Helping Kids that Struggle with Multi-Step Directions

September 30, 2022

Whether you are an educator or a parent, you have probably experienced the child that struggles with multi-step directions. This could be an assignment they don’t complete or get a poor grade on for school, or their inability to complete a chore or task at home.

Sadly, this isn’t uncommon and I have experienced with my own children. It got worse with our oldest as he reached late high school and early adulthood and had access to a smart phone and the always at hand search engine. It wasn’t until we were taking a vacation several years ago and he and my husband planned to get their SCUBA certification that it really impacted him. The realization hit him quickly that there were aspects in life that required a base of prior knowledge and wouldn’t allow for a Google search (like being 50 feet under water and dealing with an issue). This really changed how he approached learning and set a tone as he entered college and the adult work force.

After that, I used this example with my students often when teaching things that required multi-step directions, and also applied them with our youngest. Here’s some suggested ways to help your child, whether biological or student, improve with these skills.

SCAVENGER HUNTS & RIDDLES This is a fun way for kids to learn to follow multiple steps, especially since many enjoy competition. Creating a scavenger hunt with clues for prizes or as an activity at home, around the park or neighborhood (if you have other families in the neighborhood, work together) or riddles and clues to engage them. There are activity books and ideas available online you can find, or create your own. This creates a positive connection to clearly reading and understanding and moving quickly to the next task.

CREATIVE ACTIVITIES These type of activities are best without a picture or diagram to assist and will force them to read and follow directions. This could be building a model of something they are learning about (we build sleds while learning about the Iditarod) or specifically for learning directions (peanut butter and jelly sandwich making instructions are very effective, especially when you do literally what they say and they see what they miss). There are kits you can purchase online to build STEM projects, legos and paper dolls are a great way to practice (does anyone do paper dolls anymore?). Introduce board games with the family for a fun night and introducing a new game each month with new things to learn, and put them in charge of figuring out how to play it. And that furniture you buy from IKEA–perfect!

TEXT MARKING This helps students truly find the key words, especially if they struggle with focus or decoding. It’s also a great test-taking strategy for coping with test anxiety to avoid making mistakes that are easily avoidable. The simplest way is to teach them to underline and circle. In the classroom, I taught mine to underline nouns (people, places, things, ideas) and to circle the verbs (actions to take) to help them focus if they have to glance back, or when they check their work. Highlighting is another great option if they can keep the two separated. Just be sure they don’t mark too many words–this is meant to help focus with Keywords so should be only 1-2 items per step.

REPEATING BACK This technique allows them to completely process what they should do. Have them tell you what they should be doing after you’ve explained it, or they’ve read it. This allows you to check if they got it, and it reinforces what they should do. If they make a mistake, you can clarify, then have them repeat it again. (Think Rocket and Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy 2 when Groot has to set the explosives…only be nicer than Rocket was). My husband and I even practice this skill when asking about things to pick up, errands to run or when planning for travel or for emergencies, so it really does have lifelong applications we can model and practice.

In the classroom, it became well known that I would answer a “how do I do this” question with a question. Did you read the directions? What words were you caught on? What step did you stop on? What would you say you were supposed to do for this in your own words? It didn’t take long to learn that I was not going to give answers or shortcuts and they were going to work through it. The great part was, as they learned this, they learned to tailor their questions to be more specific and include what they tried and where they were stuck.

So, as much as you may want to give in and give an answer, resist–it will pay off in the long run and your kiddos will become much better citizens of the world.

Like or comment below, and share with others to support the blog. I post weekly about teaching, traveling and family. Until next time, you can find me on Tiktok @sonya.BOMSquadleader or our adventures at, Facebook & TikTok at @BarnesOnMove

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