Teaching Critical Elements & Following Directions

It seems like I put a ton of time into researching, teaching, and writing goals for following directions and listening skills. Listening skills take time to develop and following 1 and 2-step directions is awesome practice for those auditory skills.

Seriously, how many directions is a child given in just one school day? It's a skill that kids legitly need.

So typically when you're teaching skills for following directions, you start with simple 1-step and 2-step directions. And while working on generic 1-step or 2-step directions is a great place to start, there’s a ton of detail within those directions that you can't afford to overlook.

The 1 or 2-step part is more like a vague category, kinda like a general category of ‘animals.’ When you start talking about animals there are a lot of subcategories like zoo, arctic, forest, savannah, extinct, carnivore or herbivore, etc. There a many layers of detail to the category of ‘animals’ just like there are within 1-step directions. These layers of detail for following directions are called “critical elements.”

Critical elements make the auditory message more complex and therefore harder to remember and organize... which is why they are a great way to develop your child's listening skills 🙂

What are Critical Elements?

For a quick refresher, critical elements are the details of language. They’re the thing that distinguishes one thing from another.

For example if you have out three buttons that all look exactly the same except for their color, then the color would be the critical element. In this scenario, the color is the critical element because it’s what makes one of the items significantly different from the others.

One of my go-to activities for following directions has more in-depth explanation of critical elements in this post. And if you want a little help for the behavior-side of following directions, then check out this post.

Teaching Critical Elements

The critical elements I put the most time into teaching are color and shape. Once your child has down color and shape, then you're ready to work on the fun critical elements like basic concepts, prepositions, ordinals, comparatives/superlatives, etc. Really, the list could go on and on.

Here's the progression of critical elements that I like to use:

  1. Color
  2. Shape
  3. Size
  4. Comparatives/Superlatives
  5. Location
  6. Ordinals
  7. Sequence
  8. Conditional

Color and Shape

Color and shape are pretty self-explanatory. With these, you'll give directions like "Touch the red circle" and "Give me the purple heart."

To make this activity easy-peasy, I use the shapes from this fine motor activity. When working on more advanced vocabulary like "cylinder" and "sphere," you can use these fine motor beads. Every shape/bead comes in the same few colors. This is perfect because if you're just working on just one critical element, then it's really easy to pull out all the red shapes and have the critical element be their shape or pull out all the hearts and distinguish them by their color.

Sizes and Comparatives & Superlatives

Size can be really simple to work on if you have the right toys. These counting bears are perfect because each color of bear comes in small, medium, and large.

If you're just working on only distinguishing size as a critical element, then just pull out all the red bears since there will automatically be small, medium, and large bears. Now you're ready to give directions like "Give me the medium-sized bear" or "Where is the small bear?"

If you starting thinking up other directions that you could give like "Find the smallest bear," then you're already on the next step: comparatives and superlatives.

Comparatives and superlatives are pretty big words to represent some tiny suffixes.

Comparatives = er

Superlatives = est

With these two concepts, you can give directions like "Touch the biggest red bear" and "Find the smallest purple bear."


Time to put those spatial concepts to the test. These critical elements are easy! All you need to do is add a preposition such as on, in, under, by, behind, next to, in front of, near, far, etc.

Want a quick example? "Put the pencil under your chair."


Ordinals are just about the order of events like first, second, third, last, etc. You can give a direction like "Touch the second red bear" or "First touch the red bear and then touch your nose."


When it comes to the sequencing of a direction, it can easy be in auditory sequence or out of auditory sequence.

In auditory sequence means it happens in the same order that it's heard like "Do this, then do that" or "After you touch this, then touch that."

Out of auditory sequence is much trickier. Directions for this are "Before you do this, do that" and "Touch the bear after the penguin."


Conditional directions are when there's a contingency and a factor that determines whether a direction is a go or no-go... Another way to example conditional directions are if the directions contains the words "If" and "Then."

For conditional directions you may say "If this is a monkey, then touch the lion" or "If you are a girl, then touch the red bear."

You're ready to go!

So do you feel like you've got a good handle on critical elements and plenty of ideas for your bag of tricks?

Now you just need to choose which critical elements and find a few go-to materials to improve your child's listening skills 🙂

P.S. This post contains affiliate links because momma's gotta bring home the bacon. If I do receive a negligible kick-back, thank you!

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