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

Tips for Teaching Students Who Have Difficulty Following Instructions

Hello fellow educators, I’m sure we’ve all had our fair share of students who have trouble following through on instructions from others. In all my years of teaching, it has been very rarely that a student is choosing to be defiant.

In fact, even with some of my students diagnosed with ODD (oppositional defiant disorder), they want to do well but just don’t know how.

Thankfully, there are lots of strategies to try with these kiddos and your class to help them find more success with understanding and following through on the instructions you’re giving.

Here are some of my top tips.


This seems super obvious, but I’m always shocked at how often I see fellow teachers giving directions when the class is still talking.

Usually this happens with beginning teachers, who haven’t quite found their groove yet.

I think this often stems from becoming impatient and worried that they’ll run out of time to complete what they’ve planned. With students who have trouble following directions, you have to make sure there is as little outside distraction as possible.

Students who have ADHD can be easily distracted and if there’s other noise or activity in the room, it’s more than likely going to hold their attention more than you are. Depending on your teaching style, waiting at the front of the room for silence generally works.

I definitely prefer waiting for silence rather than calling out for quiet. Not only does it save my voice, I don’t like adding extra noise to the room.


When working with kids who have trouble following instructions, always make sure that they have heard you and that you have their attention before giving any directions.

As teachers, we usually naturally do this. It may take a year or two, but we figure out pretty quickly that we end up repeating things eight zillion times if even one student isn’t listening the first time we explain things.

In order to ensure a student has your attention, you can either call them out directly, use a cue, or look to see that they’re paying attention.

The way you actually ensure this will be up to you and highly dependent on the student and your relationship with them.

For example, you certainly will not want to call out a very shy student in front of the entire class as it will cause them massive amounts of embarrassment and potentially harm your relationship. However, this may be a great choice for a jovial, popular student who you and other students often joke around with.

However you choose to do this, it should be highly successful in ensuring the student is ready to listen and follow along.


Sometimes, students who have trouble following instructions are often lost or confused during class. This can be both when they’re actually listening to instructions, as well as when they’re supposed to be completing work.

To ensure the student is actually listening, or actually working, make sure you utilize plenty of cues.

These can be things you’ve sat down and talked with the student about beforehand, or they can be commonsense cues the student will naturally understand.

If it’s time for them to pay attention to you again as you begin teaching, you can give them a cue to alter their attention. Or, if you notice that they are distracted when they should be listening to you or working on a task, then you can use a cue as a reminder for abt they should be doing.


Sometimes a studnet may not completely understand what you’ve said the first time you say it.

You may have used vocabulary they don’t understand, they may not have been fully paying attention, or they may have partially understood what you said but are still a little bit confused.

Rephrasing and then repeating what you’ve said can really help these students.

First, it ensures they’re now fully paying attention and are really listening to what they’ve said.

On top of that, they now have a little bit of background knowledge based on what you originally said, and can now build on that with different vocabulary they may understand better.

I find it good practice in general to repeat important points or instructions twice in two various ways. It can be very helpful for many different students who didn’t fully understand what you said the first time around.


Many students have a slower processing time than we assume.

This could be for many reasons. They may be learning English, they could have trouble with inattention, they may have slow processing time, or so on.

Stop, slow down, and be very patient when you’re waiting for a student to respond or begin a task.

Let what you’ve said “sink in” with the student. This may take some time as they try to fully understand what you’ve said. Then they’ll need to spend more time thinking of their answer or planning what to do.

Obviously, this can take some time. So be as patient as you can be and wait longer than you think you need to for some of your kiddos.


If you’re giving too many instructions at once, it’s very easy for students to become confused or forget what you’ve said.

Even “regular” students can have this problem, let along those who struggle with following instructions.

If you are giving instructions all at once, make sure you write all of the steps out with visuals as well. You can put these on the board or on a sheet for students. This way, they can reference them as they work.

Additionally, if you have given instructions all at once, make sure you reiterate what the first step is and what students should be working on. Then, as you see them progressing, you can start to reiterate the next step.

This should keep all the students on track and keep them from becoming confused or overwhelmed about what they are supposed to do.


If you know a student tends to have more challenges than others with following directions, you can check in with them right after giving full class instructions.

You never want to single them out or make them feel inferior in front of their classmates, so doing this quietly and discreetly is your best bet.

Simply approaching them quietly and asking if they’ve understood what to do is kind and non-invasive.

They may simply say “yes” that they get it and try to wave you away, so also asking them to repeat back what to do is an effective way to check for understanding. Then, you know if they cannot properly tell you the directions that you need to explain again, and possibly in a different way.

Well, what do you think about these strategies? Are they effective? Do you think they’ll be useful in your own classroom? Let me know!

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

Want even more? Here are some Katie is a Teacher resources you may be interested in:


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