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Getting ADHD child to follow instructions

Teaching following directions for ADHD kids is one of the most basic skills to parents need to teach. Mastering it is necessary and life-changing. Children are required to follow instructions with authority figures in all types of environments. Such as at school, in stores, at a friend’s house, or at church. Besides being asked to complete a command to take action also applies when a child is asked to calm down or when they are asked to stop doing something.

Benefits of Following Instructions

Following Instructions also has benefits for parents. When a child is able to follow instructions immediately when they are asked it reduces yelling and parent frustration, and the need to apply negative consequences. Reducing negative behaviors from the parent and child will build a strong relationship.

We don’t like it when our kids don’t listen to us and getting ADHD child to follow instructions can be incredibly frustrating and you may wonder how to get kids to listen without yelling and threatening? The answer is that you must teach your child how to listen before expecting them to do so.

We don’t expect children to learn how to tie their shoe without showing them first. This is the same with social skills like Following Directions. First, you need to explain exactly what you expect through the skill of Preventive Teaching.

Plan a neutral time to teach a new skill to your child. Preventive Teaching starts by praising your child for a behavior they are already doing well. You then explain to your child how you want them to behave. This works especially well if you separate the behaviors into different steps.

Explain how doing these behaviors will be beneficial to them. You then show your child how to use the skill and have them role-play at least four times, providing praise and feedback between each practice. For kids with ADHD remember to keep the teaching interaction short.

It is also effective to do a simple physical exercise before teaching and let them move or play with a fidget toy during to increase focus.

Asking your child to repeat back what you say and then Role-playing will ensure they are staying on task and understand what you taught.

We recommend watching the behavior skills lesson of Preventive Teaching and Role-playing with your child before teaching them Following Instructions.

The Steps of Following Instructions:

1. Get your child’s attention

When getting your child’s attention don’t model inappropriate behaviors you wouldn’t want your child to use, such as yelling, stepping in front of them, or restraining them physically. Calmly approach them and speak to them using an appropriate tone.

2. Give a simple, clear, descriptive instruction

Give a behavior-based instruction rather than a vague label. For example, when you tell your child to “act like a good girl/boy” it does not tell them exactly what to do. Instead, give a specific instruction such as “I need you to pick up your backpack off the floor and hang it on the hook.”

Since ADHD kids become distracted easily, give only one small instruction at a time, and ensure they complete it before giving them another one.

3. The child says “Okay” and immediately follows the instruction

The final two steps are the behaviors you would teach during Preventive Teaching. Requiring eye contact from your child when you give the instruction and they say “Okay” is an important step for kids with ADHD.

Prompting them to look at you is a good reminder that they need to listen and give their full attention to you. After looking at you the child calmly says “Okay” and does the task immediately without interruption.

4. Child returns to the parent and reports when it is finished

You then teach your child to come back to you and let you know they’ve completed the task. This lets you know that it’s finished and gives you the opportunity to give another instruction if needed. It also helps the child get credit for what they have done and opens an opportunity for them to receive praise.

How to reinforce Following Instructions

After teaching your child how to follow instructions you must reinforce the use of the skill or they will not use it long-term. There are several ways to help your child implement a new skill:


Role-playing should be used during and after Preventive Teaching. The more opportunities you give your child to practice when they are calm, the more likely they’ll be to use the skill in a real situation. Our brains are efficient and like to keep doing the same thing over and over. Practicing new behaviors creates another pathway in our brain that it can turn to when replacing an old, negative behavior.

Reward Systems

Establishing a reward system based on your child’s use of Following Instructions provides extra motivation to use the new skill. It starts the implementation positively and is a good reminder for both you and your child. It also helps teach children with ADHD how to work towards long-term goals.


An essential part of ADHD management is providing positive and negative consequences based on behavior. Children with ADHD struggle to see the results of their actions. Simple, tangible consequences help them connect behaviors and how it leads to consequences. When giving consequences, spend more time rewarding positive behavior than punishing negative behavior. Children are more motivated by positive reinforcement.

Visual Reminders

Post the steps of Following Instructions so they can refer to it when they need to use it and to remind them of what they are working on. Also, place the chart or marble jar where it can be seen. This will keep the new skill as a central focus for both you and your child.

Decrease tangible rewards over time

Eventually, the steps of Following Instructions will become natural for your child and they will require fewer prompts to use it. When this happens you can use praise to reinforce the use and provide rewards only intermittently. You want your child to find internal motivation to use the skill, not to only do it because they are receiving a reward.

Teaching your ADHD child to following instructions will help build a positive relationship as you are clear with your expectations, set your child up for success, and calmly prompt them to use the skill. Once your child applies the skill at home, generalize using the skill in other places and with other authority figures.

The skill can also be used with other children in the house as well. Using Following Instructions will heal the interactions you have with your child and elevate your entire family as getting ADHD child to follow instructions the first time is an important life skill.