How to Give Instructions That a Child With ADHD Can Follow

Tips for better behavior

mother talking to son
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Kids with ADHD respond best to directions that are direct, simple, and clear. This helps to ensure success in following your instructions — and success leads to a whole raft of positive outcomes.

Why Chatty Instructions Don't Work for ADHD Kids

Mom is washing dishes in the sink. The water is running and dishes are clinking. Her back is turned as she calls out, “Joe, finish eating your breakfast, and then brush your teeth and grab your backpack. You don’t want to be late. Oh, and don’t forget to grab your project. It’s due today and you worked so hard on it. Hold it carefully in your lap when you are on the school bus. You don’t want anything to happen to it.”

To a child with ADHD, the directions probably sounded more like this:

“Joe, finish eating your breakfast...something about the bus...blah, blah, blah.”

Then Joe becomes distracted by the sound of the water running in the sink, and it makes him think of swimming, and that makes him think of summertime. He looks forward to swimming and playing Marco Polo at the pool with his brother and friends. He hopes Randall isn’t at the pool a lot this summer because Randall is so bossy. That girl in science class is kind of bossy, too. Joe becomes consumed by his own shifting thoughts and isn’t even aware of mom’s talking.

Your child’s distractions and tuning out are not purposeful, though to a parent it can be quite exasperating. With long, drawn-out directions, a child with ADHD quickly finds himself in information overload. The important points you are trying to make become difficult to process, especially as he is distracted by his own thoughts or things going on around him. Rather than being able to successfully follow your directions, he misses them altogether. This sets both of you up for frustration, and it sets your child up for failure rather than success.

How to Give Clear Directions Your Kid Can Follow Successfully

Here are some simple tips for increasing your child's compliance when you give him a direction. You may also want to share these tips with your child’s teacher at school.

  1. When giving directions, move closer to your child and get his attention by touching his shoulder or arm and saying his name.
  2. Make sure you have eye contact with your child as you give the direction.
  3. Give simple, actionable instructions. For example, say “Put your homework folder in your book bag,” rather than "Get ready for school."
  4. Speak clearly in a firm voice.
  5. If you need to provide explanation, say it before giving the direction. For example, "We have to go to Grandma's right after school today so we aren't late for her dinner. If you want to play with toys at Grandma's, pick some out and give them to me now." If you wait and say it after giving your child the direction, he may forget your original command.
  6. After giving the direction, wait a few seconds and stay by your child to make sure he maintains his attention on the task. If he complies and properly follows through with your direction, praise him immediately for a job well done. If you're not sure he fully understood the instructions, ask him to repeat them in his own words.
  7. If your child does not comply, give him a WHEN…THEN statement that specifies your expectations and the consequences for not complying. For example, “When you put the folder in your backpack, then you will have 10 extra minutes for computer time.” If your child complies, give him praise. If he does not comply, follow through with the loss of something, like computer time privilege.
  8. Be consistent and calm in your approach, and connect with other adults in your child's life to be sure you are all giving the same messages in the same way.

By Keath Low
 Keath Low, MA, is a therapist and clinical scientist with the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities at the University of North Carolina. She specializes in treatment of ADD/ADHD.