Classroom, Curriculum, Elementary, High School, Junior High, school

Tips for Supporting Students Who Have Trouble Following Steps and Completing Work

Often, we teach students who have a very difficult time with following through with steps and completing assigned activities. Many students diagnosed with ADHD have a very hard time with this due to a lack of focus and difficulty staying on-task.

It can be very difficult for a student who has difficulty focusing to look at a large project and breaking it down into manageable steps that they can follow through on.

It can easily become overwhelming and result in them not being able to complete it, despite their best efforts and desires.


I personally feel that the most important thing we can do for students who have a hard time following steps and sequencing appropriately is to break tasks, assignments, and projects into chunks.

It isn’t only students who have difficulty completing work who struggle with this, it’s most kids.This is a skill that they need to be explicitly taught. There are very few kids who have the natural ability to just dive right in and follow all steps smoothly without direction and on time.

We can’t just expect to assign a large project, say “go”, and think students will know what to do.

Instead, we have to map out exactly what the project is and all of the explicit steps necessary to finish it. Depending on the student, these steps may need to be broken down even further.

For example, some students will easily be able to follow the step “write a paragraph about the main character”, while others will also need all of the steps necessary to write an effective paragraph.

When things are broken down into steps, they don’t appear as daunting and kids have a starting point, which is extremely helpful for those who feel so overwhelmed they have difficulty even starting.


It may take a bit more work on your end, but providing a sample of completed work is a must for students.

If this is an assignment you’ve never done before, you will probably have to create the exemplar yourself. Yes, this is time consuming, but it will save you a headache when it actually comes time to teach it to the class.

Ideally, as you continue to teach and reuse and revamp your lessons and assignments, you can collect well-done student work to use as exemplars in future years.

When students have an idea of what it is they’re expected to do and what your expectations for the assignment is, they have a much better idea of how to proceed.

Of course, some may still need a lot of chunking and explicit steps to follow in order to effectively complete the assignment. Some students, however, will be able to look at the finished product and be able to map out how to complete the steps in their own way.

It all depends on the student, but exemplars are an absolute must to set standards.


Some students really thrive with freedom and will get very excited with an open-ended assignment.

For these kids, they love the opportunity to be creative and explore various options and ideas.

However, for students who have difficulty following through and completing work, this is a nightmare. They may become extremely overwhelmed with choices and not be able to make a decision. Or, they won’t really understand what to do and will have no idea how to start.

If you’re offering something like a “genius hour” where kids are allowed to choose their own adventure, so to say, you may have to change this up for some students. Instead of giving them a ton of options, give them one or two choices and help them actually map out exactly what to do right at the start of the project.

If you don’t support them in this way, there’s a very good chance they won’t finish or will complete something completely off-base.


Just like avoiding open-ended tasks, you also should avoid giving assignments that are not due for a very long time.

For a student who struggles with completing work, a due date that’s extremely far away is going to seem infinite. If they’re prone to procrastination, there’s no way they’ll start it in time.

Even if they aren’t procrastinators, when something seems that far away, they won’t properly know how to break down the work into steps because they don’t have an adequate sense of time.

For students who struggle with this, it’s our responsibility to break down things and help them through it, so if your due date really is quite far in the future, instead of telling them that, tell them the due date for each small chunk. This will work much better to hold them accountable and keep work coming in on time.


Students who can’t complete work often tire or get bored of a task. They may get easily distracted, they may have something like DCD which literally will tire them physically, they may get bored, and so on.

Whatever the reason, don’t push a student to keep working when they clearly are struggling. Their work won’t be done well and they’ll resent you, so you may as well just let them take a break.

I like to coincide breaks with the steps I’ve broken down for the student. So, I will let them know they can have a break after they finish writing five sentences, then they can have another after they draw a picture, and so on.

The biggest thing I always promote with my kids, no matter the age, is that I trust them. If they tell me they need a break, I believe them and let them take it. Basically, I trust them until they lose my trust. So, if they are continually taking breaks and not completing work, then I step in, let them know what needs to change, and alter the types of programming and accommodations I’m providing.


If I’ve said it once, I’ll say it a zillion times: everyone works for rewards. I mean, I love my job, but I wouldn’t be showing up five days a week at 7:00am if I wasn’t being paid. Maybe I’d roll in around 11 once or twice a week for an hour or so, but let’s be real here.

There’s nothing wrong with giving rewards to kids for doing good things.

Some kids may be easily able to follow through with tasks once you’ve broken things down for them and gotten them started. Others may still be avoiding work.

In that case, I suggest setting up a rewards system. Every time a student completes a task, give them a reward or a tally toward a reward. As their skills increase, make it more and more difficult to gain a reward until they no longer need the system at all.

If you also use a tracking sheet, then you’ll see exactly how much they’ve progressed when you look back on it. This is great to show the student and their parents to celebrate how far they’ve come!


Finally, make sure that you’re not giving a student work that they’ll never really be able to finish. If they’re always behind their classmates and starting to have to complete work at home or during recess, it’s time to assess how much they’re being given.

If necessary, it’s totally fine to reduce their workload.

While the whole class is completing 10 math questions, a student who is much slower and has a harder time completing work may only be able to complete 6 questions.

The biggest thing to consider is whether they are still learning all they need to learn. For example, we provide students with math problems to solve to gain practice and repetition. If we reduce their workload so dramatically that they aren’t gaining the same skills as their peers, then that’s a major problem.

Find a happy medium to ensure the student is able to complete their work and still learn everything they need to learn.

What do you think about these tips? Have you used any of them in your own classroom? Am I missing anything that’s been super helpful for you? Let me know!

Enjoyed this? Here are some other blog posts on Katie is a Teacher you may like:

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