Sera Rivers

Sera Rivers

A Lonely Education

What's Next? Multi-step Directions

Is your child misbehaving when he doesn't follow the rules?

Posted Apr 27, 2011

People with NLD may forget the first step if there are too many.
Every morning, Indigo acts like a typical fourteen-year-old boy who gets annoyed by his nagging mother.

"Time for breakfast," I call. He grumbles a response.

"What's next?" I ask, as he finishes his last bite of pancakes.

"I know how to get ready for school, Mom," he says with an eye roll.

But I know he feels comforted by my gentle reminders. It took Indigo about ten years to learn his daily routines because he has difficulty with multi-step directions.

Sue Thompson states in her article, Neurobehavioral Characteristics Seen in the Classroom: Developing an Educational Plan for the Student with NLD: "Most students remember a series of instructions by visualizing themselves performing each step in the series. They don't try to remember each word (verbatim) in a long sting of directives. However, because the student with NLD is unable to pass this information to the right hemisphere and visualize the sequence, he attempts to memorize every word as it is said to him." 

Before I knew Indigo had NLD, I often became frustrated and impatient with his lollygagging. Every time I asked him to perform a simple task like "get your shoes," he would walk into his room and not come out. Minutes would go by, sometimes twenty, before I had to stop what I was doing to see what was taking so long. I always found him playing with his cars or just standing in the middle of his bedroom.

"I told you to get your shoes on, " I would say.

"You did?"

Family told me I was babying him. "How do you expect him to do anything if you chase after him and do it for him?"  His father, my then husband, would ask.

I did not know how to explain it then, but I knew Indigo was not purposefully "disobeying" me.


Steps may get mixed up or forgotten.

Indigo's kindergarten teacher confirmed my suspicion that he could not follow rules, literally. During parent/teacher conference, she gave the example of asking Indigo to get a pair of scissors so she could cut a bag of candy corn. He stopped halfway to his desk, standing completely still for a few minutes, before asking, "What am I supposed to do?"

The teacher thought Indigo was having grand mal seizures. Fortunately, that was not the case, but her concern enabled me to open discussion with his doctor, which began the plethora of testing that led to Indigo's diagnosis.

Once I learned Indigo could not process multi-step directions, his noncompliance made sense. Although "get your shoes" seems like a simple request, a number of steps are involved:

  1. Walk into the bedroom.
  2. Go into the closet.
  3. Pick out a pair of shoes.
  4. Bring them to Mom.
  5. Put them on with her assistance.

I have learned to prompt Indigo to remember multi-steps by saying, "What's next?"  By keeping routines at home and in school consistent, Indigo has learned to verbally navigate through multi-step directions and ask for guidance when he forgets.

Many days, I still find him standing in a room with a puzzled look on his face, but now I know how to help him.

"What are you doing?" I will ask.

"I don't remember."

"What were you doing before you came in here?"

"My homework."

"What assignment?"

"Math... Oh, I need a ruler. Thanks."

I have learned that it helps to repeat steps to Indigo two or three times while maintaining eye contact. I ask him to repeat them back to me until he gets them right.

It is also common for me to repeat directions for new routines like math formulas. I still have to re-read each step for every problem on the page, even though they all use the same formula.


A good strategy for multi-step directions is to write down and check off each step.

Consistency is key, both at home and at school, because it helps Indigo develop patterns in his brain that help him remember. Most people agree the more you do something, the easier it is to remember; it just takes Indigo a little longer.

© Sera Rivers

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