How to Teach Following Complex Directions

Following directions is the most important social-emotional skill in the kindergarten classroom according to classroom teachers. You want your child to be successful in the classroom so let’s dig into how to help your child learn to follow complex directions.

It makes sense that following directions would be very critical. If you have a child that’s given a direction and then has a total meltdown, then how can that child fully access the educational curriculum, develop positive peer relationships, or independently function in the classroom?

Not following directions can result from noncompliance (aka I know what you what me to do but I am choosing not to do it) or lack of understanding (aka I know I need to do something but I don’t understand what it is).

If noncompliance is an issue, check out “5 Tips to Get Your Child Following Directions.”

Let’s focus on what to do if your child doesn’t understand. In this case, it’s helpful to work on your child’s auditory comprehension and working memory. I like to work on these two skills with ‘critical elements.’

Critical Elements

Critical elements are like the details in a message. Catching all these ‘language details’ is what challenges your child’s listening skills and working memory.

Critical elements can include vocabulary, spatial concepts, noun modifiers, quantifiers, etc. They’re incredibly versatile which makes it an awesome context to practice all the language targets you’ve been working on like spatial concepts.

Once your child understands over, under, in, on, behind, and in front of; then you can practice these in a more difficult message. You can incorporate them as a critical element.

ready for some examples?

Here’s an example of a critical element and following directions IEP goal:

Student will  follow 2-step directions with 2+ critical elements (i.e. color, size, shape) with 80% accuracy as measured by the service provider over 3 data sessions (UECCS. Social/Emotional and Social Studies.S2.4).

Some examples of these directions:

“Touch your nose and then put a marshmallow on the circle.” (critical elements=nose & circle)

“Put a marshmallow under the big blue fish and then stand up.” (critical elements=under, big, blue)

Now how do you  easily pull off a critical element and following direction activity during just 10 minutes of therapy?….. Snack Mats!

Snack mats are my go-to strategy for a lot of language targets, but they’re especially awesome for directions with critical elements. My students really like when I pull out the snack mats because they know they’re going to get some treats!

How to Make Snack Mats

I create snack mats by using a word document to quickly copy and paste some clipart. You have to be very deliberate in which clipart you put onto a  snack mat.

For example, if you’re targeting noun modifiers of color and size, then you’d google something really generic like fish or flowers. There are tons of public domain and royalty free clipart so just pick a few that have just a few differences (blue fish, pink fish, purple fish) and paste them into the word doc. After they’re on the document, I adjust the sizes so there’s a big blue fish and a little blue fish, etc. This can literally take 2 minutes to prep. The longest part of the process is waiting for the laminator to heat up.

Ah! I almost forgot the FOOD! (marshmallows, gold fish crackers, teddy grahams, etc)

Incorporating some food into this activity is what makes participation a nearly non-issue. Who doesn’t want to work for a few goldfish cracker? (Remember to use the minimal reinforcement necessary so that your reinforcements continue to work and the child doesn’t have so many that reinforcements are no longer desirable.)

Remember how important following directions was for your child’s success in kindergarten? This is why you want to practice following complex directions and learn to listen for critical elements.

You need to help your child learn to listen for and remember complex directions so that your child can be successful when following a direction like “Hurry and hang up your backpack, wait in line to wash your hands, and then go sit at the green circle table.”

That’s a lot of listening and remembering to do! But the good news is you can help your child develop the skills to successfully and independently complete these directions.


Want more activities and tips to help your child practice their listening skills?

Check out this page.


Lane, K. L., Stanton-Chapman, T., Jamison, K. R., & Phillips, A. (2007). Teacher and Parent Expectations of Preschoolers’ Behavior: Social Skills Necessary for Success. Topics In Early Childhood Special Education27(2), 86-97.

photo by: Mark Bonica

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