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Helping A Child With ADHD to Follow Directions

Tips for Better Behavior


Updated February 12, 2013

Helping A Child With ADHD to Follow Directions

The way you give directions can make a big difference in your child’s compliance.

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Parents of children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are often told that it is important to give concise directions to their child, but what exactly does this mean and why is it necessary? Kids with ADHD respond best to directions that are direct, simple and clear. This helps to ensure success in following out your request.

Here is an example of a direction that would be difficult for a child with ADHD:

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 back pack. 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 get lost in the shuffle and 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, an ADHD child 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.

It is tough being a child with ADHD, and it is tough being a parent of a child with ADHD. Learning ways to help make life a little easier and successes lots more frequent is important. Here are some simple tips for increasing your child's compliance when you give him a direction. You also may want to share these tips with your child’s teacher at school.

Giving Clear Directions

  • When giving directions, move closer to your child and get his attention by touching his shoulder or arm and saying his name.

  • Make sure you have eye contact with your child as you give the direction.

  • Use a DO command rather than a STOP command when you can. For example, say “Put your homework folder in your book bag,” rather than a vague command such as, “Stop goofing off.”

  • Say the command clearly in a firm voice.

  • 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 will likely forget your original command.

  • 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 your child does not comply, give him an IF…THEN statement that specifies your expectations and the consequences for not complying. For example, “If you don’t put the folder in your back pack right now, then you will lose 10 minutes off your 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.

  • Be consistent and calm in your approach.

  • Be sure to take care of yourself so you can best take care of your child. Parenting a child with ADHD requires great patience and lots of creativity!

    Additional Reading:
    Parenting Tips for ADHD Kids
    Parenting Your ADHD Teen
    School Tips for ADHD Kids
    Homework Strategies

    Harvey C. Parker, PhD. The ADHD Workbook for Parents: A Guide for Parents of Children Ages 2-12 with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Specialty Press, Inc. 2008.

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