention problem along with hyperactivity.  These can run in families or be more isolated.  No matter how it comes about, parents are looking for solutions.  Here is one suggestion that you can use to help a child with attention problems.

Where Does The Message Go?

We parents sometimes take things for granted.  We think (or maybe just hope) that when kids hear us call their name, they will know it’s time to focus in on what’s coming next.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t always
happen.  And for a child with particular difficulty paying attention, it can be an even bigger challenge.

Take this very typical statement from a parent.  “Jessie, go get your jacket and put it in your closet.”  Something nearly any parent in America might say to a child old enough to do that task.  But let’s flip it around and see it from the perspective of a child with trouble paying attention.

Let’s imagine the inattentive child is busy playing when the parent says this.  How much of that statement do you think they really heard when it first happened?  More than likely, they only just heard their name.  Or
they might have only registered that it was their mom saying something loudly to one of the kids.  Everything after their name fell out of their ears.

What’s a parent’s response likely to be when they tell their child to do something and they don’t do anything at all?  They start to get annoyed at their child and might repeat it again but with a more negative tone in their voice.  The child might get defensive at this second attempt because they honestly didn’t realize they were expected to do something.  Right away there is a mismatch of expectations between the parent and the child.  The parent sees this as possibly laziness or disrespect, and the child might see this as being really negative and like they are always in trouble.

Break Down Your Message Into Small Parts

How could this be remedied?  If the whole message isn’t being received, then you need to break it down.  Did you see how that short statement actually had three parts to it?  It was the name “Jessie” (getting attention), “go get your jacket” (giving directions once) “and put it in your closet” (giving directions again).  A child with real attention problems needs the message broken down or else they can’t process it.

So if you are doing this with your own child, you would first need to get their attention and confirm it with eye contact and maybe some verbal response.  Second, just give one of the directions from the statement
above – “Go get your jacket and let me see it”.  Make sure you can confirm their completion of the first task.  “Put your jacket in your closet.”  Make sure they actually put it away as you asked before you release your child from the task.

One thing I have learned from my experience as a counselor is that if people don’t do what you suggest, you need to break it down smaller.  Smaller more manageable chunks often increase a person’s success
rate and getting just about anything done.  This would be especially true for someone challenged by their attention span.  When a parent can present directions in a way their child can have good success, a child
with attention problems can succeed like anyone else.  This instills confidence and a sense of feeling OK with their peers.

Raising a child with attention difficulties is a special challenge requiring a lot of patience.  But this simple method of breaking down your communication can make a world of difference for your child.  Even if your child isn’t diagnosed with a problem, you may find that you and your child feel less frustrated.  If you have had success with this type of parenting skill to help a child with ADD, please share.  Or if you’ve had to modify your communication other ways, I’d love to hear how you made things work out.

Helping A Child With ADD Follow Directions

Erika Krull, MS, LMHP

Erika Krull, MS, LMHP is a practicing licensed mental health counselor in Nebraska.

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APA Reference
Krull, E. (2009). Helping A Child With ADD Follow Directions. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 7 Aug 2009
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