Don’t Panic If Your Child ‘Doesn’t Follow Instructions’

Dear Dr. Fournier:

When my son brings his graded work home from school, I am seeing a pattern that he is not following instructions. In some of your past articles, you have written about the importance of looking for trends in our children’s schoolwork. What I am seeing is that he often does the wrong thing; does more work than he has to, or does it incorrectly just because he doesn’t read the instructions. He is in the fourth grade, and by now he should be able to pay attention. What does this trend mean?

Debbie T.

Charleston, SC

Dear Debbie:

Reading instructions for self-directed work is a skill that must be taught and not just assumed.


When your son started school, he was probably immediately confronted with ditto sheets with instructions. However, in the early grades, teachers cannot expect students to read these instructions independently, so they explain them orally to the students.

But for many students, ditto sheets simply mean, “get it done so I can finish on time,” or “if I finish quickly, I can play.” These children might judge what must be done by fast recall of what they were asked to do in past instructions. This is the transition that is sometimes overlooked: Children can get lost between the safety of the oral instructions, and what is expected of them by teachers who assume that learning to read directions for self directed work is a skill that has already been mastered.

Your son is not being lazy about his schoolwork; he merely needs help learning that just because sheets look like handouts he has completed before, it does not mean the instructions will be the same. Once this is taught, he should be in position to learn how to interpret instructions.


Explain to your son the “evolution” of interpreting instructions and the new method he needs to learn: determining how to attack the work based on independent decision-making.

Explain to your son the three major categories that come into play as he interprets the instructions:

1. Fixed Instructions: These are things your son must always do, regardless of whether he is explicitly asked to do them. For example, it could be putting his name, date, class and type of assignment on every paper, or not copying the questions when answering social studies questions from a textbook. Help your child find the fixed instructions for each class teacher per school year. Make sure he has these in his notebook and checks them each time he does an assigned task.

2. Variable Instructions: These are the instructions that can change. For example, your child might have been asked to underline the part of speech, yet on one assignment he is asked to circle it. Help your child see that most instructions printed on the sheet above the actual exercise might be variable instructions. Have him circle any parts of the instructions that are a surprise to him. Keep an instructions “Mystery List” at home and each day let him tell you about the instructions that caught him by surprise. You can write these and next to them write what he would have done if he had not read the instructions. Giggle together as you celebrate him as a “Mystery Solver.”

3. Self-Made Instructions: These are assignments for which a teacher might give part or none of the instructions. The rest is up to your son. Your son should analyze these “I’m in charge” assignments. For example, the teacher says, “Do a book report two pages long and include a description of the main characters and your opinion.” What is left to be decided? What else will your son include? How will he present it? Will he make a cover? Should he make an illustration?

Help your child learn to assess the type of instruction and how to deal with it. As you do so, the fringe benefits will be self-direction, decision-making and self-esteem.


Yvonne Fournier
Dr. Yvonne Fournier has been a pharmacist, public health administrator, demographer and entrepreneur. She has followed her own roadmap in becoming arguably one of the most prolific of educators and child advocates in America today.