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Trouble Following Directions

imagesWorking memory is the ability to temporarily hold information in one’s head in order to complete a task. It is the active part of mental memory. Those who have weak working memories find it hard to think creatively at the same time they are trying to remember directions for a task. According to Matthew Crugar, PhD, neuropsychologist with the Learning and Diagnostics Center at the Child Mind Institute in New York City, working memory “is a set of skills that helps us keep information in mind while using that information to complete a task or execute a challenge. Working memory helps us stay involved in something longer and keep more things in mind while approaching a task.”

If working memory is weak, it works against a child with learning disabilities. You can take steps to help a child with weak working memory whether or not they have a learning disability. Below is a list of interventions that you can use with your child who has a hard time remembering things:

1) Make the information more easily to remember: Organize and simplify directions in a manner that creates bullet points to help you remember. For example, you might write down or have the child write down the three chores that needs to be done in a list or bullet point form. You can also simplify the directions so that the most important information stands out. For example “Chris, I want you to get your coat, the library books, and come back here to the kitchen. Got that? Coat. Library books. Kitchen. Go.” It is important to eliminate extraneous information and to simplify the message. If you use long sentences or phrases to explain something, your child will get lost in the words. Focus on the here-and-now.

2) Use multisensory strategies to help in recall: This is the process of connecting multiple sensory inputs to the material learned. This is done by using strategies that connect new learning materials with the input of the eyes, ears, voice and/or hands.  For example, “Lets’s sing the directions” or “Let’s make a picture list of all the things we need to get done before we visit grandma.” Set your directions to song, rhythm, dance, or steps. For example, “Shoes, coat, cha-cha-cha.”

3) Provide templates for procedures or routines that are repeated: A template lays out the standard steps to complete a repetitive task and can be useful for a variety of home or school demands. Templates are helpful for those who have a hard time with planning or organizing. For example, you can use chore cards to keep your child on task. These cards list the steps to complete a job, such as 1) throw the trash, 2) put clothes in hamper, 3) put clean clothes in your draw, 4) make your bed, etc. You hand the chore card to your child and then when he is done, he gives the card back to you with all items crossed out. You can also create templates for academic skills such as laying out the steps for long division. Creating checklists can also be helpful.

4) Teach concrete external storage systems to take the burden off of internal working memory: Make to do lists or schedules using pictures. This can help a child keep track of routines. Teach your child to write down oral information. The written information becomes a concrete cue that can be re-inspected whenever the oral recall fades. Use technology to compensate for weak working memory such as recording a message on your cell phone or sending yourself a reminder email.

5) Teach strategies and techniques to compensate for working memory weaknesses: Teach the child to visualize what they need to pack for their trip. For example, you can tell your child to imagine themselves walking through a whole day of vacation and thinking about what they will need from the time they wake up to the time they go to bed. You might even suggest to your child to make a list while she is visualizing and to collect the items and checking them off. Teach your child to repeat directions  in order for the information to remain in their head. Teach your child to use mnemonic devices in the form of short rhymes or special words to recall lists.

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Trouble Following Directions

Helen Nieves

Helen Nieves is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Certified Attention Deficit Consultant Specialist. She teaches ADHD on line and is on the Advisory Board at The American Institute of Health Care Professionals. She also received advanced training in Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy and in Grief Counseling.

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APA Reference
Nieves, H. (2015). Trouble Following Directions. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 5, 2020, from


Last updated: 16 Apr 2015
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