top of page

How to Get Students to Follow Directions the First Time

teacher pulling hair out and screaming

New teachers and experienced teachers alike sometimes struggle to get their students to follow directions. It happens to the best of us! Sometimes they really aren't paying close attention. But more often than not, the problem lies with YOU.

Gasp! Did I just blame the teacher? Umm, yeah. But the truth is, our own behavior is often the real reason our students tune us out. The good news? The problem is easy to fix.

In this blog post, we will look at the 3 main reasons students don't follow directions, what you can do about each one, and how to get them to follow directions this first time, every time.

Reasons Students Don't follow Directions

Reason #1:

You start talking before they are listening.

It's SO hard to not do this. When we have important information to relay, our first instinct is to get it out there. So you try to get their attention with whatever signal you like to use. And maybe some of your students look at you. Maybe they aren't even all talking. But maybe they just aren't ready to listen yet.

Are some of the kids still moving around? Is Stevie still writing? Is Sally looking for a pencil? This is the main reason students don't follow directions. They just aren't focused on what you're saying.

How to Get Students To Follow Directions

You will get much better results if you practice a little wait time. You must have your students’ attention - full attention - before you begin giving verbal instructions.

Imagine your spouse coming into the kitchen when you're in the middle of a complicated recipe. Your mind is focused on the task and he or she begins listing all of the things that need to get done around the house. How irritating would that be and how easy to forget what was said?

Many children have a difficult time transitioning their attention from one thing to another. It's really important to have a bit of lag time, or brief moment of silence, between your signal and giving directions.

So how do you know when your students are ready to hear what you're saying?

The first thing you should do with a new class is train them to make eye contact with you to show they are listening. When all eyes are on you, then you at least know they aren't distracted doing something else. Practice this throughout the year. Make it game. Get their attention and then time how long it takes for every eye in the entire class to be focused on you. Can they beat their record time?

Now speaking of attention-getting signals. Do you have one? I suggest coming up with a magic word, special phrase, or some kind of visual cue that means STOP LOOK LISTEN.

Starting on the first day of school, teach them your signal. Use it all the time, consistently. Make it part of your daily routines.

Many teachers like to use a call and answer signal. For example - Teacher: "Peanut Butter!" - Students: "Jelly!" I prefer to use a silly action, like putting a math book on my head and having the students silently mimic my action. Students are pretty good at tuning out verbal signals, but movement seems to get them.

teaching with book on head as attention getting signal

Reason #2:

You give them too much at once.

The younger your students are, the more important this one is. But even older kids can get overwhelmed (or tune out) when you give them a bunch of things to do at once. Multi-step directions can be difficult to process and remember, especially for kids with learning difficulties.

How to Get Students To Follow Directions

If you need students to follow a sequence of steps, try breaking them into smaller steps or chunks. Give the first step and pause. Let them take it in before giving step two.

I also suggest pairing your set of instructions with hand gestures. Step one, hold up one finger. Pause. Step two, hold up another finger. And so forth. It's simple but gives young children a visual reference as you're speaking.

Another strategy is to give instructions about materials before telling them specifically what to do to complete an assignment. You probably have some eager beavers who want to start working the moment they get a piece of paper in their hands. Do they start writing their names on their papers? Do they try to get a head start on their math problems while you're still talking?

There's a solution to this: Don't tell them what the task is until you go over materials and expectations.

For example, don't say, "Take out your pencil, highlighter, and post-its. As you read the passage, highlight important vocabulary and use the post-its to do your text marking and ask questions."

Whoa! That's just too much and some of your students will start reading and highlighting as soon as the word highlighter leaves your mouth.

Instead, give them the directions about materials first: "Take out your pencil, highlighter, and post-its." Then wait. Let them dig through their desks and get everything out because the second you say, "Take out...", they'll stop listening and start digging around anyway.

Or do it in a fun way - "Simon says take out your pencil." - pause - "Simon says take out your highlighter." These are very clear directions that are broken into manageable tasks.

Once everyone has their materials and is settled, move on to what you want them to do. Use one of your assignment sheets to demonstrate what they should do when they get their papers. Only then should you pass our your assignment because as soon as they have it in their hands, they'll stop listening and start working.

Reason #3:

You only give directions verbally.

Not all students process auditory information efficiently or easily. (This is especially true for kids with ADHD or autism spectrum disorder which really affect auditory processing.)

When you only give verbal instructions, you are putting some of your students at a real disadvantage and setting them up for failure.

How to Get Students To Follow Directions

A great strategy for these students is to use visual aids along with verbal directions.

Using the same example as above, I wouldn't just tell my students to highlight important vocabulary, I would have them write this on the top of their papers:

important words

It's pretty clear that I want them to highlight important words in yellow, right? Now they SEE the directions in addition to hearing them.

What about the post-its? I would have them take one out and do this:

sticky note with directions

They can stick it right on their desk in case they forget what text marking to do. With a quick glance, the student can see they should number the paragraphs, under line main ideas, and draw a start next to evidence of character traits.

For younger students, you can try a set of visual direction cards. These are a helpful tool to cue students about common directions that you give frequently such as cut, glue, or underline. The cards can be posted on the board where the kids can refer to them as they are working.

The point is, when students hear AND see the directions, they are much more likely to follow them!

students following directions in the classroom

No matter what grade level you teach, pre- k through high school, these strategies are a great way to get your students to listen and follow directions the first time. Used consistently, you will save instruction time and reduce problem behavior.

The good news - It's not too late to start. You can teach your student to be good listeners even in the middle of the school year. It's an important skill that will serve them for the rest of their lives.


  • Get their attention

  • Give specific directions broken into smaller tasks

  • Use visuals

What if some students are still struggling to follow directions the first time? Here are two extra little tips:

  1. Have them repeat back the instruction you just gave.

  2. Use conditional directions - "Everyone wearing shorts, stand up. Everyone with black hair, stand up."

Soon I think you'll find most everyone can be successful listeners!


rug rules poster shows students how to follow directions

This Rug Rules Poster is a great visual reminder for younger students about the expectations with gathering together on the rug for group discussion or a read-aloud.

Download for free!

visual direction cards

Or check out this set of Visual Direction Cards in my TpT shop. They are an easy way to remind students of the directions as they are working.

Just pull out the ones you need and hang on the board (magnets work great) where everyone can see and refer to them.

5,779 views0 comments


bottom of page